So tomorrow, while you’re celebrating, I’ll be trying to get through another Friday. Every other year I’d be packing my memories back into their box for another year but this year I did something different. I opened the doors. I gave away my memories. I don’t need them any more and a part of me hopes that now they are public they no longer belong to me. I can live without them quite happily as I move on into a New Year.
We, or at least I, live in a world that is so filled with contradiction. I’m convinced it could be really simple to live a peaceful, good, happy and fulfilled life. I’m equally convinced that it’s almost impossible given the conditions that exist. And I’m more than ever convinced there’s very little any of us can do to really change things. What I wish for everyone as we go into 2016, is the opportunity to open your eyes, to think for yourself, to challenge all that we are told and sold, and to do the best you can.
It’s been an interesting experience re-visiting my Christmases past. I’d like to think its cathartic, and in a way it has helped me to contextualise a lot of experiences into the wider pattern of my life. I guess I’ve reached that time in life when you start to reflect and make sense of the past more than looking eagerly towards the future. I’ve opened the Advent calendar of my past life and if you’ve made it this far, so have you. I know it wasn’t much of a gift at times but I hope you’ve gained some insight if not pleasure from what we’ve shared.
Maybe it’s got you thinking about your own relationship with Christmas past and present. In which case I have probably given you your own memories, both happy and sad.
Sorry if you feel I’ve not given this much of an ending, but the doors are all open at last and at least. Perhaps it’s appropriate that my Advent calendar ends with a whimper rather than a bang! It’ll soon be Saturday. Then Sunday… then a whole new week begins. I’m looking forward to that. Till then, enjoy your Friday in whatever way you please.
As I said, over the last decade or so I’ve managed to more or less avoid the whole Christmas bonanza. While my in-law family are Christmas freaks, we live far enough away from them that we often don’t see them till spring, and since they haven’t got to grips with sending gifts through the post (they probably like to see our gifts under their tree on Christmas morning) we face the ordeal (and I’m afraid for me it is still an ordeal) of having to open Christmas presents months after the event. Which means putting on the grateful face. Still, nothing’s perfect is it. I am willing to compromise where necessary. I just wish that people would respect my wishes enough not to include me in their Christmas.
As proof that I’m not heartless, I’ll tell you of the last Christmas I ‘did.’ (And I’m hopeful it’ll be the last one I ever have to ‘do.’) It was my mum’s last Christmas. We knew she was dying of cancer. She’d been diagnosed with three months to live and we knew that even if she lasted longer than this (she did) she wouldn’t see another Christmas. So I put all animosity aside and did what I knew was ‘the right thing.’ I went to spend Christmas with her and (most) of my family.
She was more or less bedbound but as I knew that Christmas was her biggest pleasure through the year, I determined that we’d do the best we could to give her a final Christmas. I even did some hoovering! She had organised a Christmas tea party and she’d booked for us all to go out for a Christmas Dinner. I had been more than happy to cook all the Christmas Dinner for us all at home, but my mum was always pretty territorial about her kitchen and the thought of me ‘taking over’ Christmas wasn’t what she wanted. So we went out.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t well enough to go with us. I would most happily have stayed behind with her, but my sister, who was living with her at the time, took on this role and we were detailed to go out and ‘have a good time.’ We did our best, but I couldn’t help thinking how overpriced the food was, how crap it was for the cooks and waiters (though maybe they were enjoying avoiding their own families at time and a half!) and it all felt a bit strange. At least I avoided eating turkey and Christmas pudding.
We got home and my mum had made it out of bed. She’d had something of turkey and Christmas pudding I think, but she was struggling with eating in general so I think it was more the idea than the actuality she experienced. Maybe it sparked the memory of Christmases past. But I think what my mum liked best about Christmas was that it was a wipe the slate clean sort of time – you did the same old things you always did – but as if for the first time and with the hope that this time it would be ‘brand new’ and perfect. Like I said, her relationship with Christmas has always been a mystery to me.
However, what my mum did teach me during her prolonged dying process, was how almost infinite the human capacity is to reduce expectations. I’m sure she extended her life by some six months simply by constantly reducing them, while steadfastly also refusing to let go. But of course, inevitably, she died and I wouldn’t wish the quality of life she had for the last six months on anyone. But, it was her choice and we all respected that, however hard it was for us. I’m sure it was harder for her.
That Christmas afternoon we all opened presents and I did the best job ever of the gratitude game. It’s tough buying a present for someone who is dying, hard to get something from the world of consumption that is valuable in the moment. Which is ironic given the ‘life’ of most consumer items these days. But with approaching death, priorities change and it was a really limited range of things we could wrap up for her. The ‘gift’ was us all being there and we gave that as wholeheartedly as possible. One last time.
Once the presents had been opened, the front door was also opened and the friends came in. She had a decent circle of friends in those last months, all of whom gave up their own family Christmas to come to ours. And you know what, we actually had quite a good time. There was an elephant in the room of course, the awareness that we were all doing this for one reason and that it was a once only event. Perhaps it was because of that that we all had such a good time. It wasn’t about consumer capitalist or even religious Christmas, it was about doing something for someone – giving them what you knew they wanted – because you couldn’t give them more life. We stayed a couple of days and when we left I went to see my mum, propped back up in bed, wearing her wig and looking small and vulnerable but still recognisable. She beamed at me. ‘You didn’t think I’d be able to manage it,’ she said, or words to that effect.
‘Did you have a good Christmas?’ I asked her.
‘Yes,’ she beamed. And with a sort of triumphant tone, like she’d brought the prodigal home, added, ‘Did you?’
‘Yes, mum, I really did,’ I said. And meant it.
And when I left her bedroom, I told myself that this was how I would always remember her. I knew there were tough months ahead – nine of them as it turned out – during which time she reduced her expectations and became both mentally and physically quite unrecognisable. But now, years on, the way I like to remember ‘last’ seeing her is that Christmas. How strange that it should be one of my happiest Christmases, and one of my happiest memories. But it sticks with me. The spirit of Christmas can strike from time to time, but to expect it every year is perhaps over confidence!
But today I can bring you tidings of great comfort and joy. And hope, if you’re someone who wants to avoid Christmas. Here are some observations I’ve gleaned over a couple of decades of trying to avoid ‘the big day.’
