THE ALTERNATIVE FAMILY CHRISTMAS
It was a very strange Christmas. It started normally, with the seven foot, artificial tree being decked, from top to bottom, with dozens of shiny red and silver baubles. To those were added sparkling, seasonal trinkets, collected over decades, and tired, scalloped garlands of small, golden beads. Dotted between these glittering decorations were four sets of lights, with hundreds of bulbs, all flashing in different ways, entertaining the children, but threatening seizures to anyone over forty.
Grandad’s increasing unsteadiness was the determining factor for action for Mum. She had to duck beneath the spikey branches, to press all four control panels several times, to still the multi-dazzle display, rather than risk spending Christmas day in Accident and Emergency, with her toppling father, instead of serving up the Christmas festivities. It would not have been a first. As she kneeled under the tree, Grandad took the last furtive swig from the bottle of brandy he had hidden behind The Angling Times, at the back of a neglected cupboard. He would dispose of the empty bottle later.
The family joined in the singing of TV carols from regular stars, like Nat King Cole, Mariah Carey and Noddy Holder, as well ruining descants by duetting with the angelic voices of the Kings College’s Choir. There was laughter, and mulled wine, with crisps, mince pies, and lots of chatter. It seemed a typically Christmassy, family scene, in an area in northern England. The only stress, it seemed, was the gentle coaxing away of children from the wrapped presents under the tree. Evidence already existed of small holes, from fingers prodding for clues, to see if Santa had delivered correctly. Hard, lumpy packages meant toys. Soft, squishy ones were boring clothing, and no child wished the latter.
No one thought to ask Mum if she needed a hand. She always did it all by herself. She had two states of operation: silent dedication and volcanic eruption. There was nothing between and one never knew where the first would end. Sometimes it seemed to go on forever; but as she was now fifty, the gap seemed to be closing. They assumed she would ask for help if it was needed; she assumed they would offer. Both were wrong.
Mum had worked hard, after returning from midnight mass on Christmas Eve, to have the house spick and span and the laundry basket empty. She needed every sheet, towel and pillowcase for the returning tribe, whom she loved and valued so dearly; but mostly they took her for granted. She had run out of space for hanging even more laundry that night, and had been so tired, that everyone had marched into breakfast, on Christmas morning, to an accidental change of mantelpiece décor. Instead of the eight Christmas present stockings, which had been hanging over the fireplace, there were seven drying underpants, in various sizes and colours, and a single, dingy, grey sack of unknown origin; they turned out to be Grandma’s giant, holey bloomers.
As the family sat down together, they expected a table centrepiece of the customary, big bosomed, bronzed turkey, with bulging, Mike Tyson thighs.
Grandma had dreamt in 1975 that one Christmas, she would win the lottery while wearing a pair of billowing pantaloons, so they became a traditional, seasonal garment. Much to the mirth of the family, thirty-nine years later, those pants had stretched from 22 to about size 30, and Gran, at ninety years old, had shrunk to a size 8. They swamped her small frame like an open parachute, or a collapsed marquee, padding her out like a Womble; but it was the lunch that Christmas, which made the day turn very odd indeed.
As the family sat down together, they expected a table centrepiece of the customary, big bosomed, bronzed turkey, with bulging, Mike Tyson thighs. Instead, they saw what mum called a “hazelnut roast” in its place.
“It looks like a house brick with bad acne,” said grandad, slipping an unusually heavy angling magazine in his pocket. Someone else asked: “Where’s the giblet gravy?” There was none, said Mum triumphantly, as she placed a large, glass jug of water, containing sliced lemons apples and small pieces of ginger, on the table, instead of the usual bottles of red and white vino.
In place of the traditional banquet they usually ate, there were bowls of steaming carrots, beetroot, cauliflower, shredded cabbage and, as a concession to the season, brussels sprouts, tossed in pumpkin seed oil, not butter, and sprinkled with lightly toasted almonds. A colourful salad was placed at each end of the table. The ham with pineapple and cloves was missing, as were the three different types of stuffing, and the customary giant dish of crusty, fluffy potatoes, roasted in goose fat. There was no bread sauce, nor cranberry sauce, nor pigs in blankets, the little sausages the children loved, wrapped in crispy rashers of streaky bacon. Even the roasted parsnips had gone, mum said, because the caramelised burnt bits everyone loved, were “acrylamide”, and therefore carcinogenic. Having friends who had lost their breasts and lives to cancer in the previous year, she was keen to keep her natural figure and existence.
Grandad scratched his head in silence, as his jacket swung strangely heavily on one side, and the older youngsters looked at each other in confusion. The adult offspring spluttered their indignation at the change, but Mum was adamant that the sparsely set meal was the best of Christmas spread, and cheer, in their little village. Then she struck the jug of water with a ladle, to call attention, and stood up, her hands akimbo, as if ready to do battle. That usually meant she was close to the edge, and ears could get clipped, so everyone was apprehensive, as Mum began her soliloquy.
“Every year, we eat the friends we’ve fattened: the pig, the turkey, the goose. Then we gorge on enough food to feed three times the number of family present. We spend on plastic cards, already empty of credit, and we give presents others already have in quadruplicate, as we fill our arteries with cholesterol and our bodies with tasty, crispy poisons. Is this Christmas? No, it’s commercialism, and I’m done with it. I’m giving notice that we have had the last celebration of excess. Your presents are your clothes, which I’ve washed and ironed, or ones I’ve repaired and cleaned, and your meal is vegetarian. Today, we celebrate family, as family, not as servants of capitalism. We celebrate the gifts of kindness, thoughtfulness, and good health – and whoever wants to leave, can go home now.” She sat down abruptly, and smiled at each family member in turn, searching for dissidence, but there was none. She started to serve lunch, as most mouths remained gaping open, and hands remained in laps. Mum had changed, since she got her social media account, and realised there was life outside of Yorkshire.
Hunger is a great tool for exasperated mothers, when there is no choice of victuals. Everyone ate a little warily at first, and then devoured every morsel, greedily.
Silence fell, as common sense wrestled with what seemed to be an old, destructive tradition. No one moved, but Grandad’s bottle slid through the hole in his jacket pocket and landed loudly on the floor, first to sniggers, and then to great peals of hooting laughter. It broke the ice, and the Christmas spirit returned.
Hunger is a great tool for exasperated mothers, when there is no choice of victuals. Everyone ate a little warily at first, and then devoured every morsel, greedily. Nothing was left, and even the acne-ridden house brick was devoured. Food made with mother love is always tasty, regardless of its content. Mum knew what she was doing, especially when she updated them with her friends’ unfortunate, medical updates, and Grandad and Grandma served pudding, while she put her feet up.
Her adult children then cleared the kitchen, while the children amused themselves with collections of kitchen towel cardboard rolls, empty cotton reels, a roll of rejected wall paper and a few packs of crayons and finger paints. Santa had not sent the Minecraft games, nor the pink CD player or Nike shoes; but there were lollypops to make, and muffins to bake for tea, so that restored their Christmas spirit.
It became their most appreciative Christmas, and set a new, more rewarding pattern of thought, awareness and lifestyle for them all. Grandma hopes her lottery ticket will be successful in 2015, so she can finally ditch the grey, fraying, parachute lingerie, from the family tradition in their home in Slack Bottom, Yorkshire. If she wins, I’ll let you know.
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