My nine year old grandson asked me last week, “Granny, what was the best Christmas you ever had?”
Without hesitation I answered, “It was the Christmas when I’d just separated from your grandfather and moved into a different house a few days before Christmas. Your Daddy was 14. My three youngest sons were still in school, one was in college and one had left home. I’d put my last penny down on the house. We had no money at all. In those days we didn’t have credit cards and I never borrowed money.
“We made an agreement that nobody was allowed to spend more than one pound (that’s a dollar fifty) on any gift, and that there would be a prize for the most ingenious idea. It was won by your Uncle Mark who gave his older brother a matchbox containing a written ‘IOU five pounds.’ His prize was a bar of chocolate and he shared it with us all.
“We always opened our presents at Christmas one at a time after breakfast, sitting under the tree, sharing the excitement. This time we did it more slowly to make it last, with many laughs and surprises. Some small items were wrapped in big boxes with layers of newspaper so it was impossible to guess that the gift was a pencil sharpener or a packet of gum. The novelty made us all laugh until we hurt. It was the funniest Christmas ever.”
He sighed and said “I’d like a Christmas like that.” His Christmases are invariably rich in love and gifts, but I knew what he meant.
The next time I saw him he said, “I don’t want anything for Christmas, Granny.” I said, “Oh, I do. I want lots of hugs. You can’t have too many hugs.” Hugs ensued.
Looking back over 78 Christmases, some observations might serve. If you have global friends, write your Christmas cards in time to catch the post worldwide. Christmas greetings in January are irrelevant; better never than late. Don’t enclose a boastful insert. If you send a round robin, make sure it contains some of the year’s downers or you’ll depress the recipients. I’m disappointed if someone I only hear from once a year writes: “Love, Poppy and Greg.” I know WHO they are – I want to know HOW they are.
If you can’t afford the stamps (mailing abroad is expensive enough to think twice about it if your list is long), send electronic cards by email. There’s a website that sends a wide selection of beautiful animated greeting cards for all occasions on your behalf, unlimited cards for a modest yearly subscription. Bargain! But I like opening the envelopes and standing the cards on my shelf. Some of those friends have been on my Christmas list for fifty years. I’ve moved house 13 times in five countries so cards are the best way to stay in touch with people you care about.
In 1970 we moved house a week before Christmas when we had two boys in primary school, the baby was 13 months old and I was six months pregnant with twins. I wrote Christmas cards in October that year and bought all the Christmas gifts, wrapped and stored them in tea chests months before in anticipation of the move. By the time Christmas arrived I’d forgotten what I’d bought. Gifts for the children from relatives were stacked under the Christmas tree. The baby crawled around the tree, pulling all the labels off the parcels so we had no idea who had sent what, and for whom. We simply guessed which child the gift was suitable for, and I wrote notes to all the donors saying “Thank you for the lovely gift,” wondering what it had been. It all added to the confusion. Fortunately I have always been able to see the funny side of things.
Since my teens there was only one Christmas when I didn’t send cards. It was1982 and I was 45. I was studying for my final exams at university. My husband was working at the other end of the country and four of my five sons were in school. I used to get up at 5 a.m. to revise before taking the boys to school. I picked them up on my way home from college and the evenings were spent cooking a meal and supervising their homework, so weekends were for writing essays. I thought I’d skip the cards that year, not realizing this would cause more trouble than it saved. Friends from all over the world wrote asking “What happened? Are you OK?” and I had to write to reassure them I was just busy. No email in those days.
The following check list might help.
- It’s taken for granted you have a Christmas mailing list. (Tuck a copy of the list in with your Will to save your kids a lot of time later.)
- Make your Christmas fruitcake with butter six weeks in advance. In an airtight container it’s one less thing to worry about in December. It will improve for keeping, if you can keep it. Most years I had to make it twice because we lacked willpower.
- If you don’t make your own eggnog, add a little of your favorite spirit to improve it. Why do they leave out the alcohol?
- Stock up on essentials like wine, sherry, gin, rum, port, whisky, beer and tonic. If you are worthier than that, stock up on soy milk, vegetable juice, bean sprouts, gluten free pasta, tofu, textured vegetable protein, quinoa and pearl barley.
- Make sure you have a bag of onions, the most useful vegetable of all, especially when it comes to stuffing.
- Don’t bother to vacuum the house the week before. One fell swoop at the end will suffice because the tree will continue to shed. Also, you are not being marked on last week’s cleaning.
- Energy conservation (yours) is essential. Only dust up to eye level. If you have any tall guests coming, dust a shelf higher. I once had a friend who was 6ft. 7inches, quite a challenge. He said he was used to seeing people’s out of sight dust and not to worry.
- Wrap all your gifts in advance. Don’t underestimate the time it takes. (I once miscalculated, was wrapping presents until 2 a.m. on Christmas morning and felt ragged when roused at 5 a.m. by my small son shining a torch in my eyes: “Look what Santa brought!”)
- Keep handy some spare wrapping paper and a few things that interest you, for extra gifts (scented soap, candles, chocolate liqueurs, fine wines) and hope that nobody else needs them.
- If you start picking out gifts for grandchildren a few weeks in advance, restrain yourself or you’ll have to hold some back for their birthdays. It’s tempting to over-buy. Several small gifts are more fun to unwrap than one big one (unless it’s a car).
- Choose gifts to reflect the interests of the receivers. Very few people, especially kids, get excited about pajamas.
- If your mother in law always sends you outsize tights for Christmas, don’t worry. She is saying less about you than about herself.
- At any age, be sure to program moments to sit down, between hours in the kitchen and standing with cocktails.
- If you are the hostess, this is not the occasion to wear your three inch heels.
- If you are a guest, claim the most comfortable chair before others settle. If you are over sixty this is less selfishness than self-preservation.
- Stop counting calories two days before Christmas and resume in the New Year.
- If you are under thirty, hope the festivities will make the oldies sleepy so you can slip out to the pub.
- Don’t party and drive. Toss a coin before you go, for a designated driver.
- Don’t forget that alcohol makes some people combative and relatives are hard enough to get on with when they’re sober.
- If you are dyslexic, it’s OK to write to Satan.
- If the food is not up to scratch, say nothing, unless you are the hostess; then you can say “I’m sorry, I’m sure it’ll be better next year, when you cook.”
- On BBC radio sixty years ago I heard the Radio Doctor give his unforgettable recipe for a Happy Christmas: “Two teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda.”