Come the 20th December most people will leave you alone because they’re busy with their own Christmas. And once they know you’re a Scrooge about it they’ll pretty much leave you alone lest you dampen their ardour for ‘the big day.’ Up till about the 20th they all moan and groan and talk about how expensive, difficult, unpleasant it all is, but by the 20th they’ve bought into it big-style and you can, if you’re lucky, ride the slipstream and just keep under the radar. Apart from family phone-calls on Christmas Day. Looking back over the past couple of decades there were quite a few years when I achieved my goal of avoiding Christmas virtually wholesale – and these were years I just stayed at home, battened down the hatches and got on with life.
The only sacrifice that has to be made is to keep away from television, radio and the internet. These days that has to include social media. If you go on social media any time during the twelve days of Christmas you’re asking for it. I can’t imagine what FaceBook and Twitter are like on Christmas Day, but if this year’s Halloween is anything to go by, your ‘stream’ or ‘page’ are likely to be filled with greetings and pictures of everyone you know (and on social media a lot of people you really don’t know) having a jolly time. That’s definitely one for me to avoid. I have issues with social media in general. It seems to be living life one step removed from any kind of reality. And I suppose if I’ve anything to thank Christmas for in my adult life, it’s a yearly reminder to ‘keep it real. Because the best tip I’ve got for a good un-festive period is: sign out for a week. Get your food in early and avoid the shops. Stay home with a load of good books and get on with whatever it is you do to amuse or entertain yourself in the best of times. Just stop the world and get off. Take a break.
If you want to be an avoider ‘light’ and like to go shopping for bargains then avoiding the shops and the internet can be hard I suppose. For me, I remind myself that bargains are always there, that shopping is a created vice, that the best bargain is learning to live without. And believe me, there’s a lot of things we take for granted as essentials that are pretty easy to live without. As for luxuries? Treats? For goodness sake. Well, I suppose if you want or need those things you’re not going to be looking for tips on how to avoid Christmas are you?
If you actually like the idea of Christmas but don’t like the commercialism then there is plenty you can do. Volunteer to go and give someone else a better Christmas. Which is another way of getting back to the ‘real’ spirit of the day. Whether it’s from religious or pagan perspective, if you get warm feelings towards other people at this time of year, or enjoy giving more than you enjoy receiving, then getting down to a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, or if you’re not that brave just seeking out an elderly person, or someone on their own, or someone who may be struggling, and give them a good time. Be with them, take them out, cook for them, buy presents for their kids. I’d just add the caveat that you should make sure in advance if they want this kind of interaction.
I’ve never volunteered at Christmas simply because I don’t want anything to do with it. But there must be people who do want to but haven’t the means. People who actually want or need help to enjoy this time of year. I’d have thought the help would be more about company, but it might be that giving a gift is more appropriate. My point is, with a couple of days left, you could still put a bit of thought into this and do something different this year. If you like Christmas, why not connect with the true spirit of it and do something for someone else, without looking for something in return. It shouldn’t be rocket science, or a strange notion, to do something nice for someone who isn’t in your family at least once a year! If you buy into Santa then be Santa. But make sure you pick someone who will appreciate it. And don’t expect that everyone does appreciate being reminded of Christmas.
For me, the best Christmases are the ones that just don’t happen. I’m sure I’m not alone in having a lot of very unhappy memories stirred up at this time of year and whatever I can do to avoid them, I do. And it has worked well for me various times, when I’ve just been having a Tuesday, or a Thursday, or such – doing some reading, writing, even domestic chores (perhaps not hoovering.) I remember possibly the best non-Christmas day was the one where I was in the kitchen at about eleven o’clock in the morning struggling with the clothes dryer which hung from the ceiling and which had a rather recalcitrant pulley system. It had broken just as I was pulling the washing up, so I was perched on a kitchen chair, trying to work out the ropes and pulleys and struggling against the weight of it, balancing it as I recall on my head – all so that I wouldn’t have to take the clothes off and put them on again – and the phone rang. That was in the days I answered my phone. I tend not to these days. But I jumped down, got the phone and it was my mum wishing me happy Christmas. I’d completely forgotten about it.
‘What are you doing,’ she asked.
‘Trying to fix the clothes dryer,’ I replied, honestly.
That obviously didn’t compute with her and I was left alone. Christmas interaction lasted less than five minutes and I quickly forgot about it again as I went to complete my task.
Believe it or not, that’s my idea of the perfect Christmas!
Total avoidance is, of course, rarely possible, but another tip to give you maximum festive free time is that you ring the people who you know will ring you to wish you Happy Christmas. Get in there early. I’ve learned it doesn’t hurt to wish other people Happy Christmas. Fundamentally (despite pointers to the contrary) I’m not a Scrooge. If people genuinely enjoy all the Christmas stuff, that’s their right and privilege. It’s not my way, but I’m not there to spoil their party. And phoning a few people in the morning to wish them Happy Christmas is a good way to get the rest of the day free. Of course you do have to remember it’s Christmas Day to employ that strategy, and I don’t always remember. When I do, I just put on my best smile and think of it like a chore that has to be accomplished. I wish them well with as genuine an emotion as I can and get on with my day.
Getting Christmas presents can be another problem of course. It took me a decade to train my own family not to buy me presents. It’s not as easy as the Christmas card deal. Family do tend to expect presents themselves and will keep buying for you even when you say you don’t want a present, simply to get one themselves. I’ve still not trained my new ‘in-laws’ not to buy. They are serious fun Christmas people. The tip, which worked on my family but not (yet) with the in-laws, was to give charity donations on their behalf as Christmas presents. They pretty soon stop wanting that as a gift, I can tell you. Strangely, none of them has turned the tables on me and sent me charity donations as Christmas gifts – which I would really appreciate! The ‘in law’ family are stocking-filler type people and they fall into the category of people who just love Christmas shopping, so I’m not hopeful that they will ever get to grips with the idea that some people just don’t want Christmas presents.
I am deeply uneasy with presents bought by people who just love Christmas retail therapy. So I developed a way of dealing with my unease. When bought such a present I then go out and give a charity donation for the same amount. I’ve got something I didn’t want, maybe, but I turn it into something useful. I’ve sponsored guide dogs and gifted toilets and goats and all sorts this way. At least it makes me feel something good comes out of the whole thing. But I’d really rather not have to engage with the spurious practice of keeping the Chinese workers on sweat-shop wages while the earth’s precious resources are ravaged for more useless plastic crap. It’s just me, but I don’t see that as ‘fun’ or ‘festive’ or positive in any way. Other views not only exist – but are dominant – so I hope I don’t offend, but surely I’m entitled to my opinions too? I think, after all, I’ve given quite a few decent reasons why I don’t want to be part of the whole experience.
