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!
An advent calendar of memories that are not for the faint-hearted.