I was going to post this piece on Christmas Day, but I thought that would be rather too spoilsport, even for me. The simple truth within it is that lots of people, occasions and things generally aspire to be something, and often fall short. But more often than not, the actuality is tragi-comic, rather than merely sad. This is particularly true of Christmas Day.
Any solicitor will tell you (and the data support them) that there is a blip each January (usually during New Year week) in filings for divorce. It’s not the kind of finding that needs a dozen focus groups to work out why. Between the 24th and 31st December each year, the following abnormal behaviours occur:
- Relatives about whom you have equivocal feelings crowd into your house – or a rented joint some place. Sometimes they stick to you like Bostik right through the holidays.
- If small children are involved, they sleep hardly at all the first night, then become more hyperactive than Jennifer Lawrence on speed, then get crotchety because they’re tired, then throw up after too many Smarties.
- ‘Professional’ Dads unused to being at home (they avoid daily family life by hiding in the office for twelve hours or more) discover that the standard of debate and frequency of crises is not always that stimulating.
- Aged relatives have their noses out of joint if their present is observed with a puzzled infant look and then ignored. The situation isn’t improved when young children as yet unsocialised by dishonesty ask Grandma why she smells so bad.
- Something goes wrong with the preparation at least one meal.
- The blokes think the fun of Christmas is going to the pub at 11.30 – which doesn’t matter right, because “we’re not eating until this evening”.
- An enormous avian specimen appears on the table, with all the trimmings. After a few minutes everyone remembers that they vastly prefer the trimmings to the Big Bird and limp sprouts. After three days, both guests and hosts have run out of remakes involving The Big Bird Meets Curry, The Big Bird meets Sandwiches, and The Big Bird meets Cold Collation with Potato Salad.
- Those present aged 18-50 get rat-arsed at least twice, and go on to say things they’ve only previously said in their worst ever nightmare of social faux pas.
The Roman idiot who opined in vino veritas, I have always thought, must have been drunk at the time. Up to a point, alcohol relaxes everyone and makes it much easier for the Leavers not to rise to the bait being handed out by the Remaindeer in the room. But after a certain point, Truth is the last thing that emerges from the drunk’s mouth: it is merely a long-withheld opinion that should have stayed exactly where it was, unspoken.
When my brother and I were kids, Mum and Dad were pretty smart about the dangers involved in Christmas. They split it up into limited-time segments. Presents were opened from 6 am onwards. The morning service at St Margaret’s Church came next. The four of us (and only us) had a Turkey lunch, at which Dad served up French entre-deux-mers white wine – to let Mum get a bit tiddly after a frustrating morning, during which there had been at least two power cuts forcing her to put the bird in the back-to-back oven powered by the coal fire. After lunch, we all sat down and listened to what the Queen had to say.
Around 4 pm, we piled into the Hillman Minx and drove down to my Great Aunt Lizzie’s house in Cheetham Hill to see Mum’s side of the family. Mum had three sisters: Myra was in the process of becoming a lush, but had an astonishing ability to invent stories, while her chain-smoking husband Harry was in the oil business and told even funnier stories, all of which were true. Phyllis owned and ran a pub in Kidderminster called The Black Horse. She was married to Jimmy – a lovely bloke but a hopeless alcoholic who fell over a lot. And the cast was completed by eldest sister Edna, married to Clifford, neither of whom drank apart from Edna, who liked a sherry or seven at Christmas.
Myra would quickly start wishing everyone Merry Kiss-me-arse, a tendency that earned her a wrinkle-lipped look from Lizzie, Jimmy would slur into eventual silence, and Edna would – her tongue loosened by a few Bristol Cream slugs – start retailing stories about my maternal grandmother. The lady in question, Melinda Mountain, was a pianist and libertine Suffragette whose unlikely and untimely death had brought disgrace upon the family….but for me, the snippets of her life learned each Christmas afternoon evoked an endless fascination.
Long before personalities clashed with alcohol, my parents would plead their desire to get us to bed after a long day, and head back to Prestwich.
On Boxing Day, Dad’s family – his sister Molly, Grandma and Granddad – would be picked up by Dad and brought to us for a cold collation high tea of Turkey, Tomatoes, lettuce and Heinz salad cream. The three guests were offered a small whisky each to start, and a cup of tea afterwards. The conversation rarely got beyond stilted.
Fine, so the 1950s were a long time ago. But although the event back then sounds like it never really got going, that isn’t my memory of those years. I can only remember Beano, Dandy and Eagle Annuals, staying up with the adults, unreliable Christmas tree lights, and candlewick bedspreads littered with presents that would seem meagre today….but back then held inestimable secrets involving ball games like Jokari, footie kits, Davy Crockett hats and chemistry sets.
It wasn’t overdone, it was short – if Christmas Day was a Monday, Dad would be back at work on Wednesday – and Keeping Up With the Joneses had yet to be invented. The order of “looking forward to” in the year remained 1. Christmas 2. The Cup Final 3. Bonfire Night and 4. Easter Eggs.
There was no need to hype any of it. It was more than enough, and it rarely disappointed. “Less is more” says the contemporary cliché. But being a cliché does not stop it being more or less correct.