Scroll on five years. Another Christmas, and a new partner. Divorce was a painful process for me, because I hate to renege on a promise, and with divorce you have to accept that you haven’t lived up to your own expectations. Being rid of the ‘other party’ is easy enough, it’s living with yourself that is hard about divorce. But I got over it, believe me. I learned and I grew and I became more myself than I’d been for over a decade now that I wasn’t weighed down by being attached to someone who, it seemed, had completely opposite values to myself. It was my time. But Christmas comes round every year, and it still had to be negotiated.
Between China and Cyprus I’d managed to keep most Christmases relatively low key. I couldn’t get my family to stop sending me presents – even though I didn’t spend Christmas with them. My brother got let off the hook the year we all went to the Highlands and now he was married with kids, they pulled a lot of the focus, so I got my ‘bye’ for several years. I was able to establish something of a pattern. Low key would be the best description. And that suited me fine.
But this year was going to be another ‘first.’ I was with a new partner, which meant, I thought, teaching a whole new set of people my views about Christmas – and inevitably alienating them in the process. My partner had other ideas. He had never enjoyed Christmas either (it’s amazing how many people confess to this actually!) and he’d just got divorced so he wanted to get away. How about we went off on holiday together over Christmas?
It was a great idea. Of course I no longer had the illusion that we would escape Christmas through travel, but it would cut out a lot of the difficult bits – spending Christmas with his family for example. They were all died in the wool Christmas freaks, with their own set of rituals – which involved a lot more eating of rich food than I would ever be able to stomach – and I was pretty sure party hats would come into the equation. I wanted to make a good impression and I’ve learned that I don’t make a good impression on normal people at Christmas. No one likes being told that Christmas isn’t great for everyone, especially those who keep in the happy Christmas bubble and still engage in stocking fillers for all.
We could leave them all behind. Right through the festive fortnight. What’s not to love? It was just pick a destination. We chose Cyprus. No expectations about the Christmas factor, but we rented a self-catering apartment and hired a car and would be pretty much able to enjoy the place and each other’s company without interaction. Okay, hide your eyes from the Christmas tree when you go through the lobby, but it’s not that much of an imposition. The apartment block was actually pretty low-key. In fact, I have to say, that to get away from Christmas, Cyprus is probably my destination of choice. No one was really bothered and I suspected that many of our fellow travellers were of the same persuasion as us – they couldn’t see Christmas far enough away. Of course there were the uber-revellers – who got tanked up on the plane and one of whom, a girl called Abb-eeeee by her pals, got so drunk that she passed out on the corridor of the plane and the rest of us all just stepped over her – we’d endured the 4 hours it took her to get that paralytic and no one, cabin staff or fellow passengers gave a damn. I wished her a stomach pump for Christmas and on we went. There were also the families, transporting their Christmas lock, stock and barrel to the sun, but we knew it would be easy to give them a body swerve. Stay away from hotel pools and we’d be fine.
The aim was non-Christmas in Cyprus and I have to say, for the first time the plan came together and we had a wonderful time. The weather was a bit more festive than I’d anticipated – we had a lot of warmish days but we also drove up into the hills and experience fog and snow. That’s okay, I like snow, I just wished I’d packed warmer clothes. But beyond that we had time on the beach and travelling round the ancient and natural sights of Cyprus. There are loads of them, though when we were there it was also an island becoming a building site by the minute – more tourists, more ex-pats. But at least there was virtually no evidence of Christmas.
We stocked up on good Greek food in case we couldn’t get a meal on Christmas Day. Though we weren’t even sure, after a few days there, which day Christmas Day would fall on. One day we went out and some of the restaurants were closed, but the Chinese wasn’t, so we went there. And had a lovely meal. I reflected that I was in a far better place, both physically and emotionally than when I’d had Christmas Day in China itself. The combination of the right person, the right place and the ability to turn a blind eye to the trappings of Christmas, made it a holiday to remember. We stayed through New Year and never mixed with other people the whole fortnight. There were fireworks on the balcony and a party downstairs for Hogmanay, which we duly reported on an international phone call to our respective families. But we held our own festivities. And they had nothing to do with Christmas.
And by the time we got back, Christmas had been consigned to the landfill along with the trees and tinsel, and if not forgiven, it was more or less forgotten that we hadn’t been there as willing participants. I’m sure we weren’t even missed during the Christmas period, and that, for me, is a result. Each to his own, and I’m not trying to stop anyone else enjoying Christmas, however they want to do that – but I’d like the respect of other people letting me NOT indulge in the Christmas experience if I so choose. The only way to achieve this seems to be cutting yourself off from everyone for the best part of a month. And with family that isn’t at all easy. Christmas is for children, for families, for consumer capitalism – it’s not a time to be refusenick! But after Cyprus the die had been cast. No going back. We’d fully broken the family Christmas hoo-doo and there was no going back. Ah. So we thought. You can never predict the future now, can you. There’s always going to be a Bond movie in the Christmas mix and you can never say never again.
While two hours is a bit short for a honeymoon period, you’ll not be surprised to learn that by five years the marriage itself was in complete meltdown. And Christmas was coming again. What to do? I was getting desperate. We’d had five years of juggling the various families. The best compromise was that there was no Christmas in our house, but I couldn’t escape from it whenever I left the house – and indeed even in the house the TV and radio are full of it. The neighbours all have tinsel and lights and trees and frivolous nonsense. People still send you Christmas cards. Actually, I’ve worked out that you have about three years after you send your last Christmas card to someone before they knock you off their list and stop sending them.
That gives me the opportunity to digress into what I think is wrong with the whole Christmas card thing. Apart from the obvious waste of resources. Right. Here goes. The supposed point of Christmas cards is to show people you’re thinking of them at Christmas. But the reality is that people have long lists, which they tick off, just signing the inside of cards with barely a thought given to the recipient. Very few people actually write a message, much less a letter to go into the card. How can they? They’ve got hundreds to get through after all. I’m sorry, I don’t see the point. I don’t need a collection of autographs on my shelves for a fortnight thanks, hiding the books! And I don’t need to celebrity endorse a range of cards to send to other people I barely know, don’t give a shit about, never think about, feel guilty about not having kept in contact with –etc. When I send a card (which thankfully is virtually never now) I put in a proper letter, using the opportunity for some real communication with the recipient.
