NB I wrote this in Dec. 2016, but it all still applies, except that now my brother and sister-in-law have also joined the list of absentees as they emigrated to the US earlier this year. We will Facetime when my mum is here.
Do you cry at Christmas?
Every single year.
When the presents are opened, the wrapping sorted out into reuseable, recyclable and bin, the children are playing or listening to new music, Mum and hb are sipping a sherry and there’s that hiatus before Christmas lunch, I silently gather up what I can carry to take to my room and quietly weep.
I have done this for as long as I can remember.
I think some of it is the build-up, the anticipation and then the anti-climax. You spend weeks if not months preparing for this. All the card-making, writing and addressing; the present lists, research, purchasing and wrapping; the endless changing of arrangements for visits and meal plans. The food shopping lists. The dread of a family meltdown or health emergency. The nerves while they open their gifts and you find out if it was right or wrong. All while fighting off viscious viruses – and this year fielding any number of phonecalls from my elderly mum asking if she’s coming on Christmas Eve (she’s not, she’s coming on the 22nd, it’s written on her calendar in her kitchen, but she phones every day to ask and is still telling people it’s Christmas Eve). And then, in a flash it’s all done.
But the other (major) part is that I miss my family. All of them. The ones that are having that year in their own home (though we always see them at some point during Christmas week), but also and especially the ones that are no longer here.
I miss my dad. I miss his jokes. I miss the grand gestures: he made it a tradition that he and Mum trim the living room every year on Christmas Eve when we were in bed so it would be a surprise for us on Christmas morning; the 4′ Christmas cracker it took 4 of them to pull when our children were young; the Scalextric set my 5 year old son had been longing for but we couldn’t afford, and he labelled it ‘from Father Christmas’ so as not to upstage us. The huge turkey leg that was his reward for supper on Christmas Eve night when he cooked the turkey.
I miss playing the traditional games. He was a great board game enthusiast and was very adept at getting everyone to gang up on each other while he silently acquired everything in sight or gobbled up all your counters. Yes, it usually ended up with various siblings falling out, and yes we have often played over the years, but it seems to have fizzled out. The teenagers prefer games on their phones or X-boxes. I miss watching James Stewart, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye with him, but I do now have my own copy of Bing Crosby’s Christmas cd which I play on Christmas morning while waiting for our visitors (my husband rolls his eyes, he hates it!).
(You can read more about my dad in these posts: You Were So Much More Than Your Job: A Tribute to My Dad For Father’s Day, My Dad Walked Straight and Tall Like A Soldier and Hand in Hand: A Poem for Father’s Day).
I also miss my grandparents. My Nannie and Grandad.
Grandad always had a big smile on his face. Nannie baked like there was no tomorrow. They always came for a quick visit on Christmas morning, to all their children’s families, and we loved going to theirs for Boxing Day tea. There was always such a feast. It covered every surface, including the sideboard in the living room where centre stage sat an elaborately decorated Christmas cake covered in white royal icing, shiny silver balls, various figures, marshmallows, it was what we all homed in on when we arrived! There would be a decorated, marzipan-covered battenburg cake for my dad, who didn’t like fruit cake (I carried on these cake traditions in years to come), delicately coloured sugared almonds and sugar mice, candied orange and lemon slices and of course the obligatory chocolate treats on the tree.
I wish I had a photo of this display. I can’t even remember what we had to eat for main course, other than we always had brown bread which I loved and Mum hated! We had sliced white at home and I loved this exotic alternative – I think it was Hovis! I think we probably had cold meat and tomatoes, pickles etc. but it was all just a preamble we had to get through to reach the real prize! There was almost certainly some jelly and cream because Nannie used to bring out her Father Christmas jug, which I now own thanks to my older cousin passing it on when she moved house a couple of years ago. He looks a bit battered around the edges now, like the rest of us, but it’s amazing he’s still with us at all!
The incredible thing is – and none of us children were aware of this – Nannie had Type 1 diabetes and couldn’t eat any of it. She used to have a tray with a plate holding a slice of boiled ham, a tomato, a slice of brown bread and butter and an orange. This she ate slowly and quietly while we stuffed ourselves until we couldn’t move. Grandad was solicitous of her and all of us at all times. When we had finished eating he would introduce some kind of verbal parlour game we children could manage, always smiling, always chatting. We never felt we were a nuisance. I loved going there.
