“What is your favourite childhood memory?”
This is a question that came up at work last week. Three of us were involved in the conversation — a nineteen-year-old, a twenty-seven-year-old and a sixty-year-old. All of us women.
We decided unanimously that none of us had a ‘favourite’ memory.
Not that we had a difficult childhood, but we all had a standard childhood which doesn’t come with cinematic moments by the bucket-load. Instead we discussed the funny things that had happened, the mistakes we’d made and the people we remembered — without rose-tinted glasses.
I did make the point, though, that Christmases spent with my Grandparents were pretty special. Considering how much things have changed since then, those festive days do feel a little like a dream sequence now.
As a child, Christmas was spent at my Grandparent’s family home in Surrey. It was the family home where my Mum and her two brothers grew up, and we would also visit regularly on a Sunday to repeat the traditions of a dog walk, a cup of tea at four o’clock, and a single plate of biscuits shared between all in attendance.
Christmas, however, was another event altogether.
At Christmas, the front room would be home to a giant Christmas tree which sat proud in the bay window. My Grandad would decorate it with coloured lights and brightly coloured decorations. It was much more about the spirit of Christmas than the colour co-ordination. The tree would be invaded by presents of all shapes and sizes, beached on the floor below it, wearing coloured paper with bright patterns, ribbons and bows. My Grandad was the kind of person who took to wrapping presents like a military operation, and so would measure the paper and carefully address each tag, unlike me who now hacks at wrapping paper with scissors and hopes for the best.
Each year, my uncle would wrap his present to me in such an elaborate fashion, that opening each box would lead to another, and I never had a hope in hell of guessing what the gift was going to be. He was elated to watch me rip off paper and expect the gift advertised on the box, only to find something entirely different.
As well as my Uncle’s wrapping extravagance, my Grandad had his own Christmas traditions. Each year he would construct something new as a Christmas decoration accomplaniment. The one I remember best was a wooden carousel which he somehow crafted entirely himself. It had the recognisable horses who danced around in a circle just like a real carousel but on a smaller scale with the aid of a tiny motor. In my mind, it also had lights and music, but I can’t be sure now if that is true. I would be so excited to see what he had created, and I’m sure it was just as rewarding for him to see the look on my face when he revealed it to me.
My Granny’s job was the food. Rightly so because she was an incredible cook, though perhaps a little indulgent. I’m not sure her quantities of sugar, salt and butter are what would be recommended today, but then again, it never did her any harm.
Looking back on it now, there is a cinematic excess to watching these memories back in my head. The large family (and dog) scattered across carpet and chairs in front of a fire to open presents. The coloured lights sending twinkles of colour to bounce off shiny decorations and beam across the room. The scents of food cooking in the kitchen wafting into the air to mix with gasps of joy, laughter and the occasional confused bark.
What a beautiful scene. A privledged, spoiled-child’s heaven.
The once family home is sold now as there’s no one to live in it anymore. It was strange to say goodbye to the bricks that seems to hold the very spirit of our family, but we all left that living room a long time ago.
I spent my first Christmas season alone two years ago. I’ve spent them with flatmates or my Mum, but that year it was just my cat, Kaiju and I.
Being on my own, Christmas felt like an entirely pointless exercise. I bought a tree and decorations only to keep up appearances as I thought trying to explain I didn’t really see the point in spending money on a Christmas tree to share with my cat would only lead to people worrying about me. Instead I put the tree and decorations up at the end of November, just to get it out of the way.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to celebrate, and I very much did with my Dad and his family in Scotland, but to be honest Christmas doesn’t really start until I walk through his front door. I then return home for a mini-Christmas with my Mum just before New Year.
It’s a common conception that much of the magic of Christmas is lost when you’re no longer a child or you have no children to share it with.
I think that’s true to an extent.
For me, Christmas is an excuse to reconnect with the concept of family. It’s a time where I write cards to all those lost people, and I remember them once again, only to be forgotten when the approaching year has arrived. The pageantry of the occasion doesn’t do a lot for me anymore, and perhaps that’s because I could never outdo my Grandparents so I don’t see the point in trying. Perhaps also because engaging with it is just a reminder of the things that are missing; the people I’m yet to replace.
The dramatic, though realistically mediocre, change in my Christmas circumstances made me think about just how much I have deviated from the traditions of my Grandparents.
My Mum was the black sheep, if you will, as a young woman. Despite my Grandparents’ conservative views, she moved to Brighton, and then London, lived in a women’s shelter, never married and had one bastard child (me). All of which I am IMMENSELY in awe of.
Growing up alongside my Mum, it’s fair to say these views of the world have rubbed off on me, though my Dad does share many of them.
I adored my Grandparents. Even saying that is an understatement — but they had the Daily Mail delivered to their house every day, and they read it. When I was unemployed after leaving university, Granny told me it would be fine, as long as I wasn’t applying for the ridiculous jobs they advertised in the Guardian (which I was). They were Tory supporters to the bone, xenophobes, racist, married, and family-centred.
Somehow, I turned out an almost perfect opposite.
Even though I spent hours in that family home, delighting in the company of my family and revelling in the comfort of middle-class Britain, I abandoned it all without regret. I followed in my Mum’s footsteps, mirroring her disinterest in marriage, her liberal politics and her choice to live alone with a cat.
How different things could have been…