Of course with the rise of Facebook and ecards and the like, real cards have become even more redundant, even more wasteful of resources. I know, I know, the argument against me is always that suggesting we are wasting resources at Christmas is being a Scrooge. I fundamentally disagree. If you’ve got enough money to spend on cards and stamps you could donate it to charity instead, or actually do something with the money that makes a difference to the life of someone who doesn’t have the luxury of being wasteful. There’s a Native American saying ‘Only when the last fish has been caught and the last river has been poisoned will we realise we can’t eat money.’ And I endorse that - only when there are no hungry people and maltreated animals on this planet will I willingly engage with the Christmas process. Until then, I’ll stick with my principles and use my resources (both physical and emotional) for better purposes than tinsel, turkey and tanking up!
You’ll see where I’m going. I had finally had enough. By five years into my marriage I was completely convinced that Christmas had become nothing more than a commodity. I thought that it would be a good plan (I should have learned from my mistakes, shouldn’t I?) that I reasoned, why not go somewhere they don’t celebrate Christmas! The obvious answer? Communist China. I couldn’t think of a place less likely to be Christmassy than Beijing.
Once again I should have thought a bit more deeply.
Using the excuse of my husband’s ‘landmark’ birthday, combined with some money left us by the death of his mother (no more visits to his family for Christmas, then!) I booked us a 10 day trip to China. We’re talking China before the Olympics, before it was fully ‘open’ to the West, and so still to some degree an exotic destination.
The reality (never quite as sparkly) was a long haul flight from hell, gaining an understanding of how turkeys must feel on their last trip to the abattoir; with the enhancement of jet lag and culture shock. The biggest part of the culture shock was how Christmassy it was! We were booked into a swish hotel (the only kind you can stay in in China as a foreigner) where the lobbies all had giant Christmas trees, complete with tinsel and lights and to cap it all, there was no escape from the tinny Christmas tunes. They even piped them in the lift. It didn’t take me wrong to work out my mistake. Let me take you through it, in case, like I was, you are surprised to find Christmas in China.
Christmas is about commodities, right? And where do they make all these Christmas things? You got it. China. Christmas is no part of Chinese culture but it is a huge part of their economic system. And the cheaper and tackier and more plasticky the better. So, instead of escaping from the consumer binge that is the festive period, I’d placed myself into the worst excesses of it.
The staff had obviously been trained in Christmas and Christmas etiquette. Wherever you went in the hotels (and you weren’t encouraged to leave them) you were greeted with ‘Happy Christmas’ and beaming Chinese smiles. They knew more than I did about Santa (well, after all, they are the elves who work for him all year, aren’t they?). The only real Chinese part of it was that they were all shocked with those of us who had chosen to come to China during this important ‘family’ time. It was impossible to explain that you wanted to escape from family. Family is everything in China it seems, and no self-respecting Chinese person would think of missing their own Chinese New Year homecoming festival. So we were not just strange foreigners, but considered, I suspect, somewhat beneath contempt for being anti-family, anti-tradition.
It was stupid of me to think that Chinese people would a) be distanced from the whole Christmas thing and so b) understand the desire to get away from it. It was a different culture to them – goodness knows what they make of all the crap they manufacture – but they understand the fundamentals of tradition and a tradition with family at the centre is something they buy into wholesale. Our stocking fillers are the means by which they get the money to go back to their own families at Chinese New Year. I suspect the entire nation breathes a communal sigh of relief when our Christmas stock is delivered – and counts their Yuans. Doubtless when they come back to work from Christmas New Year they are geared up to start the mass production of more crap for the next Christmas season.
So. You learn something with each passing year. And I learned that even travelling to the other side of the world is no escape from Christmas. Since this is a Christmas story, I won’t give you detail of my holiday. Suffice it to say, once you got out of the hotels and away from the trips –and it wasn’t easy to shake off one’s ‘guides’ - there was a lot of interest to explore in Beijing and beyond. The Chinese in their native environment carried about their business oblivious of Christmas. But the price we pay for import/export of Christmas to China is that a Westerner cannot escape it even in the heart of communism. I don’t know what it will be like there now, but I can’t imagine it will be any less commercial or commodified. China has taken to capitalism like a duck to a pond and Christmas is such a vital part of capitalism, isn’t it. Jesus has more or less been cut out of the equation. There are plenty more celebrity endorsements of product Christmas!
My strategy, I will agree, was somewhat radical! I can almost laugh about it now, but only in that hollow –how could I have been so stupid – way beloved of the possessor of hindsight. I was looking for a way to avoid the horrors of a family Christmas. The whole thing had grown into epic proportions by now anyway – the family extended once more. My brother was married, my mum had also re-married and I had a partner. We’d tried going to his family for Christmas, we’d been to my family for Christmas and by year three I was ready to burst. So we decided to go away for Christmas. People do it. The same way that people go out to eat for Christmas Dinner rather than have to endure the home-made ritual gluttony fest with all the trimmings. I told my mum this. The response. Not good. Other people may do this, but it seemed we did not.
I told her in November. I thought it’d be good to give her plenty of time to get used to the idea. I did feel a bit guilty about leaving the rest of them to shoulder the burden, but come Christmas, I reckoned, it was every man for himself. When I look back I’m still not sure which part of the plan I got wrong. I think it was in telling my mum where we were going. She became jealous and didn’t want to miss out. So she decided that if we were going away for Christmas, then we were all going away for Christmas. That’s right, they were coming with us!
We’d booked a bolt-hole up in the Highlands in a small chalet complex. Mistake. There were two other chalets available. My mum booked one. So I didn’t so much escape Christmas as relocate it lock, stock and barrel. Without all the comforts (and distractions) of home. And instead of being able to go visit my mum’s just for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and then beg mercy and go off to my partner’s family, or sneak home, we were stuck with my family for a whole week! If I’d thought the whole Christmas fest had got too big by having to juggle two sets of family expectations, this was the worst icing on the cake I could imagine. A whole week with no escape!
