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