The posh woman sitting next to me on the train was not happy. She’d been asked to prepare the seating plan for the family Christmas dinner. There were going to be 20 of them, but even so, a seating plan??
And that wasn’t the end of her woes. There were the £50 worth of Secret Santa gifts to buy, and the crackers to get. “I thought going to someone else’s for Christmas dinner would be a day off,” she wailed to her friend. “And there won’t even be any left-over turkey for Boxing Day.”
Until then all the talk had been of jodphurs and gymkhanas, of rugby and piano exams (a merit for her child of course). These two families had forsaken their Range Rovers and caught the train, bumping into each other and comparing notes on the impending horrors of the festive season. They were wearing green quilted jackets and knee-high brown leather boots – and that was just the men.
Most of us probably won’t be needing a seating plan, and there is of course no single way of “doing” Christmas, but many people seem to find a way which generates huge levels of stress and self-loathing, and, dare I say it, even competitiveness.
If you miraculously get the cards done, you beat yourself up for not making the cake. If your mince pies are home-made you silently reproach yourself that the mincemeat wasn’t. If your presents don’t match or outdo the choices of others, you feel a failure, regardless of the different household budgets that may apply. And so it goes on.
The pressure to “do” a perfect Christmas can become unbearable. Every last detail has to be right, the table has to look like a photoshoot from Country Life, and – hardest of all to achieve – everyone has to have a wonderful time.
My efforts this year can be summarised as follows: Cakes made (1), Cakes iced (0), Mince pies made (0), Mince pies eaten (10 and counting), Cards sent (all of them), Christmas shopping (abandoned owing to flu virus). I’ve sung Latin carols in a choir robe, carols by candlelight in jeans and modern worship songs in a hoodie.
But most importantly, I have spent a precious few hours with my mother, unpacking the same Christmas decorations that speak to me of my childhood.
She, barely able to walk, hung them lovingly and slowly, one-by-one, on the tiny living tree. I placed the battered, tattered Father Christmas on his traditional perch in the hall. Each piece found its home, the rooms slowly turned into Christmas, the Christmas of my past and my present, in the only house I can ever remember living in as a child. It’s the house where mum, in her red dressing gown, sneaked into our bedrooms at night with the stockings and we loved being part of the secret that mum WAS Father Christmas.
For me, the best bits of Christmas can be found in those tiny and loving things, not in the huge and perfect extravaganza. The first Christmas must have been chaotic, uncomfortable, and far from perfect for those involved. The challenge then, as now, was to seek out the precious and treasure it.