I suppose it might have been part of the never be alone ploy that meant we had a big Hogmanay Party each year. Because while Christmas Day, fraught though it was, generally passed off without a major incident – perhaps indeed because it was well structured and the flashpoints were managed, being obvious in advance – the whole Christmas period extends well beyond ‘the Day.’
And when Christmas fell in the middle of the week it meant my step-dad could be at home for the best part of ten days. And that was bound to cause trouble. So my mum extended the rituals to keep something happening and to keep people around. On Boxing Day we developed a tradition of going on a picnic. I know. A picnic in mid-winter. Crazy. Though actually I don’t remember the weather being worse than any other time we planned and executed a family picnic in my childhood.
Living in Scotland we got very used to having picnics in the car. We might have been used to it, but it never went smoothly. Someone would always spill something or drop something and spending time with your family in a confined space is the one thing worse than spending Christmas Day in each other’s pockets – in my opinion. But the Boxing Day picnic was something of a triumph. Because we found a place that not a lot of other people knew about, that no one else would be daft enough to visit on Boxing Day and that was largely under cover, therefore avoiding the worst of the elements.
It was along the East Lothian coast just past Tantallon Castle, a place called Cove. It involved a bit of walking, in ‘bracing’ weather, and you had to remember to wrap up warm and take rugs, but mostly, it was a structured activity that took up a lot of time: preparing to get there, getting there, being there and coming back. Of course we ate turkey sandwiches. We were eating turkey sandwiches until Epiphany in our house due to the ridiculous size of turkey that was always bought. So Boxing Day usually passed without incident, though there’s nothing to say that it wouldn’t all kick off once we got home.
But I don’t want you to think that it was awful all the time. It wasn’t. It’s just that I never knew when it would next kick off. The randomness is what caused the permanent knot in my stomach, the constant fear. It was an early lesson in absurdism! And Advent came to represent the waiting for that year’s flash point which was inevitable to come at some point. However, there were, as I said, some good structured ‘events’ that mitigated for the rest of the time spent figuratively holding my breath.
We made it a ritual to go to the Victorian Pantomime at The King’s Theatre on Hogmanay evening. I don’t really like Pantomime, but we had a box and that made it kind of special. Being set a bit apart from all the ‘oh no you didn’t oh yes he did’ crowd made it a bit more palatable and the Victorian style was somewhat less irritating than the ‘modern’ equivalent which just blared pop-music and ‘celebrities’. At least there was some semblance of a ‘classic’ tale like Aladdin or Cinderella. Modern ones tended to be Puss in Boots or Babes in the Wood and always had some form of sexual innuendo going along with them. The Victorian ones were a deal more classy! Anyway, I remember enjoying them. In fact almost as much as I came to hate Christmas, I came to love Hogmanay.
First, I suppose was the feeling that we’d nearly survived the whole festive period – scathed or unscathed- if we got through without the intervention of the police or a visit to the hospital it was considered a triumph. And secondly Hogmanay was a big day on our calendar. Bigger than anything in Advent. My mum loved to host a party. I can’t for the life of me think why. It’s always seemed like a lot of work to me. But she was happy to put in lots of work to achieve the perfect party. I think she liked to impress. Outward appearances and all that. No one would have been impressed by the reality of our lives, that’s for sure.
So on Hogmanay we used to have a huge party at home – lots of visitors meant less chance of violent outbursts. As I remember Hogmanay, we spent the day getting ready for the party, then went to the Pantomime and then came home to host a party that went on till the wee small hours. And that kind of party is the best for kids. Loads of adults not paying attention to you for a prolonged time.
We only came together for the bells, and the rest of the time as I recall we used to play around in the hall, games featuring a sort of balloon badminton or volleyball, while the adults mingled between the lounge and the kitchen. Adults en masse tended to be in a good mood on Hogmanay – perhaps they too were glad the whole festive season was winding to an end and a ‘new start’ would come along soon. And when adults are enjoying themselves, they’ve no time to get onto the kids.
I don’t remember many other kids coming to the party, but there must have been a few, mostly I just remember being ignored by adults and knowing that we were all safe because we were in a house crammed full of grown-ups having a good time. And – because they were all up late, there would be no early morning hangover, no hoovering as a weapon till at least 10am and the happy glow of having had a good time might linger through until January 3rd by which time it would be back to work and nearly back to school and life would go back on as normal. Whatever normal was. For me, normal was waiting for the next horrific thing to happen and hoping it wasn’t anything I did that caused it. But January always offered something of hope. There was a future to look forward to. I could count down the years until I would be an adult myself, and escape from all this.
An advent calendar of memories that are not for the faint-hearted.