Christmas also reminds me of their daughter, my cousin’s mum, Auntie Mannie. Now, her house *was* Christmas to me! As soon as you stepped into her small hallway you were greeted with festivity. There were trimmings up everywhere you could see. And she certainly took after her mum in the cooking department, with bells on! There was so much food, you could have fed a small nation and still come back for seconds. Her pièce de résistance was her sherry trifle! There was always so much fun and laughter in her house. There were 4 of us children, 1 girl – the eldest, me – and 3 boys, and 4 of my cousins, 1 girl, the eldest, and 3 boys. I idolised my opposite number, she is 9 years older than me and always seemed so sophisticated and grown up. In her teens, she had dyed her hair a different colour every time we saw her! She and my dad got on really well, he took the mickey out of her all the time, reminding her when she was getting uppity that once upon a time he used to change her nappies!
I learned to peel Brussels sprouts in her kitchen. She was a terrific hostess and I don’t know how she coped with us all or with the constant heckling and teasing from my dad, but she always gave as good as she got. She was the eldest in his family and had long ago learned to keep him in check.
I also miss Gt Grandma, Gt Auntie Dorrie and Gt Uncle Arthur. Always the trio, always together. My great-grandma and her daughter, Dorrie, were like little birds. They were small-framed, but strong, and long out-lived their husbands. Grandma lived to 102 and Auntie Dorrie to 81. Sadly, both succumbed to the after-effects of a fall (as did my grandad at 96). I loved their house. They used to run a post office and haberdashery until they retired and they all moved to a bungalow. There were lace antimacassars on the furniture, a piano, cups and saucers, more laughter. Dad used to tease them rotten, but they laughed so much Grandma’s eyes would water and she dabbed them with a lacy handkerchief. I have her old ladderback rocking chair. It’s too small for current generations to use, but I used to nurse my son on it as the rocking was often the only thing that got him to sleep. Auntie Dorrie used to cycle around until her death aged 81, doing errands and collecting the pensions of the ‘old folks’ in her neighbourhood, who were generally younger than she! At some point over the Christmas period we would visit them as well.
And my brother, Dave.
In fact, I think that was when I started weeping at Christmas, the first one without him. He died aged 22 and I was 23.
I think of him, Dad and all my older relatives every Christmas morning and silently drink a toast to them when we have lunch. We are not a demonstrative family and everyone would feel awkward and embarrassed if I did this out loud. My children didn’t even know my brother. I find this extremely sad.
A family Christmas can be very hard for those who have lost someone close, especially if recent. The first is always the worst. I always spare a thought for them too. And for those without family or who are estranged.
We have only had one Christmas Day entirely on our own as a couple and it was the saddest day. I watched all my neighbours welcoming children, grandchildren or parents, or being picked up to go to someone’s house for lunch, and felt so very lonely, and I wasn’t even completely on my own. But I felt for everyone who has to witness such Christmas family get-togethers every year while having no-one to share it with. I vowed I would never do that again.
Of course, my husband loved it! He got to watch whatever he wanted on tv, and have beans on toast for lunch – we were saving the grand affair for when our children came next day, so he was having a welcome day having nothing to do with the kitchen!
This year, what started out as potentially a quiet Christmas with my mum will have turned into a week-long session of musical beds! Having discovered she was to be at ours for a few days, first my son’s family have decided to come and see her on Christmas Eve (this is good because Mum hasn’t met her latest great-grandson yet and he’s 21 months old!), then our eldest grand-daughter surprised us as she too wants to come, this is good too as she lives so far away and is in such high demand that we rarely have time together. Next up, my brother, sister-in-law and nephew would like to come for an audience on Christmas Day! Honestly, it’s like playing host to The Queen!
My husband will be taking Mum home on Boxing Day, which just about gives the house chance to recover and the houseworking elves time to clean bathrooms, put away toys, change bedding and restock the cupboards before a hoard of ravenous teenagers and a frisky labrador descend the following day!
I’m exhausted just writing about it! But I am looking forward to seeing them all. I’m happiest when they’re all here and I can sit and just watch them all, listen in and muse on the passage of time and how proud I am.
I hope you all have the opportunity to spend this festival season in whatever way makes you content. I hope you don’t mind my trip down memory lane, I always think about them during this preparation period and I wanted to include them however I could. Giving them a place in my blog is my tribute to their continuing presence and importance in my life.
I raise my glass to them and to you.
Thank you for reading!
Merry Christmas! 🎄
PS Here’s a video of my favourite Christmas Song by the lovely Dora Bryan – I and 2 of my friends performed it at the parish Christmas concert in our village hall! (Thank goodness there were no camera-phones in those days!
Copyright: Chris McGowan