There are many reasons not to feel festive this year: the state of the nation, the state of the world. Brace and it will soon be over, is a lot of people’s plan. The pressures can be shattering when resources are low.
Christmas, with all its flagrant excesses, might be an endangered species . . . it is unsustainable in all senses of the word. But Christmas might just be the love of my life. I throw myself at its feet every year — I like saturation and subjugation, with decorations lining the shelves of the fridge. This year, perhaps more than ever, Christmas needs its devotees.
When I was a child, Christmas befriended me strenuously. I learnt from masters of its arts. The first 13 Christmases of my life were spectacular. Like other sorts of early success, did they ruin me for ordinary times?
We were guests of my mother’s best friends, who had five children as we did (and two donkeys). There was a wood nearby with Christmas trees. All the while there was the electric rustle of presents being wrapped, offstage. It was a season in which I felt mended and exalted, as though I were a Christmas carol belted out by angelic choirs.
Every person in this Christmas house was thought about in all their glowing details. Exhibit A — a cast-iron milk pan and little frying pan with coffee jars containing store cupboard staples, when I was five and entering a cheffy phase. Exhibit B — a neat blue typewriter on which a seven-year-old’s first novel might be drafted or a one-act play to be performed on Christmas night. Yet none of this was done with posture or performance, it was light and natural, rippled with pleasure, giddy and involuntary-seeming, the right hand scarcely knowing what the left hand gave.
I soon realised good Christmas presents are permissive, making adventure and pleasure seem not trivial but your due. They were tools for becoming yourself, aids to maturity. This was strong medicine for the difficulties that characterised my non-Christmas life. Year after year, these Christmases lit me up. They were my language and my nationality.
When I graduated to a household of my own, I took from those early Christmases permission to give the season my all. The stockings I pack for my family are pairs of tights, as my mother’s were. Waking with your legs trapped by heavy limbs crackling and clanking with parcels takes some beating. I try to create runs of gifts that create little stories: a DVD of Sullivan’s Travels, in which Veronica Lake’s hair is almost as brilliant as her acting, next to a sachet of hair masque to recreate the look and a small blue Toblerone (with crunchy salted almonds) to eat while viewing.
I sometimes make stockings for people who are very giving themselves, or grieving, or generally living through tough times. Once I sneaked into my neighbour’s house on Christmas Eve while she was out and left a stocking. She was astonished — was there Father Christmas after all?! I denied all knowledge of it, deliberately including some red herrings I don’t care for, such as white chocolate and balsamic vinegar, to throw her off the scent.
Christmas will always be the summit of the year for me, maximum life, a magnificent crisis, all dappled with loss that flickers with the fairy lights. At Christmas, my natural desire to please knows no bounds but so does my desire to be pleased. I think of it as the courtly/Courtney Love conundrum — I want to be the one with the most cake but, ideally, while laying down my cloak for others. This is a fraught state, with dodgy wiring, likely to end explosively, but you cannot beat it for adrenaline.
There have been years when I have tried to wrest my wild festive drives into something more manageable. I’ve had calm Christmases where I’ve eaten sensibly and shopped moderately and woken on Boxing Day without tonsillitis and it just didn’t work for me. Perhaps I require Christmas to send me flying and do me in.
A friend with a university degree in event planning says when organising any kind of special occasion you need to think how you want to feel afterwards, and simply work backwards from there. This year, I’d like the enormous pride I experienced when I was seven and the surgeon at the Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital, who had just removed my tonsils, came in to tell me they were the biggest he had ever seen.
I want the joy I receive from thank you letters saying: “Dear Susie, You are the telepath’s telepath.” I want the unadulterated emotion of Judy Garland singing straight into my central nervous system, “It’s All for You” or “It Never Was You”, I’m not sure which. (Both, perhaps.)
I want my parents back.
Every year, I try to think of a good metaphor to help me ace Christmas, allowing for new thoughts and feelings, while respecting the old.
In previous years, it has been the hero of a country song who you know isn’t good for you — his reputation lies in tatters — but those beguiling eyes, that gap-toothed smile . . . as he approaches, you swear you won’t fall for it this time, but . . . .
It’s the moment in A Little Princess when Sara and Becky, half-faint with hunger, wake in their attic to a glowing fire in the grate, dressing gowns, silk coverlets and covered dishes on a white cloth, courtesy of a mystery benefactor.
No, it’s a wild horse that must be broken in, every 12 months, for the rest of your life.
And, this year, I am thinking of something TS Eliot wrote in a letter concerning his friend and mentor Ezra Pound: “The only way to avoid hurting Ezra’s feelings is to let him hurt yours.”
There is much of the stern honour and duty of Christmas in that line.
Susie Boyt’s latest novel is ‘Loved and Missed’ (Virago)
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