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