WHEN CHRIST­MAS JUST ISN’ T THE SAME BUT THAT’S OK

It’s the sea­son of tra­di­tion – fol­low­ing the same fam­ily timetable every year – so life’s in­evitable changes, both good and sad, can make it feel over­loaded with emo­tion and dis­tinctly un-fes­tive. But as these writ­ers prove, you can re­write Christ­mas your

The Mail on Sunday - You - - Reinventing Christmas - DIG­I­TAL ART­WORK PE­TER CROWTHER

Af­ter the chil­dren have grown up BY JOANNA MOOR­HEAD

It’s 3am on 25 De­cem­ber and I’m creep­ing across the land­ing with a pil­low­case of presents for my sec­ond daugh­ter. It’s a time-worn tra­di­tion in our house. My four girls are in their teens and 20s, and every year I start buy­ing small gifts in Oc­to­ber, pil­ing them lov­ingly to­gether for the ‘sur­prise’ on Christ­mas morn­ing.

But the bed is empty – she is still out club­bing. Fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­veals that her el­der and younger sis­ters are, too. I sigh and leave the sacks by their beds. I’ve set my alarm as I al­ways did. Now they’ll trip over the pil­low­cases as they fall into bed at dawn and we won’t see them un­til mid­day.

Back un­der my du­vet I mourn the loss of all the won­der­ful Christ­mases when we had small chil­dren and you could feel the magic in the air. The breath­less ex­cite­ment of Christ­mas morn­ing; the 5am ar­rivals in our bed­room, drag­ging their pre­cious good­ies; the girls leav­ing a mince pie and a car­rot near the chim­ney, and in the morn­ing find­ing in their place a let­ter of thanks in hand­writ­ing sus­pi­ciously sim­i­lar to Dad’s.

My hus­band Gary and I cre­ated the en­chant­ment for them and they kept it go­ing for us: our youngest sus­pended her dis­be­lief for years just so her fa­ther could write his an­nual note ‘from Santa’. But even­tu­ally even she couldn’t fake it and Christ­mas lost a bit of its magic.

As with any bit­ter­sweet change in life, you can ei­ther feel a lit­tle less be­cause of it or you can em­brace it and see the po­ten­tial. I’m opt­ing for the lat­ter. When our sec­ond daugh­ter spent a win­ter in Aus­tralia, the rest of us had Christ­mas with my brother and his wife – six of us was too many, but five could squeeze in.

Old tra­di­tions have given way to new ones: the girls buy iden­ti­cal one­sies and drape them­selves across the so­fas, then post pho­tos on In­sta­gram. They’ve in­sti­gated an an­nual meet-up in the pub with their pri­mary-school pals. While they’re still in bed on Christ­mas morn­ing, Gary and I have a glass of cham­pagne in the kitchen; and on Box­ing Day we all head to a skat­ing rink, throw­ing our­selves grate­fully into the fresh air af­ter a day in­doors. When the chil­dren were lit­tle, it was im­pos­si­ble to tear them away from their presents and we all went a bit stir- crazy.

A fam­ily Christ­mas is partly about the pas­sage of time and the slow shifts in the nar­ra­tive. We are bob­bing on the fes­tive tide of change. And change doesn’t stop; in time there will be grand­chil­dren who will still be sleep­ing soundly at 3am. So my mem­o­ries of the past, grat­i­tude for the present and ex­cite­ment for the fu­ture swirl around our tree like lux­u­ri­ous tin­sel con­nect­ing all our Christ­mases – and all our lives.

As a solo mum af­ter divorce BY VERON­ICA HENRY

For more than 20 years, Christ­mas was re­as­sur­ingly the same: a fam­ily lunch with both sets of par­ents that grew as my three sons came along. I loved choos­ing the big­gest tree I could get away with and wran­gling a huge turkey into the oven at dawn, hav­ing stayed up late to wrap presents over a bot­tle of cham­pagne.

