I could hardly avoid thinking about Christmas today. There is a big decorated tree in the corner of the living room, surrounded by a huge pile of wrapped presents. Cards received adorn the doors, and we have one of those ‘candle bridges’ (electric) on the window ledge too. The main door onto the street has a wreath hanging on the outside of it which may be very wet now, but survived the storm-force winds.
Nine days to go, until what I like to call, ‘Tuesday’.
OK, so I am not a big Christmas person. I was at one time, until I woke up one night and spied my Dad stacking presents at the end of my bed. That clinched it, Santa didn’t exist after all. That didn’t worry me unduly, as I realised that I could now hint directly to my parents, instead of worrying that Santa might not have had time to read my note.
There were fond memories to follow. Parties at my Nan’s house, dressed in my best new clothes. Extra gifts from men I called ‘Uncle’, or ladies I called ‘Auntie’, usually some well-received money. Lots to eat, staying up later than ever, and sweets, lots of sweets. Long before I had got around to getting married, the age-old argument began. I had to be at my parents’ place, or my grandmother’s, if they were going there. But my girlfriend had to do the same with her family, so we could never actually see each other on the day in question. When you are married, that debate starts early in the year, usually just after the Christmas you have just argued about. Do you split the day? Morning at one, evening at the other? Perhaps have two Christmas Dinners, one at lunchtime, another in the evening? (Yes, I have done that)
Then there were the presents. In the absence of any list, most of the stuff given to us was either unwanted, or downright awful. If people stuck with reliable standbys like cartons of cigarettes, or vouchers, it was a relief. Buy jewellery for my wife, and I could guarantee that the chain wouldn’t be long enough, the stone the ‘wrong’ colour, or it was just something that she would never wear. Such gifts ended their days still in their boxes, at the back of a drawer. Dare to buy something useful back then, like kitchen utensils, and be left open to accusations of male chauvinism. And supposedly ‘sexy’ underwear? Never go there. Ever.
In 1980, I had to work on Christmas Day, for the first time ever. I was 28 years old, and felt liberated by having a genuine reason not to have to eat a dinner cooked to extinction by my Mum, whilst pretending I was alright with having a paper hat on my head. Ambulances must be available every day of the year, and it was my turn, I told them. For the first time I could remember, my Mum left her house on the morning of the 25th. She went to eat dinner with my wife and her family, twelve miles across London. She was collected, made welcome, and taken home after. But for her, it was unacceptable, and was certainly never going to happen again.
That left me in a dilemma. My Dad had left home when I was twenty-four. So Mum was on her own, and I had no brothers or sisters to spend Christmas Day with her. She made me promise to try to never work on Christmas Day again, so she didn’t have to leave her house for any reason. That started thirty-two years of always trying to get the day off, if I was scheduled for a shift on the 25th. A lot of the time I was lucky, if I applied to be off by January 1st, at the latest. Sometimes, I would be on night duty, so spend the day half-asleep, before having to go back into work exhausted, after shovelling down the meal Mum prepared for me. On a few occasions, she was in hospital on Christmas Day, rushed in by ambulance. So we spent our seasonal celebration in the relatives’ room, waiting to hear if she would pull through.
By the time I arrived in Norfolk, in 2012, I had well and truly had enough of the Christmas merry-go-round to last me a lifetime.
In fact, it has almost been my lifetime.