I love Christmas, adore it… and I don’t believe Jesus was born on that day, oh yeah it’s not meant to be taken that literally! I know why, it shots me back to the magic of being a kid and the infection the holiday season seems to have on most people. That feeling of being a great human being, that we can only keep up for very short periods of time. It cheers you up when it’s dark and cold and we have decided long ago to replace Paganism with something more written and orderly ritualistic, and more Roman. Unless you have the misfortune to live in hot country at yuletide! How weird!
There was a moment when The Wife was wavering about the ‘lie’ of Big Daddy C, the morality of it all. It was touch and go for a few months. Not the first year The Boy was born, he was too young to realise then, then the next Christmas, there was a large approaching tinselly fan and a meteorite sized ball of excretum hurtling towards it. The Wife normally gets her way, if I learnt anything in that monastery in Tibet, it was: the path of least resistance, and less people get injured taking that quieter pathway. I knew that the magic had to be passed down, the meme of excitement, nothing rivals it, let me think… no, absolutely nothing at all rivals it. Nothing comes close to the commercial benevolence/love/delight/enchantment of Christmas morning. But there was a window when it nearly never happened for the offspring. The Wife was brought up in another culture from the East (Midlands)–not the same East the Wise Men were travelling too, well before there geographically. A poor background that could well make you cry, especially at Christmas with syrupy Christmas songs filling the ether and alcohol tickling your brain, they had just short of nothing. I’d tried all approaches, even getting my parents to have a word, several words, the look of joint perplexion on their faces, still not a clincher. I was down to the last two: rendition (illegal apparently!) and getting friends she trusted to, ‘have a word.’
When The Boy was a single child we would travel east; not as far as the Magi, just to Hull. It was close to the religious birthing date and we went out for a drink in the Kingstown with two friends that had passed her ‘trust test.’ Let’s call them the Two Robs (The Fox and The Flying Elephant–it doesn’t matter). It was the last chance saloon we were all drinking in that night, and there was no shirking the responsibility that lay ahead for the Three Wise Men, before they were led by the bottle. One that could not be left, to be impaired by the imbibition of too much alcohol; alcohol has complex effects on The Wife: stage 1, Open, sociable, relaxed. Stage 2, pseudo-ethics lecturer. Stage 3, self-opinionated, argumentative, semi belligerent, the part of the brain that says: ‘you’ve had enough to drink’, malfunctions, until blackout and snoring occurs. So it is always prudent to get in at the earliest juncture in the operation. I immediately outlined the brief, and it was met with dismay from the Two Bobs. They thought it was some cruel joke, a Faustian pact with Beelzebub himself. I explained further, that this was not some amusing wind-up, this real and paramount. Then the factual stories of presents and family rituals and general wonderment started to be shared; the games (pre-computers), the cowboy outfit, the clock-radios, books, rebound, Subbuteo, crossfire, clothes, selection boxes, sweets, new footballs, bikes, scooters, monolites; whatever the the weather they had to be tested on the day. But above and beyond the retail adornments, was the way it made us feel, that we could fly without wings; the feeling that is very hard to replicate except briefly with LSD and a very large building. The tri-pincer movement was successful, but there was only one caveat in bold and point 14 hellibetshecan typeface: “I’m having nothing to do with it. You organise, buy, and wrap all the presents.” (They have to be wrapped, even from Santa, another layer of excitement.)
So that was the compromise, which when you’re reliving the magic of Christmas morning, one of the reasons you have had kids and lost sleep, time and money, it is a compromise worth negotiating as we climbed from our respective trenches, cleared the barbed wire and kicked a football around whilst eating a Waitrose mince pie.
Christmas is entrenched in routine and to break with tradition is like an accountant running off to join a travelling cult that specialises in circus skills. Early Christmas even when The Girl arrived was at my parents, which was always great, relaxing after the long autumn term, no driving, little food prep and cooking, catching up with old friends and instant baby-sitters. Then my parents’ place became too small, well it stayed the same size, the kids grew, and the mantle was passed to me, I’m reluctant to say us–it was me; that was the deal. It is yet another tipping point on the journey of life when you are cooking the Christmas dinner; that you have learnt over many years by osmosis. No cramming with Delia or Jamie for me. Even though we are from Yorkshire we do not have Yorkshire puddings with our Christmas meal! Unbelievably some do, I know! There should be no rules, but come on you sick bastards!
One year I tried to break with tradition and have a four-stuffed bird, instead of the traditional meme of turkey our family have eaten from as far back as 1824, the year we replaced Bustard. The consternation on my mother’s face was followed simply by, ‘oh no.’ Like I had served her some opportunistic road kill wrapped in a fresh birthing blanket. Again in the interests of peace–never ever again. This year will be interesting, as The Girl is a vegetarian again, the first time was after seeing a monkey being cooked on an open fire in the Amazon Rainforest–I wonder what they have for Christmas? Aardvark? Just Vark? This time she is in for the longer haul and I anticipate my dad trying to be tactful and ignoring the nut-roast, until he can bear it no more, “What is that?”
