I love Christmas. At the moment I’m caught up and carried away on a wave of Yule-tide cheer. A few weeks ago I made my Christmas cake and two Christmas puddings, the smells and tastes in my kitchen bringing me back to my childhood – helping Mammy mix the puddings, being told to stay quiet in case the fruit sank to the bottom; the year my cousin Sean insisted on playing my toy guitar while standing beside the cooker much to Mammy’s annoyance; my uncle Jerry, on seeing a half-fruit, half no-fruit cake, appeasing Mammy by saying ‘I always love a bit of madeira’. These are my food memories. They make me smile and cry in equal measure.
Yesterday the girls and I put up the tree (Julian was visiting Carina for a couple of days, dealing with batteries, heating, damp, electrics, bilges, etc). To tell you the truth, I hadn’t planned to get a tree. From the 21st of December to the 7th of January we’re going to be visiting Julian’s and then my family. So I was going to pass on buying a tree. But then, a few weeks ago, as I was walking home one evening, I found a tree. It was in a box that said ‘Free to take’. I knocked on the door of the house nearest to the tree, and the man said ‘Please take it. We have two, but we only need one’. So I marched home with an artificial tree under my arm. So, with Christmas music playing on YouTube, we put up the tree yesterday, and decorated it with my small selection of lovely ornaments I have acquired over the years – a little home-made sleeping mouse made from a walnut and a hazelnut that was a gift from Linda Pemik, a tiny nativity scene carved from wood that I found in a market in Vienna years ago, a duffel polar bear from Arviat, a silver merry-go-round that was a gift from Mammy. Not many decorations, but each one is special to me, keeping people and places in my heart.
We sing Christmas songs every day, the girls regaling us with songs they are learning at school, and I’ve unearthed the seasonal literature and movies – we’ve been enjoying Raymond Brigg’s ‘Father Christmas’ and have watched ‘Miracle on 34th Street’. Perhaps we’ll watch Julian’s favourite ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’ next weekend.
And boy oh boy am I looking forward to Christmas Day, and a dinner with Ian and Cordy of their hand-reared goose and duck!
But despite my love for Christmas, it is also a time that makes me feel profoundly uncomfortable. There are expectations of giving and receiving. It seems that almost from September a variety of people start to ask us ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ and ‘What do the girls want for Christmas?’ The thing is, when I say ‘I don’t want anything’, I actually mean it. I genuinely do not want or need anything. But that frustrates people, who are caught up in this idea that Christmas is about giving and receiving presents. I get panicked, worried, overwhelmed by the need to make other people happy by making up something that I want. Because the thing is, because no-one believes me that I really don’t want anything, they end up getting me something that I really really don’t want. Years and years of things I really didn’t want got sold at car boot sales back in 2011, after spending years residing in the backs of cupboards.
And as for the children…what do they want? Well, let’s review what they currently play with. Selotape. Katie is obsessed. So obsessed, in fact, that I bought her, for less than £1, a roll of brightly coloured sticky tape. She takes it to bed, she wraps everything in it, she loves it. And she loves a dirty Hello Kitty toy that our neighbour gave her, when she was doing a clear-out of her older daughter’s toys. Lily draws and cuts shapes out of paper, almost as obsessively as Katie plays with her sellotape.
I’m not suggesting my children should be denied lovely things. But our house is full of fancy toys they never play with, have no interest in, and will not miss when I inevitably bin them or bring them to the charity shop before we move back on board Carina. My kids’ needs are simple. What they need is this – the physical and emotional space to explore, play, imagine, grow, and enjoy each other.
And I am eternally grateful to all our wonderful family members who care so much to start asking us in September each year what we want for Christmas. They are asking because they love and care for us. But love and care don’t need to be expressed through consumption and materialism. They can be expressed in other ways, in giving things that can’t be bought and have no price – things such as time spent together, listening, laughing, appreciating, being kind.
And what do I really really want for Christmas? Apart from the obvious (global equality, world peace, an end to poverty), what I really really want for Christmas, is for people to stop obsessing about stuff and get on with enjoying each other’s company over Christmas and throughout the year.