I’ve had one of those profound days when I spotted another sign that I’m gradually becoming my father. In January I turn thirty-one, my childhood Christmases are now nostalgic events of many years ago. Despite my attempts to recreate them in some form, today I have finally accepted that they are gone forever.
As a kid my Christmases were held either at my parents’ home or at my grandparents’ remote bungalow in the Staffordshire moorlands. The logistics of moving the family almost two-hundred miles for Christmas were a feat I couldn’t appreciate as a child. One Christmas my brother and I received a BMX each. Somehow, along with all of our luggage and other presents, my dad had managed to shoehorn them both into the back of a Rover 2800 without us finding out. Parents seem to acquire magical and creative powers at Christmas. One such creative present was a model railway that my dad had built himself. The feat of engineering was constructed on 3×2″ timber props and occupied an entire room. It must have taken him weeks, skulpting mountains and tunnels from polystyrene and covering them with bristly green beize, laying tracks and junctions – it was a work of art. I don’t think as a young child I expressed anything more than immediate excitement at the presents themselves. I feel it’s only with the wisdom of later life that you or I can appreciate the effort that parents put in, but by the time you realise this it seems soppy to say, “Thank you, I always had the best Christmases as a kid.” However, good things never last forever.
When I was a toddler there were seven of us around the table, by my eleventh Christmas there were six. By the age of fourteen Christmas lunch was served for a table of five. Ten years ago my family numbered just four, and eight years ago I left home. As each Christmas arrived fewer decorations were hung, less food was prepared, and a festive atmosphere that used to spill out to fill an entire household gradually shrank to the space in front of the television. Never let it be said that any were less enjoyable or welcome than the ones that had gone before. I’ve been blessed to have always had a wonderful Christmas, but each year someone or something was lost; a cumulative effect that can only be noted in retrospect – and by the time I had realised what was missing it could not be retrieved. The three trees usually erected around the house became two, and eventually just one. The mulled wine that was warmed for a dozen people was no longer made, the entertaining menus that dad would print for Christmas dinner no longer seemed worthwhile, the pile of presents so large it expanded to another pile that sat apart from the tree became smaller, and the Boxing Day walk that contained three generations of my family ceased to happen. I remember every Christmas as being coated with thick snow and carol singers coming to the door. In reality I don’t think either actually happened – but somehow my parents created an illusion of the perfect Christmas that was so complete I even fondly recall aspects that didn’t actually happen. Like I say, parents can create magic.
For the first time in my life I’m not seeing my parents this Christmas Day, instead my better-half and I went to lunch with them today. The ‘bucks-fizz on arrival’ tradition was upheld (every family has some weird festive tradition don’t they?) but from thereon it was just a lunch like any other. We finished with coffee, mum switched on the news, my dad did The Times’ crossword. We then exchanged best wishes and carrier bags of presents before we headed for home. That was the moment when I poignantly realised that the magic really is all over. My parents have retired from thirty years of tireless and incredible work in stage-managing the perfect Christmas every year.
I have wonderful memories and packed photo albums, but today those are tinged with a little sadness. I’m no longer the kid who excitedly woke up before dawn, the kid getting irate with his grandparents for taking so long to get ready and come downstairs; nor am I the kid wearing the paper crown and wrapped up in a beautiful illusion.
This Christmas Day I’m going to be with my partner’s family, I’m looking forward to it immensly. There will be seven of us seated around the table this year, and two eager young kids to entertain.
Let’s make some magic.