The kids tiptoe in through the doorway.
“Has he been!?” they whisper, barely containing their excitement. And that’s before they’ve even seen the bulging red and white stockings hanging either side of the roaring fire.
They’re soon tearing open the coloured, sparkly paper, revealing no end of goodies. There are wooden train sets and porcelain dolls galore. Then they’re running and falling into their parents’ arms, dropping candy canes as they go.
Later, the dining table is packed with delicious treats. A huge roast turkey and a baked ham, a mountain of roast potatoes and every vegetable imaginable. At one end, dad carves the turkey. At the other end, the children strain to see the goings on above a huge trifle as it wobbles back and forth in front of them.
Brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents gather round a huge table. Everybody laughs more than they have done since last Christmas, which was just as perfect.
Later on, chestnuts will be roasted outside, served with mulled wine. Snowmen are sculpted to a perfection that Michelangelo would be proud of.
No, me neither.
Hollywood would have us believe that the above constitutes your average family Christmas. Especially so if you live in Central London in an impossibly large Edwardian terrace, as of course we all do.
The problem is, we then all end up aspiring to a Christmas like this and get angry and stressed out when it doesn’t happen.
The truth is that there is no typical family Christmas. Because there are no typical families.
The above depiction of Christmas was invented by Charles Dickens. Do you have disappointed children when the ground outside isn’t covered in snow at Christmas? Blame Dickens. The truth is, it rarely snows in December in the UK. A white Christmas is always going to be unlikely.
When my children were born, I envisaged a Christmas just like this ‘ideal’. My Christmas would always be spent in our home and I wouldn’t make my kids travel anywhere. As a kid I always hated having to leave all my new toys behind.
But unfortunately, life, and other people’s expectations, got in the way. We now spend one Christmas Day at my mum’s, the next at my in-laws’.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my mum, but spending Christmas at her house is quite painful.
Let’s take dinner. Growing up I always thought my mum was a fantastic cook and she is – as long as you stick to the basics.
Roast turkey, roast potatoes, boiled cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts. Everything boiled, flavoured with salt and nothing else. There’s no festive cabbage cooked in red wine with a hint of cinnamon. No crunchy cauliflower cheese with mustard. No sweet honey glazed carrots.
Until I was 30, I thought that Brussels sprouts were the spawn of the devil. Boiled and served on the plate whole, with a cross marked on the bottom. Urgh. What is it with older people and the cross on a Brussels sprout?! Post 30, I discovered that they could be chopped and fried in stock with bacon and onion. Or served with lentils and mint or goat’s cheese and chilli flakes.
I basically discovered that Brussels sprouts are actually awesome.
Also my mum lives a drive away, doesn’t drink, and has nowhere for us to stay. Whereas my wife and I like to start on the Buck’s Fizz at 8am and finish with a port at midnight, filling the rest of the day with whatever we lay our hands on.
I also have to spend it with my brother and his kids, who I love… And his wife, who I loathe.
My dad removed himself from the Christmas rota as he said the divorce was his fault and he hated Christmas anyway. This made it handy when taking turns but difficult when we had kids.
My dad took to wearing a black Santa’s hat with ‘Bah, Humbug’ written on it. It was a little bit funny the first year, smile-worthy the second year and dull the third. It eventually ended up in a row when the kids could read and understood what it said.
My dad, as it happens, has the ideal location for Christmas. His cottage built in the 1800’s has a huge open fire with ample stocking hanging space.
He also likes a beer, likes music, has space to put us up and his wife is great at keeping the kids entertained.
They are also vegetarians, as we are, so we don’t get the tiresome, “are you STILL not eating meat?” that we get elsewhere.
The food is very good, but by the time you eat it you’re pretty much starving. I like to contribute to the cooking but his wife will accept no help, but then forgets that she actually is cooking. With no exaggeration, we once went round there for Sunday lunch and ended up eating past 9pm.
But, due to our arrangement, we don’t see them Christmas Day or Boxing Day. It will only ever take place some time before or after, when the Christmas spirit isn’t there.
On paper, Christmas with the in-laws could be perfect. They’re together for a start, which tends to make it easier. They also have a big house which can sleep a lot of people. They have extended family nearby which they pretend to get on with most of the time and they also like a drink.
Unfortunately their house is in Consett, near Newcastle, and we live in London. The only good thing (from the kids’ point of view) is that if it’s going to snow anywhere in England, it’s going to snow there. It’s grey, miserable, windy and freezing cold for 12 months of the year. I spend the days we’re there hoping it doesn’t snow, trapping us there for New Year.
Dinner is good, my wife’s brother likes to experiment a bit with food, as I do. So the mains and side dishes are infinitely more interesting. One year, practically every adult prepared a dish in the massive kitchen. Whilst drinking copious amounts of wine. That was good fun, and if I remember rightly I was in charge of sprouts…
Unfortunately her brother doesn’t like to plan ahead or stick to a schedule. Despite us having to have a rota, he rarely makes the effort to sync with it and as such will only turn up if it suits him.
This leaves us with her parents and elderly aunts and uncles. They don’t like music, or TV. But they do like to chat about religion and politics in the evenings, which is obviously a blast.
Making It Work
We need to accept that there’s no such thing as a typical, traditional Christmas. Films, TV and that Dickens bloke have a lot to answer for, having set our childhood expectations so high.
In our case we try to ensure that the children’s and our Christmas is as good as it can be. At the moment, everybody else is second priority.
Spending one year at my mum’s and the next at the in-laws’ meant that there was never going to be a Christmas at our house. The kids were never going to get to play with their toys at Christmas. And I was destined to alternate one unsuitable Christmas with another. One year with boiled vegetables and the next in a silent house without even so much as a carol in the background.
So I’ve put my foot down. My mum’s turn is going to be at our house this year. The kids will play with their toys all day and watch films when they want. The house will be filled with music and laughter, we’ll play games and drink wine. The dinner will be elaborate and the vegetable choices will be plentiful.
Now I just have to ring up and tell her…