The loving ties that bind at Christmas

Nicola Miller
Nicola Miller
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The Grinch-like grumbles about Christmas cavorting in November are silenced by the arrival of December.

Now we can make ourselves feel sick on mince pies without being told you’re being seasonally inappropriate. And if you’re like me, you’ll also have to start refilling the Advent calendar because you’ve sneaked one or two sweets at night when willpower is weak and the need for cheap chocolate overwhelming.

The A14 is clogged with lanes of cars as the local Christmas festival gets underway which is a change from the road’s usual incarnation as Death Race 2000. The papers are stuffed with gift guides featuring cashmere dog coats and eye shadow compacts containing one useful shade and the rest a hideous melange of bruise-purple, chartreuse and an orange shadow the colour of end-stage liver disease. There’s pages and pages of food supplements encouraging us to gild the festive lily or, in Heston’s case, dust the plum pudding with gold and fill it with Persian spices and rose. In response, I scribble down a few convoluted dinner plans in the manner of Countess Violet Crawley, then relax, give up, and realise that Christmas food is great because it is pretty much the same each year. For 51 weeks I have to be creative in the kitchen but funnily enough late December’s edible blueprint releases me from such travails.

It is also time to go collectively insane with the decorations and blow what anyone else thinks. At ours, the rhinestone deer head on the sitting room wall is dressed in a jaunty red bow tie, the model of Miami Santa sitting in his convertible wearing palm-print shorts takes up residence on the mantelpiece and decorations are greeted like long-lost friends as they emerge from hampers brought down from the attic. There’s baubles older than me: older than my grandparents even, wrapped in tissue paper just as ancient, and the more modern bubble wrap because we’d fall apart if they did.

More is more might be my mantra but this year there’s less too. In 2016 our family lost a few people: my son in law’s grandmother, a much-loved pet rabbit, an aunt, my daughter’s father this summer, and last week, my grandmother, and I know we’re not the only ones: some of you will also be facing Christmas without someone you love. December can be a tough old month.

Last year my grandmother spent Christmas with us. On the 25th she burst into our bedroom, thrilled because she’d found a stocking at the end of her bed. Feeling unable to wait for us to wake up, she’d sat up in bed in the half-light, surrounded by a mountain of paper as she unwrapped the inexpensive little trinkets we’d battled through the shopping crowds to find. I probably moaned a bit about having to fight my way through those hordes. I certainly recall moaning about having to wrap piles of tiny stocking gifts individually because that’s what we do in our house. We create these yearly rituals and at some point in time we come to realise just how important they are.

A lovely person knocked on my door two days after gran died, bringing red roses, hugs and advice which I am going to pass on because not only was it kind, it was also wise. Some people think Christmas is the worst time of year to lose someone, she said, when the rest of the world seems to be celebrating, but there is another way of looking at it, a way that offered her, and she hoped me, some comfort. The dazzle of the festive season can make us feel that other people are blithely unaware of our pain but Christmas also un-moors us from our daily routines and if we are lucky, for just a moment it can offer us a chance to forget about the hard and tiring work of grief, she said. There’s kinship in Christmas carols, twinkling lights and hugs from friends and many of us find these feelings are more easily expressed at this time of year. It’s a strange kind of comfort and you’ll not all agree with me but it’ll do for now.

Christmas rituals can feel like duty but primarily they are about those loving ties that bind. Yes, the streets are filled with people buying gifts they can barely afford for people they hold complicated feelings about, Yes, trying to create the ‘perfect Christmas’ can drive some of us to such distraction we risk beating up the turkey with a tenderising mallet whilst dementedly howling festive songs by Darlene Love at the top of our lungs. But ultimately, when we watch our family opening their stockings or sit half-asleep, stomachs distended in front of a TV show, what lies beneath is a commonality with millions of other complicated happy, sad people around the world.

-- Nicola Miller is the author of The Millers Tale blog. Follow her on Twitter: @NicMillersTale