Xmas is my favourite holiday of the year. I love the thrill of anticipation and the comfort of traditions. The magic of Christmas Day, the sleepy, laissez-faire of Boxing Day, the bawdy vaudeville of New Year. The reflective days in between and the excitement of the fresh year ahead. Twelfth night with its closing of the holiday, the boxing of the decorations, the nod to the memories created this holiday season.
Of all my early Xmas memories, the one that shines brightest revolves around the family tradition of the Christmas Pudding. It begins early October when mother would make two puddings and leave them to mature at the back of the pantry. It always ends in always hungry belly on Christmas Day. One pudding was the customary gift for my parents’ closest friends and presented on Xmas Eve, while the other was the centrepiece of the family Christmas Dinner.
After father had carved the turkey and the good china plates—used once a year—were filled, emptied, filled and emptied again of meat, bread sauce, and roast vegetables, the pudding, placed in a steaming bowl to reheat while we stuffed ourselves to capacity, was anointed with flaming brandy. The highlight of the meal. The dark, gooey pud would drift through the semi-umbral room, an ethereal blue light flaring across its top and sides as I watched in wonder, mother’s ceremonial march from kitchen to dining table.
Before the lighting of the brandy ladle and the closing of the curtains and turning off of lights, father would slip a sixpence into the pudding’s soft and yielding mass for one of us to find. Mother would cut me a slice of my favourite dessert and say with a knowing wink, “Now watch your teeth…”
Time and geography, and my father’s passing, have altered my Xmas traditions, but there remains one constant. The anticipation of Christmas Eve.
As a jaded adult, part of the thrill of Christmas Eve is knowing the working year is almost done, that I can put my feet up for a couple of days without the need to pick up my phone and check my email. Bliss!
As a young child whose only jobs were to keep his room tidy, at which I wasn’t very good; clean the lawn after the dog, which I was only marginally better at than cleaning my room; and set the table, which required much huffing and puffing and pulling of faces; the best part of Christmas Eve was hanging the decorations.
My dad’s rule was that our Xmas decorations didn’t go up until December 24th. Which, for a seven-year-old, was desperately unfair. My friend’s parents had already hung their decorations and put up their trees, so why couldn’t we? When father came home early and disappeared into the loft to return with the sacred and battered cardboard boxes marked “Xmas”, I knew the festive holiday had finally arrived at our house.
Cards and Decorations
Starting in the hallway, thick fuzzy tinsel hung over door frames, sprigs of holly with their red berries, cut from the holly tree in the front garden, jutted awkwardly from the walls. A small bunch of mistletoe, placed with care in the doorway at the end of the hall, advertised the price of entry to the sitting room.
In the sitting room, Xmas cards sat on rows of twine that hugged the wall behind the sofa like sheets hung out to dry. If the cards were added to the line with too much force, the string would fall, my father would swear, my mother would appear like a trapdoor spider from the kitchen with wooden spoon in hand.
Adorning the fronts of the cards were scenes of Victorian children ice skating on a frozen pond or cartoons of snowmen peering in through frosty windows at the festive goings-on inside. The insides of the cards had signatures from familiar names or distant relatives who came from exotic places like Tunbridge Wells or Southend-on-Sea.
These far-away relatives, in location and branches on the family tree, would send their annual roundup of the family goings-on within their cards: The eldest has left school, the youngest broke his arm this year, the husband has developed a cough, I’m feeling my age. It was always the mother, the matron of the family who wrote these mini histories. And each letter ended the same: How are you? How’s Tony’s job? How’s Paul doing at school? What’s your brother up to these days?
Then there was the tree. Positioned in the corner, on a pedestal so the dog couldn’t knock it over or the cats reach it with outstretched, clutching paws.
The task of decorating the tree fell to my father and me, just as it was our responsibility to buy the fresh cut tree from the market several weeks before. Dad didn’t believe in an artificial one, although I’m sure mum would have appreciated the convenience of not having to vacuum pine needles every day.
It was my job to drape the branches with the thin, gold and silver tinsel and then help place the strings of lights that wound their way from bottom to top in brilliant colours of yellows and reds and greens. Any huffing and puffing was because my body was stretched to full extension to reach the top branch, and the face I pulled was no longer a grimace but a broad smile. Dad’s job was to take the baubles, some as old as my parents’ first married Xmas together, others more recent, and push them on to the tips of branches from where they would entice the cats with their gentle swaying.
The intent behind the placement of the glass and plastic globes was they should look random. But it rarely ended up that way. There was usually a cluster or a gap where, in a perfect world, there shouldn’t be. But no matter! There were still the foil wrapped chocolate Santas and snowmen to hang among the green foliage and break any unintended patterns.
There is now one decoration left in the box, the last one to adorn the tree.
It was such a thrill when I was tall enough, with the aid of the kitchen stool, to place, with much reverence, the angel at the very top. To mark the ceremony, mum would step out of the kitchen for a few minutes, her apron covered in flour, eyes looking tired, but there would be a smile on her face and a Tupperware bowl of delicious, sweet mince pies in her hand. Yum!
I no longer had to wait for an empty kitchen to steal a handful of the sticky filling or beg for the dirty mixing bowl to clean and polish. Yet there was still a limit to how many I could eat. “We need to save them for tomorrow,” my mother would say.
The Longest Night
But before we reach tomorrow, the 25th, the magical day of pies and presents and brandy butter, we have to make it through the longest night of the year.
Technically, the longest night of the year is the Winter Equinox on December 21st. Realistically, the longest night of the year for a seven-year-old is the endless stretch of darkness that begins at bedtime on Xmas Eve and ends with the dawn chorus on Xmas Day.
My final act before climbing the stairs and brushing my teeth was to carry, with care, the fancy sherry glass full of sherry and a small plate of warm mince pies and melting brandy butter to the dining table for Santa.
As I left the sitting room with the bright lights and loving warmth, I cast an eye toward the space beneath the tree. Currently occupied by the sleeping dog. I loved the family dog with all my heart, but on this night there was something far more important that should be in that space. Presents! But they will come, mysteriously, in the middle of the night when I am asleep. And not listening out for the creak of stair treads, or muffled whispers as brightly coloured packages are placed in preparation for the fun of handing out, with care, and the unwrapping with great gusto.
As an only child, the presents under the tree were all for me. No annoying siblings to share with! Which is a truthful, if rather selfish reason I loved Xmas as a kid.
Anticipation Turns to Excitement
The long night would pass, rather than in one carefree sleep but via short naps and countless trips to the bedroom door. Was my Xmas pillowcase, my parents’ modern take on the Xmas stocking, waiting for me?
Sigh, not yet.
My sneaky peaks at the door were no longer in vain – I must have been asleep when it was delivered—for there was my reward for my vigilance. My special pillowcase.
At last! The anticipation was over, like a river in a flood cresting its banks. Xmas was here! A bag of chocolate coins, an orange, and quiet games I could play by myself were my prized stocking stuffers. The first of the day’s many gifts. I would glance at my bedside clock until the glowing numbers read 8:00, the prescribed hour, and not before, at which I could burst into my parents’ room to show them what Santa had brought me.
Now all I had to do was entertain myself for the next 4 hours. Which was easy to do on this most magical and traditional of days.