When I was small I was, like all children I knew, in a ferment of increasing excitement throughout Advent. On the 23rd December I would lie in bed and hug myself, thinking, “Tomorrow I shall say that tomorrow is Christmas Day!” My parents took it in turn with my aunts and uncles to host the festive meal and I took particular delight in decorating our living room in preparation for my cousins’ arrival.
Then Christmas and I sort of… parted company. My parents’ separation when I was 16 led to horrible decision-making about where to spend Christmas Day. None of my thinking was about what I wanted to do. It was all about what I thought I should do, about what was “right” and who “needed” me.
By the time I got to university I hated the thought of it and began a programme of repression that would have delighted Cromwell or Stalin. In our first winter in our student home we would not, I told my baffled fiancé, celebrate Christmas. It was hypocritical as we were both atheists, and anyway I abhorred the rank consumerism and the waste. Much better (in my view) to celebrate New Year; at least that meant something. On Christmas Day our relatives rang. “Did you like the-” asked my sister-in-law before I shrieked, “We haven’t opened them yet! We’re not celebrating Christmas!” Friends found my attitude strange and sad, watching how I dreaded its approach as the decorations and crackers appeared in the shops.
It’s such a cliché that “Christmas is for children”, but only once I had Max and Alice was I was able to view the festive season as pleasant. Suddenly shiny, jingly things and coloured lights, perfect to catch a child’s attention, made some sense. When Max was two and had already been presented with the questionable gift of a newborn baby sister, I put up a proper Christmas tree. He was awed. “Is this my Christmas tree?” he kept asking, pointing in case I wasn’t sure which tree he was referring to. “Are you make it for me?”
Perhaps I was compensating for the lost Christmas years but it became very important to me to establish traditions that would last through childhood. It turned out that I was good at it. I was so, so good at it. I made, although I say so myself, wonderful stockings. At this age I often wondered why we had bought the children “proper” gifts at all; they were so impressed and delighted with the contents of their reusable stockings.
Every year we read and reread Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas and Father Christmas Goes on Holiday. I was required and delighted to read it in exactly the same way every time, with the “correct” voices and intonation for every character. A few years later this favourite was joined by How Santa Really Works, which is recommended for its incredible ingenuity but takes a very long tome to read out loud.
I was an expert at the real life child/Father Christmas interface. We always left him a mince pie brandy or sherry – not too much, he was driving – and a carrot for Rudolph. Rudolph was fastidious in his nibbling and it was very clear than reindeer teeth and not pointy human incisors had been at that carrot. Father Christmas usually made sure to leave a few pastry crumbs and a little bit of brandy to show that while he appreciated the gesture, he was in a bit of a hurry. Despite this he was occasionally able to take a quick breather and scribble a letter for Alice if she had left him a picture or a thank you in advance note. What amazing, fantastical writing he had. All those incredible curlicues.
Of course we continued these traditions long after Santa had been busted. As they got older I took Max and Alice to Christmas plays (some a bit darker and more sinister than we were expecting). They were in children’s choirs and sang Christmas songs, and we sang carols elsewhere too, mostly for fun, occasionally for charity. Alice and I would bake Christmas things together, once assembling a gingerbread house. I particularly remember this as I burnt my finger on a wickedly hot melted boiled sweet windowpane. We kept up the tradition of stockings for years. I tried never to add together the £1 here and the £3 there and lived in happy denial of the total cost because buying the stockings’ contents still brought me such delight.
These days we are moving into the realm of vouchers and monetary gifts. Alice still likes to have things to open, although this will be the first year that she doesn’t get a stocking (Max stopped wanting/needing one a couple of years ago). This is all normal. It was entirely expected.
And yet I feel almost bereft.
I already miss it. I miss very carefully and quietly filling the stockings when I was sure they were asleep, being careful that the Chocolate Orange was in the toe to leave space for other tiny gifts. I miss selecting those gifts, wrapping some in scraps of coloured paper, leaving others to be discovered as they were. I miss chomping that carrot and I miss messy Christmas crafts. I miss adopting the gruff, grumpy demeanour of Briggs’ Father Christmas. In fact I miss seasonal picture books, full stop. The other day I saw someone reading Mog at Christmas to her grandchild and I almost cried.
I know I’ve nothing really to complain about. I have a fantastic husband who I’ll be spending the day with and then we’ll have a lovely second Christmas with the children at my mum’s. Tom and I will cook beautiful food together and drink the champagne we were given as a wedding present. We needn’t be woken at unearthly hours to be informed, “He’s been!” We don’t have to keep them entertained while I’m in the kitchen. We can skip the kids’ films and nobody will whinge about not liking Christmas pudding.
But I miss being Santa.