I have to admit I’m an absolute sucker for Christmas. I love the preparations; making the Christmas cake (usually several weeks too late so that instead of allowing it to gently mature with the occasional tipple it is force-fed brandy practically on a daily basis), finding the right tree, going out into the woods to look for holly with berries (will do that when, if, it stops raining), decorating the house, looking for cheap presents to put in stockings and making mince pies while listening to comedy programmes, some I’ve never heard of, on Listen Again on Radio 4.
My mother, who died in May aged 94, came out to us for nearly every Christmas for the last fifteen years so this time of year is inevitably associated with her. She loved Christmas and was always harking back to those of her childhood which were spent at her grandparents’ large country house in Kent and trying to recreate them. Before I was married this could lead to several pre-festivity argue- ahem, discussions since she didn’t have the requisite staff of 15 needed to reproduce her elaborate childhood Christmas’s and, as her daily was on holiday, only one household slave (me). It didn’t stop her. One year the slave revolted and said if she was really going to insist on using the best china which couldn’t go in the dishwasher when we were having lunch for 16 she could jolly well spend Christmas afternoon hand washing them herself. As my mother didn’t do Washing Up lunch was served on second best plates.
I think she thought that my idea of Christmas was always a little on the plain side so she’d arrive with her suitcase full of things she thought we needed to jazz things up, boxes of lemon and orange jelly slices because they looked pretty on the table even if no one ate them, Turkish delight (ditto), a pack of gold candles she’d won at bridge, crackers, a large chunk of Stilton, even half a ham one year. It was all much appreciated even if we did wonder exactly why she’d felt it necessary to import yogurt covered raisins from the UK.
My mother was intelligent, amusing, could be broad-minded and as even her best
friends would admit was also, on occasions, a dyed-in-the-wool snob. Sometimes about the strangest things too. One year, while we still at our old house, we went out with the dogs on her first afternoon and she stopped, glaring at our neighbour’s house. ‘Urgh! What’s that?‘ she demanded in utter horror. That was one of those Father Christmas’s the French seem to be so very fond of, who shin up the sides of houses as if they’re about to case the joint. Sometimes you get two of different sizes looking like a festive Batman and Robin. I explained that our neighbour claimed he’d got it free with a tin of coffee and said he’d only put it up for his grandchildren. ‘Maybe so,’ sniffed my mother, ‘ but people don’t have things like that.’
It was only then that I realised that for her Christmas decorations fell into two camps; the acceptable ones were those that might have been seen in the large house of her childhood. Thus a really scruffy tree from the garden was always OK, an artificial one was not. Decorations should preferably be old, were frequently tatty and the lights should be the type that threatened to fuse everything in the house on a regular basis; twinkling lights and a designer themed colour coordinated theme for the decorations put you beyond the pale. Needless to say the moment my daughters discovered this they started to gently tease their grandmother. One year a sliver sparkly revolver appeared on the tree, another year there was a light up Rudolph pulling a sleigh in the garden. He wasn’t very big though so could be ignored. They yearned to get a life-size blow up Father Christmas to put by the gate and a flashing ‘Joyeux Noel’ to fix to the side of the house but, perhaps luckily, never had the money to buy them.
A couple of weeks ago my youngest daughter and I were in Casa, that paradise for low-priced presents, and there by the entrance was a large transparent blow up snowman with flashing blue LED lights in his stomach. We looked at each other and said simultaneously, ‘Would that have been a wonderful Granny tease?’
So at least one of our family Christmas traditions looks set to run on and on.