Then five years ago my hus­band and I sep­a­rated and Christ­mas has evolved into some­thing dif­fer­ent. Post- divorce, it is about com­pro­mise and di­vid­ing up the time. My now grown-up sons tend to have Christ­mas lunch with their dad and I share it with my re­cently wid­owed mum, so the boys and I have be­gun a Scandi-style tra­di­tion of open­ing their stock­ings the evening be­fore. The an­tic­i­pa­tion and the twin­kli­ness of Christ­mas Eve is mag­i­cal, so it feels spe­cial.

Of course, the first Christ­mas lunch with­out a huge rab­ble felt very odd. I cooked beef welling­ton for my par­ents be­cause do­ing a tra­di­tional turkey seemed wrong. But any me­lan­choly feel­ings were soon cut short by the ar­rival of a minia­ture sch­nauzer puppy – Santa had very clev­erly brought her for my youngest son, and she was more than a dis­trac­tion. And now I’ve re­alised it re­ally doesn’t mat­ter if ev­ery­one isn’t around the same ta­ble at the same time. Christ­mas can be cel­e­brated on Christ­mas Eve or Box­ing Day – what mat­ters is the peo­ple.

On Christ­mas Eve, the boys con­trib­ute to the fes­tiv­i­ties: the el­dest serves a mean amer­i­cano, the mid­dle one makes heart-stop­ping na­chos cov­ered in melted cheese and the youngest bakes brown­ies. They put on their Christ­mas lounge pants (they al­ways get a pair in their stock­ing), then we all play the board game Ticket to Ride and lis­ten to mu­sic. The vibe is chilled- out party.

In­evitably the boys don’t want to get up early on Christ­mas morn­ing, un­like when they were small. I make ba­con and eggy bread and play the sound­track from The Snow­man at top vol­ume un­til they emerge to en­joy freshly squeezed or­ange juice and cof­fee be­fore they head off to their fa­ther’s.

Last year I drove up to my mum’s house, lis­ten­ing to A Christ­mas Carol on au­dio­book, and we shared lunch with a 96-year-old neigh­bour who is still a vi­ola player in the lo­cal or­ches­tra. Although we made an odd trio, and it was dif­fer­ent to the noisy fam­ily Christ­mases of yes­ter­year, it was good to share the time with some­one who might other­wise have been alone.

This year my mum is com­ing to me in North Devon. Once the boys have set off, I will have a few hours to my­self to walk the dog on the beach. It’s the per­fect time to re­flect on the past year and make plans for the new year. The beach is usu­ally empty and some­how the sun al­ways shines, so it’s a great way to draw breath rather than rush­ing round like a mad thing.

Then I’ll put on my Christ­mas glad rags and pre­pare lunch. Not cater­ing for a large num­ber means I can be more ex­per­i­men­tal, so this year I’m do­ing homemade gravad­lax and maybe veni­son. It’s calmer and less fraught and there is def­i­nitely less potato peel­ing. And af­ter­wards there is less wash­ing-up, so it’s not long be­fore Mum and I have our feet up with to­tal con­trol of the TV re­mote. We’ll in­dulge in a bit of schmaltzy telly and doze off in peace.

Noth­ing in life stays the same. Christ­mas Day can’t re­main frozen in time, with the same set­ting and char­ac­ters. You have to re­write the book. Christ­mas at the Beach Hut by Veron­ica Henry is pub­lished by Orion, price £7.99*

‘IT’S CALMER AND LESS FRAUGHT AND THERE IS DEF­I­NITELY LESS POTATO PEEL­ING’

When the big day has lost its sparkle BY HAN­NAH BETTS

I hate Christ­mas. I hate the busy­ness, the ba­nal­ity and that sense of fes­ter­ing obli­ga­tion to do things you don’t want to do with peo­ple you don’t want to see. When friends com­plain about how ghastly the whole rig­ma­role is, I feel like shak­ing them while yelling: ‘You don’t have to do this. Break free!’ I know it’s pos­si­ble be­cause I’ve done it. And be­fore you say, ‘Ah, but she doesn’t have chil­dren,’ I know fam­i­lies who have come to the same daz­zling re­al­i­sa­tion. Fes­tive ab­stain­ers of the world unite; you have noth­ing to lose but your (pa­per) chains.

