A FEW weekends ago I was slopping freshly made mango chutney into hot jars (I’m yet to find a tidy way to do it), and I remembered a similar moment at about the same time last year.
I agreed to purchase tickets, relieved to find suitable coins remaining in my wallet after the weekend’s shopping. While I was writing my details on the tickets, the children discussed what to do about the money stretching the plastic zip-lock bag they were using to carry it. Evidently their fundraising efforts were bearing fruit.
They looked like brother and sister, the boy a few years older than the girl. The girl offered a suggestion; the boy pointed out a limiting factor and they then decided on a solution. My ticket signing complete, they thanked me and headed off to the next house.
I thanked them too. They were making the effort to walk around knocking on doors, often a tiring and occasionally unpleasant task when confronted with hostile residents; not everyone is able to decline, or even accept, requests for money politely.
But more than that, the interaction between the children took me straight back to my own childhood experience with my older siblings, the brother nearest me in age most of all. Even though we were five years separate in age, a significant gap when young, we were each other’s principal playmate. Matchbox car “races”, water pistols at ten paces (they didn’t shoot very far in the ‘60s) and numerous other pursuits, frequently of his invention.
My brother was also my adviser and instant encyclopedia. I remembered his stern warning: “You’ll spill that” as I attempted to eat a breakfast bowl of cornflakes in bed. He was right of course, I did. He could also explain how it was possible that The Beatles could be singing Love, Love Me Do on the family record player, while we could hear them being interviewed live on the radio at the same moment. No wonder I believed he was omniscient.
The first hint I had that he might be fallible was the Christmas he decided to find out who Santa really was. I helped him set up a system of strings and fishing line in his bedroom, suspending a metal money box so that when Santa opened the door it would break a string, the money box would crash to the floor and wake him up, catching Santa in the act of stuffing the Christmas stocking hung at the end of the bed. The trap worked a treat, except that my brother slept right through it. “Santa” even had time to come back and hang a note on one of the strings.
The mystery of Santa’s true identity was never solved, although our father died when we were aged 12 and 17 respectively and that eliminated one suspect. But then we didn’t care because that meant Christmas, or indeed almost everything, was never the same.
Christmas day with family can bring a mixture of feelings. When our relationships with siblings, parents and others are based on happy times, the annual gathering can be eagerly anticipated and enjoyed.
For some, though, memories of lost loved ones dilute their enjoyment of the company of those still present. And sometimes when family members who prefer to keep a safe distance most of the year meet again for the day it can be hard work for everyone. For others, the stress of preparing the house, trying to buy suitable gifts for everyone, preparing food for days beforehand and then coping with a house full of people is just too much.
If Christmases past have taken from you more than they have given, maybe it’s time for a re-think. If some relationships tend to get strained, try moving the location somewhere neutral and unenclosed so combatants have space. If unacknowledged grief has caused headaches and knotted stomachs on past occasions it may work better to acknowledge it with a brief ceremony or by creating a small memorial space, allowing for a moment to reflect and then let go.
Instead of spending all day in the kitchen, suggest each visitor brings something. You can co-ordinate it or go “pot luck”; if you end up with three potato salads so what; they will all be different and you can add to the fun by voting on the most nutritious or the prettiest or the most unusual ingredients.
You might all agree to make gifts entirely from found objects, or swap home-made food items (mango chutney, anyone?) rather than spend a fortune buying things people don’t really need. Or just stop doing the gift thing altogether; a day free of such expectation might be liberating.
Whatever your Christmas traditions, may they bring you joyful connection with your people, reliving fond memories and maybe creating some new ones. If you are trying something new this year whether by choice or necessity, may your explorations be stimulating and fruitful.
Above all, may you review the year that’s been with gratitude for all its varied experiences, and anticipate the coming year with optimism.