I’ve already laid it out very clearly why Christmas was no longer high on my wish list. But life goes on. Years go on. Christmas is one of the ‘markers’ of the year. My mum still looked forward to it, even though we all knew that it was going to be one of the stress points of the year. Perhaps she thought if she just did it right it would all be okay. Or perhaps she just loved the fact that on Christmas Day she was completely in control.
Our family Christmases, even without my dad, had much of the same pattern and observed largely the same ritual, and this was it. You didn’t get up before 7am. Once stockings were abolished it became 8am, but we weren’t keen to get up by that time anyway. You got up and you had to eat breakfast which you didn’t want – knowing that the rest of the day would be spend stuffing your face – but which HAD to be eaten before the next part of the ritual could be attempted.
As I remember it breakfast was toast made on the grill. No toaster. Why didn’t we have a toaster? The grill didn’t work well. Things either didn’t cook or they burnt. And burnt toast could be enough to spark off ‘a domestic.’ More than once I’ve ducked as a full grill pan, with toast fleeing, came hurling across the kitchen at the wall. And to be totally fair, it wasn’t just my step-dad who did that. My mum took her part in the throwing, shouting, hitting and general bad behaviour that went on. The only difference was that when he threw things or broke things it was never his things. Even when the ‘red mist’ descended he was well able to make sure his own possessions stayed intact. Whereas when my mum lost it, she picked up the nearest thing – usually a pan – and just threw it. And her aim, fortunately, wasn’t good. But we learned how to duck.
After breakfast we had to wash up. Our new family rule was that the children washed up. Which usually meant that my brother washed and I dried and put away. I needed a stool to reach up to the washing up bowl. So I got to dry. I remember trying to dry pans that were too heavy for me even to lift, dangling them down close to the ground and hoping that this wasn’t ever going to be thrown in my direction! I remember how carefully I had to undertake the washing up ritual, three times a day at least. Glasses were a particular fear. It’s so easy, even with small hands, to burst a glass. And in our family, all breakages would have to be paid for.
But not usually with money.
After washing up my mum hoovered. And we ‘tidied up.’ Everything had to be neat and tidy, at least to start with. My mum used the hoover as a weapon and at Christmas it came into its own. Because at Christmas there were the dreaded pine needles. I don’t believe anyone ever owned Christmas trees that shedded as much as the ones we had. Hoovering had to go on about four times a day during the 12 days the tree lived with us. And don’t let’s go into the palaver of taking it out on Twelfth Night! In the flat we had high ceilings so we had a huge tree. I’m thinking probably nine feet. And that’s a lot of needles to hoover up. And sometimes hoovers don’t like sucking up needles. It’s not really what they were designed for. And a broken hoover was a major disaster in our family. What with it being my mum’s main weapon.
The rest of the year you could tell her mood through the hoover. If she started before you got up you knew you were in for trouble. If you didn’t get up, she’d come into the bedroom and if you were still in bed by the time she started hoovering under it, you might as well give up all hope. At other random times of the day, the hoover was used to equal effect to get you moving. If you were sitting on a sofa or chair and she wanted you to be doing something ‘useful’ but didn’t feel she should tell you – you were supposed to know what needed doing without being told – she’d come and hoover round you.
But the Christmas Day hoovering holds a special place in my memory. It was part of the deferring of gratification. No presents could be opened till the last needle had been hoovered up. Early on in the game I realised the complete pointlessness of this activity. After all, the hoover cord was barely rolled up before the first present being taken from under the tree dislodged yet another pine needle. And so it went on. And then, by the nature of Christmas presents, there is wrapping paper and mess attendant. So that as soon as the presents had been opened and gratitude expressed (whether or not you wanted what you got you learned to act grateful!) everything had to be tidied away again and another round of hoovering undertaken.
My mum liked to play the martyr and Christmas was the perfect opportunity. We didn’t get up till 8 am or later but she was up much earlier par boiling potatoes and putting Tallullah or Tamara, or Tracy, into the oven. Opening Christmas presents was just the interval for an orgy of cooking that went on until we were finally presented with Christmas lunch which was had at 2pm on the dot. And we ate until 3pm at which point everything stopped to hear the Queen. And then we washed up.
But this was industrial strength washing up. We were always told that we should give the adults a break for Christmas and wash up after Christmas dinner. No one seemed to notice that we washed up every other day of the year too. Christmas was special. Christmas was about us ‘doing something nice’ and that meant post festivity washing up. It probably took as long to wash up after Christmas dinner as it did to eat it.
And then we all had to go out for a walk. Then back for Morecombe and Wise and cold turkey sandwiches. It seemed like if there was enough structured activity all day then we could avoid a ‘domestic’ but equally, it just needed one little thing to go wrong – burned parsnips, the wrong look over the chocolate gateau, the breaking of a glass – to turn peace on earth into World War Two. But mostly, I think that Christmas Day itself passed with an uneasy truce. For the adults it was probably a relief in a way. But for me, who never knew exactly what or when something was going to kick off, it offered no day of rest, it was just another day walking the tightrope, holding the breath, hoping that if you were ‘a good girl’ Bad Santa wouldn’t come and punish you.
An advent calendar of memories that are not for the faint-hearted.