Monday, 7 December 2009

Tales of Christmases past

What a funny old thing nostalgia is. That and Christmas. Especially in combination.

I can't say that I look back on family Christmases with any great sense of joy: okay, I might remember sitting on my parents' bed opening presents in the morning when very young, but then we all had to get ready to go off to church, so there was no time to relax or play.

Once that was out of the way, my father would, like as not, go off to take another service elsewhere. We'd go home and my mother would start cooking the festive feast: roast turkey with sausages and stuffing balls, served with roast potatoes, sprouts, carrots and gravy. To be followed by Christmas pudding and custard – the former made weeks earlier to a recipe that had been handed down. On Christmas Eve, I've have been dragooned into helping prep the sprouts. I might be called to stir the gravy shortly before dinner was served.

Not that dinner was ever served early. My father would finish his second service and then potter off to someone's house for drinks or to the pub. We would wait. There might be telly; there would be our presents to play with and my mother would be busy. And there would be waiting.

And later, after any row at his lack of interest in his own family, and after dinner, we'd sit around and watch the box in the corner. Morecambe & Wise are amongst fonder memories. And later still, the BBC2 classic movies – although I still only remember seeing the 1946 version of The Big Sleep. We'd have the bumper issue of the Radio Times, of course, and I go through it with a pen and paper to note down all the films that I wanted to see on those days off school.

The best bits were the carol services – particularly the ones at my secondary school just outside Manchester – and the superintendent minister's annual Christmas party for all the clergy under his charge.

Sitting here now, I'm aware that all of that is from one era – and it's an era that began when I was around nine. I'm trying to think – really think – back to before that time. I'm trying to remember the houses we lived in – to picture a physical entity so that I can place Christmas within it. And it's not working.

I remember being taken to The Scala theatre beneath the Post Office in London to see Peter Pan with Wendy Craig and the wonderful Alastair Sim when I was seven or eight. At around the same time, I was in a school nativity play as an angel, and got laughed at by the audience for a squeaky delivery. And shopping on Oxford Street with my mother and her parents one year, and going into one of the vast department stores and seeing the displays of toys and wanting an Action Man, but being told that such toys were not for girls.

Those are my memories of Christmases before we moved to Mossley.

There are vague, misty hints of visiting my maternal grandparents, but nothing really clear. There are faded decorations that seem to have been around all my life, but that could be memory or simply the knowledge of such longevity.

Now I come to think of it, how on Earth can I have so few Christmas memories from almost the whole first decade of my life? Okay, I know we've never done big family stuff (we weren't a big family to start with), but that's just crazy.

I have memories of later. I remember Lancaster and our family cairn terrier Happy getting excited the moment my mother arrived home with the turkey, wrapped it in layers of newspaper and popped it, in the roasting tin, in the front porch where it stayed until the big day. Happy had to go and sniff at it every day to make sure it was still there.

Her first Christmas, she saw us all opening our presents and went to sulk in a corner, clearly feeling left out. Fortunately, there was something for her and she went absolutely bonkers with delight.

I remember helping my mother with the decorating (so often left until Christmas Eve). One night, we were just finishing off when my father returned home. The TV was on – Meet Me in St Louis. He came into the room and stood and squinted at the screen for some minutes before, obviously recognising Judy Garland, asking: "It's the Wizard of Oz?"

One year, after I'd left home, I actually didn't go to my parents for Christmas – instead, managing to break up with a boyfriend on Christmas Eve. But because he'd been going to take me to friends of his for a big Christmas party on the day itself, he still picked me up and I spent the day getting very, very pissed.

I was gutless for years after moving in with The Other Half. I didn't expect him to go and spend a few days with my parents over the holiday period, but I couldn't tell them that I was no longer going. I remember those Christmases for the tension: dealing with my sister was like walking on eggshells. My mother could barely stand to be near my father's mother. All the work was left to my mother and me.

There'd be the five of us with my baby niece, plus the dog. Rattling around in the house, trying not to drive each other completely demented. Sitting around in front of the TV like the Royle Family, as though that was the only possible option that we had for spending our time.

We'd all be trying to abide by this formula when something would break, such as gran asking my mother – apropos of absolutely nothing whatsoever: "Do you like tinned salmon?" And being snapped down by my father. No, we all sat there like a good little family and watched the telly without comment.

Blood might be thicker than water. It's a bloody pain too.

I eventually gained enough spine to announce that I was no longer going to my parents for Christmas. It was a great relief. Since then, Christmases have at least been relaxed – and with cats to provide much amusement. They have all loved shiny wrapping paper and boxes. These, therefore, get left around for days for feline amusement, which includes conquering and sitting in boxes. Mack used to love the paper in particular and would manage to make a tent for himself, looking out with a wide-eyed look of mad delight from beneath a slightly crumpled, glossy sheet. When Boudi arrived, he was a bit like a much older brother to her – except if she dared to try to sit on 'his' Christmas paper. Then she'd earn a thwack!

But as each festive season approaches, despite all the claims that Christmas is for children, I find myself increasingly caught between excitement and a rather more downbeat mood. Once work finishes for nearly a fortnight, the seasonal socialising is over. The door is rarely opened to the rest of the world.

So what is it that I want? All the ideas, those half-dreamed ghosts of Christmases that have never been, wrought by books and Hollywood, a mélange of Dickens and Bing Crosby; a longing for snow outside and an open fire with a deep fur rug in front; for Champagne and silken lingerie ...

And when Christmas is over and the decorations are packed away again, the feeling will linger that – just once – I'd like to have my Christmas.

No comments:

Post a Comment