Luckily we didn’t have to travel together. We went up first. We revelled in how remote and isolated the place was. And there were no other people staying in the chalets. Without the imminent arrival of my family it would have been the perfect escape from Christmas. But as it was my mum had forced my little sister to come along – and she was in her teens and not grateful at being plucked out of her natural teen environment to have Christmas in the wilds with no phone or internet access. My new step-dad was part of the package too. He was perhaps a man more sinned against than sinning, I never really got to know him, for his reign was relatively short-lived; but I can’t say that from the outside it looked like a happy marriage. If it was a marriage of convenience it didn’t seem very convenient. For my own case, I just found the man boring.
My mum was in her element. She had known the place would be remote so she brought everything (and then some) needed for her ‘perfect’ Christmas, with her. Which meant we couldn’t even get in the car and drive 20 miles to the nearest village for respite under the guise of buying some stuffing or chipolatas. Fortunately she didn’t bring a hoover! And it took her some days to find the one provided. Silver linings abounded.
My mum used the change of location for some attempt at ‘bonding’ which was more like being put in a cooking boot camp for three days. She huffed and moaned that we weren’t helping enough, not doing it right as she demanded full attention over the creation of Christmas food from both my wee sister and me. The kitchen definitely wasn’t big enough for the three of us. But we pulled out a complete Christmas dinner, with all the trimmings, which once again I was forced to put on the grateful face when I ate it, once again vowing I’d never subject myself and my stomach to this again.
While the women cooked the men had to interact. I should feel sorry for them I suppose, but in retrospect they both deserved it, so at least someone got what they deserved for Christmas, but it wasn’t peace on earth and goodwill to all men. I can’t remember a thing about the presents. As usual. The whole exchange of gifts had become just pointless to me. Even though I put a lot of thought (and tried to be creative with money) into the process, I wasn’t either interested or grateful for anything that came my way.
Christmas continued to be a spectacular vindication to me of how little anyone knew me, and how little anyone cared to try and find out. It seems to me that a lot of people give gifts according to the following principle: I like this, so the person I’m giving it to should be grateful that I’m giving them something I’d want. Whereas for me the principle was: think hard about what that person would want, then buy it for them. I don’t see how hard that is – though I’ll admit it does require actually thinking about other people and I’ve yet to see evidence that many people do this – especially at Christmas.
But the vow I made myself after that relocated family Christmas was NEVER AGAIN. And I really meant it. I came up with another plan. And this is the one that was really badly thought out. Well, it could have been a masterplan, there was just one weak link. I’ll save the revelation of that for you for a while.
The plan- Get married next Christmas. If we honeymooned over Christmas then surely my mum couldn’t come with us? Great plan. Shame about the husband. We went ahead. We got married the week before Christmas the next year. I discovered that marriage can be as horrible as Christmas because the honeymoon was over before I even left the small reception which was held, you guessed it, at my mum’s house. It was the sop against not having Christmas with her. She got to host a wedding reception I didn’t want for family and friends and work colleagues.
I’d been with my partner for five years and it was more or less the time to decide marry or split up. I certainly backed the wrong horse there. It may seem petty now, but in the context of the promises made even in registry offices, I took it hard when, having told me that he’d given up smoking – no really given up smoking this time - I went out into the garden some two hours into the reception to find him hiding round a corner with his sister – smoking. It wasn’t the smoking that got me, so much as the duplicity. Now before you think I’m over-reacting, this was a man who said that telling a lie didn’t count unless and until you got caught. When I heard him say that I dismissed it as nonsense, not willing to believe that someone could really a) believe that and b) live their life on those principles. But he meant it. Five years later I discovered this wasn’t just his belief, it was his belief system. And that, I’m afraid, was anathema to me. Like I said, the honeymoon was over long before the reception and certainly before Christmas Eve.
On the up-side. We went on honeymoon to another remote part of the Highlands. The icing on that particular Christmas cake was that he’d left his wallet behind, so we really did have to be pretty frugal on the spending. It was the days I still had credit cards, but they didn’t extend to splashing the cash. So, for the first time ever we didn’t ‘do’ Christmas. He wasn’t bothered, but I think it was just because he was too lazy. We still had plenty of nice food, cooked by me and drink, bought by me, but there was no evidence of tinsel and the trees stayed in their rightful place in the forest. We were out of phone communication at that place and were truly alone. Which would have been wonderful for any normal honeymooners. However, for me, it was the Christmas I realised how truly alone I was, and what a complete mistake I’d made. I may have avoided the Christmas hell, but I’d just signed up for something even worse on a daily basis. And I couldn’t see any way out.
What I wanted most for Christmas when I was a child (from 10 years of age anyway) was to be a grown up. I left home when I was seventeen, but as anticipated, the expectation was that I would be home for Christmas. Trying to point out that I didn’t consider it my ‘home’ any more didn’t work but for a couple of years, while I was a student, I tried to play along. And even into my early twenties, I kept going back for the yearly punishment – each time trying to find a way to avoid it.
My mum wasn’t a drinker and I didn’t take to it till I left home, but by the time I was twenty the only way to bear a Christmas with the family was to have plenty of drink in the equation. So I’m happy to say that I don’t remember a huge amount about Christmas in my late teens, early twenties but I had one moment of epiphany which sticks in the mind.
My brother and I had both left home. My sister wasn’t so lucky. But we were all essentially grown up and Christmas should have had a different dynamic. My brother and I both had partners, though not children of our own. Sometimes I thought that only having children would offer the excuse of not coming back to the mother ship for Christmas. It seemed rather too high a price to pay, and a high risk strategy besides, because it was just as likely that we’d have to bring the children to my mum’s for Christmas, thus indoctrinating another generation into our family ritual. And the fighting that would happen if we wanted to go to the ‘other’ family… like I said, it just all seemed too high risk a strategy.
But back to my epiphany. We were doing the pass the parcel present opening part of the day. And I looked round and realised that even in our twenties we were being treated, and worse, acting, like fourteen year olds. It was family bickering and it wasn’t funny or clever! It was aggravating and sad. And I realised at that moment that unless I made the break, there was a place where, like Peter Pan, I would never grow up. And it would be Christmas with the family. So I silently promised myself I’d never do that again. Whatever it took I would find a way to avoid a family Christmas. It was the beginning of the end. But with Christmas I discovered you can run, but you can’t hide.
