The fact that it’s almost Christmas doesn’t mean I am any less busy, so, having no time to write, here’s a festive photo:
And an old, but seasonal, poem, slightly tinkered with. Well, it was a poem with line breaks, but the page format splits the long lines so awkardly I’ve given up and pretended it’s just prose:
For you, it begins in late November with vague mental lists: you make a silent inventory of friends and relations, and search through your diary, parrying excuses for each suggested date and venue; we bicker about responsibilities and obligations, comparing notes on who has given birth, divorced, split up, renewed their vows…, you carry out a brisk and crude post-mortem on last year’s celebrations.
I, on the other hand, am well aware that planning is important and have been mindful since the summer sales of nieces and nephews, great aunts and ageing uncles. I have squirrelled away a dozen or more little packages in nondescript bundles and boring plastic carriers; they are tucked at the top of my wardrobe or stuffed under woollens and jumpers, hidden, made invisible by dullness.
Now we sit with pen and paper and enumerate who is to receive the gifts and cards, the invitations to the dinners and the parties.
– Both sets of in-laws – yours and mine? with all the hangers-on and entourage?
– The Family – entire and whole and perfect – under one roof and let’s be done with it!
Next comes the shopping; every evening yet another trip around the supermarket shelves; each time I find another necessary purchase: Aunt Cissy’s favourite nibbles, Uncle George’s port, my Nan’s sugared almonds – Heaven knows how she can eat them with those dentures, but she will insist. Remember last year when your sister’s daughter’s partner turned out to be a vegan? Is tofu cheese or vegetable? And how’s it cooked?
It’s not just food, of course, there’s all the trappings; the tree with all the trimmings: tinsel and spangles, candles, gaudy baubles and balloons, the holly and the jolly smiling snowman who stands inside the porch to welcome guests.
In the midst of star clusters and streamers, you say that there’s no room for the nativity this year; I turn to argue and see you’re laughing at me as you repeat: No room… And so we find a corner for the mystery, a stillness for the centre of the storm.
Then, on Christmas Eve, the family arrive, all bundled up and hunched
against the cold; numb fingers fumble the doorbell. They stack the gaily labelled parcels, gift-wrapped and garlanded, underneath the tree, and Gina, who’s now old enough, though not quite a grown up, says: Remember: no touching, no prodding, no peeking, no, not even at the tags, then helps to hang hand-knitted stockings from the mantelpiece.
Later, she takes each used mistleberry and saves them to press into the fork of the old apple tree, so next year we’ll have our own supply – but when you pick it, it mustn’t touch the ground, you know – then carefully she washes off the juice before she hands the mince pies round – each one’s a happy month next year.
Santa doesn’t let us down: he calls and stuffs the stockings full of trinkets and tangerines, games and gifts and puzzles, just enough to keep the children entertained till present-opening after lunch. In the kitchen, Gina helps prepare the sprouts, marking each stalk with a solemn cross. She tells me of their classroom crib where Joseph held the baby in his arms. I let her share my sherry –just a drop – we drink each other’s health, then carry laden dishes to the table.
After lunch, I’m flushed and dozy from the wine so you wash up while Simon wipes;I know that you won’t put the things away, but that can wait. The children are impatient for their presents; they’ve behaved themselves and now it’s time to pass the parcels round, to rip the wrappings off and share the gifts. My Nan reminds the kids to keep the tags so that they know who’s to be thanked for what. Two hours later and it looks as if we’re drowning in a sea of bubble wrap and ribbons. There’s a smell of roses where Mum’s bath salts spilled and I am wondering how your sister could have bought a drum for Simon’s youngest. Vengeance is yours! I hear you whisper, as she reaches past you for the sweets.
Boxing Day finds me ensconced beside the window with stem ginger and a jigsaw. It’s my day off, but Mother Carey’s busy shaking up her feather bed. I call the kids who leave new toys to gaze wonder-struck, on the white-iced garden.