One tradition we have is ‘silly-presents’. These are on the embellished table, wrapped and offering so much. There is a limit to how much can be spent, it goes back a long way in our geniality, the first limit was half a groat. These presents can cause just as much excitement as any larger electrical item under the tree. Often a lot of effort can go into these. One year when The Boy was dressing in his ‘homeless-wino’s-casual-day-wear’ (Shabby-shabby-unchic). I spent a considerable amount of time putting together a ‘Christmas box’ which included among other things; a woolly hat, a can of Specialbrew, potatoes (he spent a lot of time bemoaning that we were eating too many potatoes that year), an old pair of 80s shell suit bottoms dotted with cig burns and a Christmas edition of ‘The Big Issue’, that I spent far too long writing an article, allegedly written by The Boy: A vendor’s story, and photoshopping the front cover with a photo of him in a Santa Coca-Cola suit, with a witty caption, which was so witty I have now forgotten it! The story of the Homeless box will now be recanted by a log fire with a tankard of mead for many decades to come. It is the only morning of the year my mother has a glass of alcohol before lunchtime. Just as the food is about to be served, The Wife will re-enter the kitchen and take over, guilt is a heavy burden to carry! This throws my chakras well out of alignment and after the harmony of the morning, can lead to sharp words encouraged by sparkling wine. So, way back in the safety of the summer, I broached the issue and suggested that if I have spent two hours cooking the dinner, the turkey is always cooked the day before, maybe I should finish it off, then when she was relaxed in the sun, she agreed. Once the ink was dry on the contract (always get it in writing) I brought up the emotion of guilt. She did not agree, but she did not disagree, so make your own inferences.
Before we had the loft converted, film studios used to use it as set for horror movies, and just entering it could easily give you a long-term industrial mining disease. In the loft were a sideboard and an old trunk, a ship in a bottle scenario I could never work out. These were relatively dust free inside, and this is where the presents were hidden and never ever found. But one Saturday afternoon in December every year The Wife would take the kids out and I would don my Heisenberg suit, equipped with selotape and wrapping paper and I would wrap. [Insert your own rap joke here.]
The Boy was ten and he still believed, not pretended to like his younger sister, believed, just like I used to until that age–you can stop your GCSE Psychology–I know! A good hiding place is the key to success and a story of wraiths, and Dante idioms always helps. There were only two people in his entire class that still believed, and with a heavy heart it was agreed that this had to be the last year. But something traumatic happened, he had gone to bed and was asleep, and we were all about to go up and for some inexplicable reason he woke up and came down stairs to catch me and my dad putting the presents next to the fire. We had already done the footprints with glitter around them, put the sherry back in the bottle, and left the remnants of the reindeer eaten carrots on the hearth. The look of abject horror while he tried to completely fathom it, the lack of response from two generations of fathers. There were tears. He was so traumatised that we let him sleep in our room on a mattress and he kept repeating his mantra until exhaustion enveloped him: ‘But why would you be so kind, why would you buy us two lots of presents?’ It’s good question, with a simple answer, because we love you (well I do!) and we wanted Christmas to be magical (well I did!)
Once he had calmed down we explained the situation in more detail and told him as long as he kept up the pretence for his sister, 4 years younger, but had still probably worked it out before he did, Santa would still visit for both of them, a win/win for him in material terms. If you truly believe something exists, then it does.
The irony now there is no Santa is The Wife loves Christmas; it allowed her to have the magic she missed out on with the contentment of being a good parent by proxy. She tells stories of The Salvation Army bringing them presents when she was young, and to start with we thought she was winding us all up, but it’s the truth–I’ve checked their records in the British Library. I’m less excited these days, but I know excitement is on a backburner until maybe grandchildren, then straight onto the wok ring with brandy poured in.
Once you stop believing the magic dies significantly, it’s a steep decent that day. But the magic can never die because it gets passed on; it is the meme of love, family and friendship, the three things that hold us all together. I know I’m a hypocrite, but I’m not a doctor, and sometimes the white snowy lies are worth perpetuating, because the alternative is just totally unimaginable, and by lying the lives’ of three people were enhanced measurably.
I hope you get the silly present you don’t need, that brings a big smile to your face.
And I hope you get all the love, family and friendship you deserve this festive period–that we all deserve this Christmas. Go on ring them, you know whom I’m talking to, just ring them; they’ll forgive you, because they love you, and love is not just for Christmas.
BIG LOVE, Ian xx
Foot-sex of the Mind was out on Saturday 13th December 2014
Charlotte inexplicably finished with Felix on their last day at Lady Margaret’s College, Oxford. They had been inseparable for the last two years and even now, seventeen years later, Felix still has no idea why she did this to him; to them? Why she just ‘quit him’? Now she is back in the country and wants to meet up, but what has she been doing all this time? Why now, after so long?