The lighter side of that time was the drink fuelled activity. Needless to say, they are rather misty memories. I was never a fan of parties and Christmas parties were no better. In fact in any of the many jobs I undertook in my twenties, and I think it must have been nearly as many jobs as Christmases, the Christmas party was, in its own way, as horrific as our family Christmases. Firstly there were always people behaving badly. Secondly, since there was always a lot of drink you had to make sure you weren’t one of them, because there were always consquences. The bosses would put money behind the bar and when the staff got tanked up and ‘partied hard’ they’d be sitting there taking notes and miscreants would pay for it the rest of the year. And year on year no one seemed to get that!
One year I remember a works Christmas party going to Manchester, putting everyone up in a hotel overnight and then going out on the ‘razz’ with a big client who was based in Manchester. Carnage. I was sharing a room with a colleague and the last thing I remember is her inviting a couple of policemen up to the room. Policemen? All I know is that I tried on a policeman’s hat (one of those weird helmet type things they wear in England) and finding it very uncomfortable. Actually, that reminds me of another drink fuelled Christmas – at home. I’d become active in a musical theatre group and the band was made up of off duty Guardsmen. And we must have had a Christmas party because I invited a load of them back home. Arriving long after my mum had gone to bed, she was quite surprised to find a couple of passed out Guardsmen in the sitting room the next morning when she went to start the hoovering! To be fair, she took it in good grace as long as they were there – but I got quite a rollicking afterwards. Retrospectively, probably rightly so! But I never got to wear a guardsman’s bearskin. No comparative analysis can be made with police helmets. Sorry.
In fact Christmas headgear got me in trouble more than once. From the age of about fifteen I simply refused to wear paper Christmas hats. And that seems to really upset people. I still can’t figure out why. I remember having a works Christmas lunch one year out at a restaurant. Apparently I ruined the event for more than one person. And here’s why. Firstly, I didn’t drink – I was driving and I never drank and drove even when people did – losing my licence would have lost me my job for one thing – and for another thing – oh, come on, what person doesn’t know that drinking and driving is just bloody dangerous. But add to my lack of joy de vivre and letting my hair down by refusing wine, I didn’t want ice cream. I don’t know why they were even serving ice-cream at a Christmas lunch. I don’t like ice cream, I never have, and I opted not to have it with my chocolate sludge thing. I’d already NOT picked the Christmas pudding option, so I suppose those for whom Christmas ritual must be obeyed were already gunning for me. And then, the crowning glory was when I refused to put on a silly paper hat once the crackers had been pulled. This was beyond the pale and I got into a full scale argument on the strength of it.
I hadn’t made a fuss about the drink or the ice-cream, I’d just politely declined. I politely refused to wear a hat. You’d have thought this was a crime against humanity. When pushed, I said, ‘No, I’m not going to wear one.’ I didn’t think more explanation was necessary. I was accused of spoiling the party. I responded that firstly if the party depended on people wearing silly hats then it was pretty spoiled already and secondly, pointed out that we were supposed to be enjoying ourselves. Therefore, if I didn’t enjoy eating ice cream and wearing a paper hat, I shouldn’t have to do it. The counter argument – as it always is – ran along the lines of everyone else is enjoying themselves doing this, so should you and if you don’t you show everyone else up and reduce their enjoyment. So what price freedom? What free choice do we have if we are only free to do what doesn’t upset the majority, no matter how stupid they are being? It wasn’t an argument I could ever win, especially faced with tipsy, aggravated people in paper hats – no sense of dignity and no sense of shame being a pre-requisite for the occasion it seemed. It was another nail in the coffin of Christmas for me.
My resolution. No more Christmas in the bosom of my family and no more going to works Christmas parties. Goal. No more Christmas. Good luck with that one eh? After all, we’ve still another six doors to open!
The other major problem I had with Christmas during my later teenage years was the food. I’d never really liked rich food and it often seemed to disagree with me. And my mum was old-school. Meat had to be ‘well’ cooked which means that beef was like shoe-leather. I remember many a Sunday lunch (we always had Sunday lunch, it was like a training ritual for Christmas I suppose) when I chewed beef round my mouth completely unable to swallow it and had to find a hanky to dump a sodden, grey piece of… words fail me… without being noticed. There’s never a dog around when you need one!
But Christmas was worst. Chocolate I could handle in abundance, but the richness of Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and turkey with all the trimmings got the better of me time and again. Endless satsumas didn’t help. My stomach couldn’t handle all the acid. And Brussel sprouts sent me into spasm straight away. Whatever else I have against Christmas (and I’ve treated you to plenty of that) my guts were not designed for either the religious or the pagan eating rituals! I remember one particular Christmas, I think it was when I was sixteen, that I never even made it to the Christmas dinner table. That’s not strictly true. I wasn’t allowed a leave of absence, but I was allowed just to eat a small bit of turkey and some mashed potato.
If I hadn’t just spent the last 24 hours throwing up, I would have enjoyed it- NOT having to pile my plate with all the stuff I hated. As it was, I could barely even eat that, and being forced to sit and watch everyone else tucking in and ‘enjoying’ themselves placed me as the spoilsport – a role I fear I have subsequently been cast in time and again now that I don’t ‘do’ Christmas. No one wants to hear the reasons, however good they are – people just want to play having a good time and no one likes a party pooper now do they?
Being sick wasn’t really an option at Christmas. Unless you were full-on vomiting - which I managed to achieve that year. Then I was excused Christmas cake and Turkey sandwiches and when I refused the round of Quality Street (it was inevitably Quality Street even though I preferred Roses) I was allowed to repair to bed and not have to take part in the post meal festivities; washing up and TV watching. We’re talking the days before kids had tv’s in their bedroom and no one had thought of the internet. In bed meant sick. Reading. Well that wasn’t so bad. If I felt up to reading. When I didn’t feel up to reading I knew I was in real trouble. There would be no Boxing Day turkey for me. I think that Christmas I managed not to eat for the best part of a week. And once Christmas Day and Boxing Day were over, no one cared much. We no longer had big Hogmanay parties, so there wasn’t much to look forward to except a new year and one year closer to being ‘grown up.’ One year closer to leaving home and being an adult. The inevitability I wished for but never quite believed would happen. Knowing that even when it did, the expectation would be that for Christmas you’d have to go back, like my primary one bible text said – each to their own home to be taxed. And so it was.