As a child, I longed for Christ­mas: the wait­ing and watch­ing, every fan­tasy sprin­kled with snow and fairy dust. How­ever, I also knew it to be the best and worst of times for our ever-ex­pand­ing fam­ily. There would be tears, ar­gu­ments, vows never to do it again. Later, I came to think of Christ­mas less as the sea­son of good­will and more as that of emo­tional black­mail. My mother would be­gin ne­go­ti­a­tions in Au­gust: she wanted us, she didn’t want us; we had to come, the whole thing was off. There was a lot of love in my fam­ily but there were a lot of other un­tram­melled emo­tions, too – and all of them came to a head over yule.

Then, in my 30s, my Christ­mases stopped al­to­gether. My par­ents had a sav­age fall­ing- out that my mother de­cided to blame on me, mean­ing she cut me out of her life for the best part of ten years. It was a pol­icy she at­tempted to im­pose upon the rest of the fam­ily, mean­ing they con­tin­ued to cel­e­brate the fes­tive sea­son with­out me at my par­ents’ home.

It was a lonely, lac­er­at­ing time, drag­ging me down into the de­pres­sion that had al­ways been lurking. Christ­mas was the worst of it, with every stranger ask­ing what I was ‘do­ing’ for it: the an­swer be­ing noth­ing. Be­ing with some­one else’s fam­ily only served to ac­cen­tu­ate the fact that I wasn’t with my own. In­stead, I put my head down and got on with it.

My worst mem­ory in­volves crawl­ing along the floor, struck down by a kid­ney in­fec­tion. I hadn’t spo­ken to any­one for days, with the ex­cep­tion of a news edi­tor from one of the papers I write for, call­ing on Christ­mas Day to ask whether I knew of any sui­ci­dal sin­gles. I didn’t, but wasn’t far off.

While I’ve never been as wretched as dur­ing those long, lone Christ­mases, they no less served as a mas­sive lib­er­a­tion. I was lonely, yes, des­per­ately un­happy at times, but free fi­nally from the great weight of fes­tive ex­pec­ta­tion. If I wanted to sit in my py­ja­mas knock­ing back mar­ti­nis while eat­ing mac and cheese, then I could. If I wanted to read my own body­weight in nov­els, then rock on.

Four years ago, re­la­tions thawed, and I was in­vited back for my first fam­ily Christ­mas in over a decade. The day I ar­rived, my mother was di­ag­nosed with can­cer. Six months later, she was gone. A year af­ter that, my fa­ther, too, was dead. Christ­mas – what was left of it – died with them.

My re­sponse to this was es­capism, and I had a new part­ner to run off with. For our first joint Christ­mas we headed to sunny Si­cily to lose our­selves in carbs and an­cient ru­ins. The year af­ter, it was Paris, across the bridge from Notre Dame, wak­ing to its bells and a break­fast of mini eclairs, fol­lowed by art and opera. Last year, it was Berlin: all his­tory and froth­ing beer. To­gether we in­vented new, shared tra­di­tions, not least pre­tend­ing the whole Christ­mas thing wasn’t hap­pen­ing.

When else in the year does one en­joy so much po­ten­tial to go Awol? Be­tween 20 De­cem­ber and 6 Jan­uary, the world is our oys­ter. Yule, in its tra­di­tional guise, is of­fi­cially over. And what do you know? By re­fus­ing to have any truck with it, I’ve fi­nally be­come some­one who loves Christ­mas.

‘FES­TIVE AB­STAIN­ERS UNITE; YOU HAVE NOTH­ING TO LOSE BUT YOUR (PA­PER) CHAINS’

Joanna with, from left, daugh­ters Elinor, Rosie, Ca­tri­ona and Mi­randa

Veron­ica and her mother Jen­nifer have a re­lax­ing Christ­mas Day to­gether

Han­nah and her part­ner Terence in Berlin last Christ­mas

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