Amid all the commercialism, it can be easy to forget the ‘real’ message of Christmas. The first and most historical is that those there Romans once they’d put aside their heathen ways were unlikely to win over the dark nations without a few parties. The most significant of those are Easter and Christmas. I know people get upset about all the bunnies and eggs at Easter, but they’re as much a part of the festival as anything: rebirth, renewal, spring. New life. And Christmas? It’s no secret the Romans married it to Saturnalia, the festival to celebrate the passing of the world from long nights and remind us at the darkest of times that the light will return.
For me, Christmas is about that – the returning light. When you’ve had darkness from five o’clock until nine o’clock – all those sixteen hours of darkness can seem like they’re never going to disappear. Winter hits me hard when it first arrives. I’ve got a friend who gets depressed around the middle of June because he says it’s all downhill from there. In a way, he’s right. The days darken a little every single day after that, and by bringing all this light and shiny life inside, the berries of holly, mistletoe, the evergreen pines and ivy, the baubles and the lights – we remind ourselves of the natural order of things: just as light disappears, so it returns.
It’s also about a family. Whether it’s about the holy family or about your family, for some of us, it’s the only time we have with our nearest and dearest. This year is the first in many years that my sister and her husband haven’t worked on Christmas Day – and we all struggle to make sure everyone sees someone who’s family. It reminds us of the importance of the people who we love – whether they’re a happy accident of birth or whether they’re the people we’ve found through life that bring us a lot of light and love.
The second thing I do is ring family. The first is open my presents. That’s natural.
Whether it was those early mornings as a child when we’d all get up to get presents out, sitting around in our pyjamas and dressing gowns, or whether it’s a little later as a grown-up opening them on my own, presents are my family’s way of showing how much we care about each other. And it’s never been about cost. Sometimes, we’ve got a lot of money. Sometimes, we’ve got none. Either way, the best gifts are those that show how much our families or friends know us and care, no matter if they cost 79p or nothing, or whether they cost £200. It’s our way of saying ‘you mean the world to me’.
My sister’s was the first I opened yesterday and I was weeping as soon as I opened it – with joy, of course. Toffee Crisps. Not really my chocolate of choice, but a real family thing – as much as Blue Ribands used to be. My sister has ALWAYS got Toffee Crisps in her fridge and it’s just this thing we have between us – me snaffling her Toffee Crisps. I might live in the land of the chocolaterie these days, but a Toffee Crisp isn’t just a Toffee Crisp – an inelegant, bright-orange, sugary treat – it’s sisterhood. There was all sorts in that hamper, and every single one of them was thoughtful. From spices that cost the earth here to instant coffee (it’s all about quality in France and do you know what? I just can’t always be bothered to brew the cafetiere… and British instant coffee might be the source of ridicule – it’s on the shelf with chicory coffee and the French see it as some terrible throwback to the war, but our instant coffee beats much of their cheap ground coffee hands down!) and Viennese biscuits and hair dye, every single thing in that box was a treasure. Yes, hair dye. Over here, it costs a small fortune and I can’t fathom why. The home dye job is about the easiest way to do something about being glamorous.
My mum’s also got me laughing and smiling. How well she knows me! Wool was the first thing out – three huge, rich burgundy balls of wool and a cute cardigan pattern. That’ll keep me busy for a couple of weeks and help beat off the darkness! Some netting to keep the birds off my sweetcorn (of course, I’ll plant them their own corn!) – an Alys Fowler recommendation I’d seen in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago and thought ‘Yes!’ – and my mum just must have known, a thousand kilometers away that’s what I was thinking. A weeding pad with ‘Keep Calm and Get Weeding’ on it – oh how I love it! All kinds of knitting accoutrements – and nothing I already had. How can someone know that you are missing 6.5 mm needles and stitch holders??!
My Nana doesn’t need to give me a gift at all – because she IS my gift. I phoned her and she reminds me of all things I had forgotten – how me and Abi went down to the beach on Christmas morning in Mexico and watched the sun come up over the sea, then she says we went to her room, all three of us, and sang a carol at the door. I don’t remember doing it, but it sounds like something we’d do! I do remember ringing her room and telling her she’d need to pack her suitcase and go down to reception. We were trying to prank her but I was laughing so much that as soon as she answered, all she heard was me going ‘hee-hee-hee, hee-hee-hee’ and Abi and Al laughing at me laughing. Imagine getting a phone call of someone laughing insanely and saying nothing! But my Nana had sent me some money to spend in Moulin de Tin Tin – my current favourite shop.
Yesterday, the day was bright and cold – I’d set off to my dad’s about elevenish. I make no bones about it – my dad’s roasts are a masterpiece. Cooking is my family’s way of being a family – whether it’s a slice of Mary cake or whether it’s a Sunday roast. Al was cooking for his girlfriend, her daughter, my mum and step-dad. Abi was cooking for her husband and my Nana. My dad was cooking for me and my step-mum, as well as assorted guests. We have it down pat and I would challenge you to find any family that are so kitchen-gifted. There’s never a let-down. I’ve eaten Christmas dinners at other people’s houses and they are never the same. Never. Our family’s gravy is thick and sumptuous. Our roast potatoes are crisp and fluffy and crunchy. Nobody (except my sister…) does carrots like my Nana. If I had a last meal choice, my family’s Sunday roast would be it. Dad had done scallops and bacon on a bed of rocket and salad leaves, then the standard turkey with pigs in blankets, stuffing, roast, boiled and gratin potatoes, roasted leeks, sprouts, gravy. Brenda had done her Christmas ice-cream bombe and an apple topless tart. Then cheese. All this after a mountain of aperitifs, champagne, wine, crackers, dips, nuts, cheeses, charcuterie, dried sausages, gherkins, sausage rolls, sloe gin truffles, chocolates. I’m not eating again for weeks.
My own efforts seem a little humble. I’ve made most of my presents this year, and whilst there are some I can’t put up yet because they’ve not yet reached their recipients, I’d done a set of paintings for Brenda and my dad. I thought it would be nice to do their wedding love song words on a kind of painty-collagey thing with a photo I took of their wedding rings, all in a kind of a heart shape. I’ve also been busy with the jigsaw and the dremel and I’ve done some other stuff, but I’m not putting that up yet!
My best gifts, as always are the things that no-one could put in a package – not easily anyway! My mum, dad and respective step-parents, my sister and brother-in-law, my brother, my Nana. Family are a blessing when you get a good one! I know not everyone is so lucky. My dogs and my cat – who always bring light into my life, no matter what the weather and really are the best friends you can have. And then my friends, those people who make my day a whole lot brighter even if all I do is bring them to mind. The night was star-bright last night – and you can’t put a price on that beauty. This morning, I watched the sun rise from the warmth of my little house and with all these things, I am one blessed creature!