Some doors in the Advent calendar are less spectacular than others, and I don’t know how to dress up being too sick to participate – and this probably isn’t a picture you want to look at. But when you’re busy planning the festival of gluttony that is Christmas, just for a moment take a pause to consider that not everyone likes Christmas food. Not everyone can eat Christmas food. Never mind the ethics of spending a day stuffing your face while millions of people in the world are starving. If that doesn’t put you off Christmas dinner, I don’t know what will. But it doesn’t seem to. People are great at coming up with reasons why they ‘deserve a bit of luxury’ at Christmas. I’m sorry, I don’t agree. There is plenty to go round in this world. The more we have the less someone else gets. I find the thought of starving people puts me off eating Christmas fare. It’s not just my gut that is intolerant of Christmas the older I get.
And while I’m at it – Christmas lights. Why, when we all know about global warming and scarce resources, do we all feel the need to waste vast amounts of electricity over the Christmas period? In towns, villages and our own homes. Why don’t we all donate this money to refugees? We give at Children in Need – but few of us know much or do much about REAL children in need on a daily basis. No one knew or cared when I was a child in need. But after Pudsey each year it seems we allow ourselves to go overboard on a gluttony binge. Shopping, eating, consuming… it’s all actually completely unnecessary. Christmas is not a joyous time for many people round the world. And if consumer capitalist Christmas is what you need to make you happy, I suggest you need to take a long hard look at yourself.
Like I said, today’s picture is me, sick to my stomach. Pass me the alka-seltzer.
I’m happy to say that the worst of the childhood Christmas memories are now over. You can relax. The rest is just so much bitching. The observations that follow are personal but probably much more recognisable to a wider range of readers. I’ve reached the teenage years. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. What do you want with a family Christmas at that age? Mostly what you want is to be given money instead of presents and to be left in peace to watch Top Of The Pops. Neither of these things ever seems to happen.
In the post-apocalyptic domestic violence teen years I have to say I can’t really remember much about Christmas. We’d moved on and moved away. The house in the country was sold as part of the divorce settlement and in my mind I was homeless. We actually moved into my grandparent’s house, though my grandad was long dead and my grandma had moved out to be cared for by an aunt. But it was far away from the wicked step-father. Unfortunately it was far away from everything else in my life – good and bad. So I guess I was as much of a mopey teen as anyone is. I made a new set of friends, some of them Church-goers, or ‘God squad’ as we called them, and I flirted with the true meaning of Christmas one year – though as I say, I can’t really remember it that well. What I do remember is that the ‘God Squad’ put a lot more emphasis on Easter than Christmas. And I was already getting very uncomfortable with the whole consumerism angle – with or without God. But now, as I scratch my memory I remember even going out carol singing (for money) one of those teenage Christmases. I’m not sure we were collecting for charity, unless it was the charity begins at home type. With cynical hindsight I’m going to suggest that it was a way to deal with the lack of cash that came through during the Christmas period.
I remember those days for the fact there were plenty of ‘gifts’ that you had to put on a grateful face for. I never did grateful well, certainly not with grace – and the worn out ‘Just what I wanted,’ ‘No, I haven’t got one of those,’ or more often the lie ‘No, I haven’t read that one…’ were never far from my lips. In reality, I had ALWAYS read that one, and many more. It was what I did during my teenage years – I stayed up in my bedroom and I read. Everything. It was a lot less trouble than listening to music. That had to be done quietly and what teenager wants to listen to music quietly? Oh for a set of headphones for Christmas!
My mum had no one to get in the way of her Christmas ritual now. I seem to recall that we ‘did’ the Midnight Mass thing on a Christmas Eve now, having struggled to erect and decorate the Christmas tree and get the bastard lights working (now my brother’s responsibility!) before we left. The language of Christmas in our house was not the language of the kirk! No one believed in Santa any more, not even my little sister, so we didn’t have that palaver to go through. And there were no more Victorian Pantomimes to go to. Not where we were. So it was my mum’s version of Christmas that we endured.
Christmas morning. Woken to frantic hoovering. And probably some cursing about having had no help with getting potatoes ready for par-boiling or something wrong with the turkey and WHY were we not down having breakfast. Simple. I didn’t want breakfast. I knew my stomach would be begging for mercy soon enough. Even without a six a.m. (or four a.m) fix of chocolate I knew I’d be feeling sick by the time the Queen came on the television.
So breakfast was eaten, one piece of toast and hot chocolate, and cleared away. ‘Can we have presents now?’ No. We were threatened with another trip to church, but fortunately there was always some drama or crisis in the kitchen that made that impossible.
Then I usually had to step in and do some hoovering – after the suggestion that all the work was being done by my mum and that we were ungrateful and never helped around the house. I’ll hold my hands up, you know, I just don’t DO gratitude for things I don’t have any interest in. I find that gratitude can be used as effectively as a hoover for a weapon any day, and I’m a pacifist in every respect. So to keep the peace I ran the hoover round the sitting room and hall AGAIN – remembering each time that this was the same space in which I’d woken to the Space Hopper, the Indian suit, My Grandad reading me Dickens… and I never remember anyone hoovering during that Christmas.
Hoovering done, I’d guess it was probably 10.30 or 11am by the time we sat down to the open the presents ritual. I hated it. It was like some sick version of pass the parcel. Each person had to open one at a time, with everyone else looking on. Maybe normal people like this, but to me it was like the greatest acting challenge known to man that ‘No, I haven’t read that,’ ‘Oh, it’s just what I wanted,’ and the like, endlessly lying and being ‘grateful’ to order.
I never thought I was that difficult to buy for, I thought what I liked was fairly obvious to all – but somehow I never got what it was I really wanted. I don’t think I had expensive tastes, but it always seemed to be that while I got weighed down with ‘stuff’ very little of it was anything that held any interest to me. I wonder if it’s like that for everyone. You can’t tell, because everyone is so versed in the ‘oh, it’s just what I wanted’ routine. I guess it was during my teenage years that I really first started questioning whether everyone was just playing along. And if so, why?
