The decades of dreadful anxiety over Christmas probably have their roots in the sudden childhood disruption of everything joyous that large family gatherings brought me as a child.
We spent most Christmases with my adored maternal grandfather and alternated the big meal between his home and the homes of my 2 aunties in Banstead and Kingswood in Surrey.
My mother and her 2 excitably shrieking sisters would be crammed and hopelessly distracted in a tiny kitchen (they were tall women with comfortable bosoms and capable of ceaseless cascades of chatter) while my father and long suffering uncles waited and waited hopefully for the dinner to emerge. One of them might eventually put a head around the door to check on progress but tradition (ie, late lunch extending well past 1pm) maintained and these 3 wonderful gentlemen, so very different in their natures yet clasping such a strong sisterhood between them would settle themselves to a long session of sitting.
For myself with 5 cousins orbiting around at speed, it was glorious mayhem. Knights on horseback, guinea pigs, the paddock and trees to climb. Ping pong, the rocking horse with a real horse hair tail, ‘pick a sticks ‘ . . .it just rolled and rolled.
I used to be very little. One year the snow was so deep, only the older cousins of above a certain height were allowed out to build the snowman. I think that was the only time I remember the slightest hint of disappointment.
The Christmas of 1969, following my mother’s death we bathed in the comfort of the family, surrounded by their love, and the cherishing of my ancient, beloved ‘Papa’ . Chopin’s raindrop prelude on his precious Blüthner was my way to comfort him, and he conspired to lose his queen on the chessboard.
Although his bungalow was so close to my aunties, it was Mummy who trimmed his eyebrows and the surprising tufting sprouts of ear hair. He probably would not have let me near him with those little curved scissors, but I would have done anything for him.
He passed away the following summer on his way to church one Sunday morning, and with the re-marriage of my father, this chapter of girlhood Christmases closed over.
There must have been shreds of it locked away only to rip their way through to the surface disguised as cynical indifference in every build up to Christmas: that or any number of evasive strategies….. inevitably bound to dismay my own children and as they have grown, provoke a kind of weary ” not this again Mum?”
It goes so deep that it has seemed to catch me unawares every time. Avoidance, solitude and much space with gnashing of uncharitable teeth replaced my ability to take the lead in providing the conditions for normal Christmas festivities.
I am so grateful that they have insisted on enjoying Christmas despite my confusing behavior.. . and that over the years, the pressure of expectation has begun to drop away.
Yesterday was one of the loveliest and easiest Christmas days ever at Edward’s home, (my ex-husband) . Instead of the usual knee-jerk reflex to rush off, it was hard to leave all that lovely family warmth. . . I found myself lingering and hovering for much longer than I expected. . . and the ride home from Paignton to Totnes under the sickle moon was beautiful. The evening proceeded to playing quietly through the slow movements of the first 15 of Beethoven’s sonatas, of course.
I must just add that the other night when I got back to my house, Ollie had found and was playing a CD of me playing ‘Marigold’ and other family piano favourites which my other Grandfather used to play to me . . . the healing solace of music and the generous innocence and love of the next generation coming full circle.
I hope I can tuck all that deliciousness away on a prominent memory-shelf so that it can leap off first in the queue of good humoured nostalgia and preserve the balance for when the year swings around again.
Here are some photos of generations ago.
My parents on their wedding day. My maternal grandfather my mother and Father and me one summer . My paternal grandfather in Baghdad during the war. My poorly mother in 1969. Me and my little brother. And me being little!