I think we did it to keep my mum happy. Though she had an odd sort of happy. I suppose she must have loved the whole Christmas thing, but I for the life of me can’t think why, because she acted like a woman on the edge through the whole twelve days. Even without the threat of domestic violence mixed into the pudding. I came to the conclusion that she liked the power of being in charge and the martyrdom that goes with being responsible for making sure everyone ‘has a good time.’
But of course we didn’t have a good time. At least I didn’t. As a teenager, all I wanted was the chance to stay in bed till 11am, not have to eat breakfast, not be woken to the hoover torture routine, and to watch Christmas Top of the Pops. But it was on when we ate Christmas Lunch. Every other day of the year we ate lunch at 1pm but on Christmas it was 2pm. So that we would be winding up in order to watch the Queen at 3pm. After that it was washing up, walk, respite till turkey sandwiches and cake, Morecombe and Wise and whatever other Christmas treats the TV served up. As a teenager most of these were as welcome as the presents!
The Christmas of the ‘flitting’ was the first time in years that I actually felt like we were having Christmas. We arrived at the house, which felt even more spacious than usual because Bad Santa wasn’t there. I don’t know how to describe the feeling which is just what most people consider normal – safety in the home. When your home is the place you feel least safe, when you’d do anything rather than be there, it’s very strange to suddenly be able to breathe again. To expand into a space. And I loved that country house. Because it has outdoor space, even when he had been there, I had places to escape, so I always felt safer there. And it was just us. Just the real family. If only my dad had been there it would have been perfect. I still craved my dad, though now of course he was just a fantasy dad, after seven years of not having seen him. I would have given up all my Christmas gifts in order to just go back to the life we had before I opened that Advent calendar door before my turn.
But this was the next best thing. I suppose we were all punch-drunk to an extent. We believed that the random violence was a thing of the past. That we were no longer victims but survivors. That we could rebuild. That this year there really might be peace on earth, at least for us.
And so it was, for a time. We went out on the Saturday, Christmas Eve and sourced a tree locally. We decorated the tree. We’d taken the decorations with us! This is the first and last time I really remember engaging with the whole preparation for Christmas with pleasure. Taking an active part that is. In the early years you are a recipient not a player. It’s all some magic which comes your way but you don’t have to do anything to make it happen. Except, of course, be good. But that Christmas, which felt like the first real Christmas, I remember being happy to listen to Christmas carols of little drummer boys and decking the halls and tinsel seemed brighter and paper chains were worth making and time spent placing the baubles and putting greenery round the mantelpieces was all part of some great new hope that Christmas could be all that we dreamed it should be. The sort of Christmas everyone wants was to be ours.
I remember just a moment of pause when my mum got ready to place the wreath on the outside door. I knew that that door was the one real barrier to our safety. One day, I knew that HE would come knocking. Even a Christmas wreath couldn’t ward off that evil spirit. I was happier indoors. For once, indoors was safe.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day passed without a glitch. I think my mum even laid off the worst of the ritual obsessions. At least I don’t remember the hoovering, and since there were just the four of us; me, mum, big brother and wee sister; there was no one to put on a show for. There was still a mountain of turkey and trimmings but Christmas dinner was a lot less stressful than usual. Things just seemed to flow. We seemed to have more time to just ‘be.’ You’ve no idea how wonderful it can be just to not be afraid. I’ve never understood why people willingly put themselves in scary situations – on roller coasters, or even reading frightening stories.
How people can experience a frisson of fear eludes me. Real fear is naked in its look and dominant in its power and it’s not something I ever want to feel again. It’s something I avoid at all costs. And it’s something I know could always come back. I’m tempted to think that fear in childhood is unique, because of the lack of power and control one has as a child. But I look at the elderly and think they are similarly disempowered and it does make me fear for a future where I once more may be cast into that environment. What I know for sure is that once you’ve lived real fear, the sanitised version is something to be avoided at all costs. So I’ll never understand why people do it. My past has certainly made me risk averse, which may not be all a bad thing. But it isn’t all a good thing either.
I don’t have the words to describe the pure pleasure we experienced over those two days. It is a sort of blur. I wonder if it’s how normal people experience Christmas each year. I’d like to think so. That way I can understand why people keep coming back for it year after year. But when you see the ‘build up’ to Christmas on the television and in the shops and when you talk to people (or listen to them talk) about Christmas, they all seem to moan about it. On the occasions that I confess I don’t ‘do’ Christmas, the response is as often as not ‘I wish I didn’t.’ There’s a feeling that we just have to do this ritual every year, like it or not. But I say, if you don’t like it, don’t do it. If spending time with your family is painful, stressful, don’t submit to it. If you don’t have the time, the money or the love to spend - just don’t do it. But I know this counsel will fall on stony ground, especially at this time of year.
Of course come Boxing Day things stopped being perfect. He did come knocking at the door. But this time we were inside like the three little pigs and he didn’t get in. There was some shouting and screaming but we stayed safe. No door was broken down. He must have known the game was up and that a new one was on the way. Strategies had to be changed. And he was probably quite pleased to see the back of us if truth be told. The days of Hogmanay parties in the flat were over – for us at least.
We did have one bit of unscheduled excitement that year before the Christmas tree came down. We had a visit from the fire-brigade. We had an open fire and I don’t think my mum believed in chimney sweeps. It had become so blocked over the years no self-respecting Santa would have tried to come down it even if he did exist. And some time after Christmas Day the chimney went on fire. It was the first time I’d made an emergency phone call that wasn’t to the police, so that was a novelty. They rushed out and then there was a problem. The wrought iron gates had to be removed from the drive because the fire engine couldn’t get through. Once this was achieved, the sitting room was filled with burly firemen who managed to put out the chimney fire with minimal damage inside – and I suspect introduced my mum to the concept of regular chimney sweeping! I’d like to say that the black-faced firemen were our first footers, but I’d be stretching things to say that the great chimney fire happened on Ne’er Day. Still, with memory these things all sort of meld together, the good with the bad, the funny with the sad. They all exist together somewhere or nowhere in my particular synapses – behind the doors which I’m opening for you on a daily basis. Reading them back, I think I should be trying to get more humour injected, or more detail or more something… but I’ve taken a realist stance. I’m trying, as best I can, to draw the pictures as I see them in my mind and put that straight down on paper. It’s not great writing, I know but I’m going for substance over style. Though where is the substance in memory?
An advent calendar of memories that are not for the faint-hearted.