Sunday 23 December 2018

Happy Birthday Jesus

by Helen O'Neill

sweet sherry  

I have a terrible confession. I hate Christmas.
It’s not that I’m a bad person or that I let my inner Scrooge scrimp on festivities. It’s just the overwhelming pressure of getting it right. I don’t know what I was thinking when I invited both sides of the family over for the big day. We don’t even have enough chairs. But Michael is convinced that the garden furniture will be fine now I’ve made Christmas cushions for it, and we can just about fit into the dining room as long as no one needs to get up to go to the loo. It’s meant the seating plan has been organised with wedding like precision, making sure that Aunty Mabel is by the door and our two young boys are in the corner, because quite frankly, they can crawl under the table if nature calls for them. Uncle Brian will be furthest from the book case so he can’t challenge every topic in the conversation by grabbing an encyclopaedia to look it up and prove a point. Thank goodness he hasn’t discovered the joy of the internet yet or I’m sure I’d have to confiscate his phone. Speaking of which, I must remember to switch off the Wi-Fi or my sister Jane’s teenage girls will spend the day with their virtual friends rather than their real family.
A turkey the size of a horse has been in the oven since 3am which is only just after the boys finally settled down, exhaustion winning the battle over Santa excitement. Michael did offer to help, but dozed off on the sofa watching a re-run of a Christmas special, and stumbled up to bed shortly afterwards, leaving me in the kitchen with soggy sleeves and my fingers turning to prunes as I peeled a mountain of potatoes. Minutes after I finally shut my eyes, the kids decided that Santa had had plenty of time to make his delivery and I was awake again, this time to the sounds of rustling and laughter. I thought about sending them back to bed, but as most of the other lights were on in the houses down the street I didn’t have the heart. This could be the last year the boys believe in the magic of Christmas and it seemed a shame to spoil it, so I rubbed yesterdays mascara from around my eyes and dragged the covers off, descending wearily to make a strong coffee while Michael feigned surprise as the boys held up each of their new toys; delight on their small faces.
The family invitation instructed an arrival time of 2pm, which means I can expect Aunty Mabel to arrive late morning. She will have brought with her a traditional suet pudding that I will be obliged to find room for on the stove and everyone will be forced to take a slice, even though the poor woman thinks a shovel full of salt needs to be added to all food items, including desert. Uncle Brian will give us a lesson on the history of Christmas puddings, leading us back through pagan rituals and into the modern day, and we will all try and pretend that we don’t know the thing has been boiling in lard and is doing more damage to our arteries than a packet of cigarettes. Not that I don’t fully intend to pop out to keep Jane company when she slips outside for a cheeky puff so the girls, who are at that age where they are both impressionable and judgemental, don’t see her, and I fully intend to emotionally blackmail her into letting me have at least a drag.
By mid morning the boys have devoured a breakfast of chocolate, candy canes and cola and are rushing around the house playing with their new toys while still dressed in their pyjamas. The door bell rings and Aunty Mabel is standing in a fog of lavender perfume that aggravates Michael’s allergies as he takes her coat and hangs it up. Aunty Mable kicks off her smart court shoes and replaces them with a pair of bright pink sheepskin slippers which look quite ridiculous with her tweed suit. There’s pink lipstick on her teeth, but as adding a new layer of mascara on top of yesterday’s is the extent of my own personal grooming, I choose not to mention it and instead kiss her lightly on each powdered cheek, showing her into the living room and going to put the kettle on. Aunty Mabe l settles herself into the large armchair that’s closest to the TV and picks up the remote, switching the channel away from the children’s cartoon and nods approvingly as she selects the BBC Christmas Day service. When I’ve handed her my best mug, she peers over the rim, takes a sip and pulls a face. She reaches down into her leather handbag and pulls out a little silver flask of something to give it a kick. Her satisfaction is again measured by a nod and she begins to conduct proceedings, waving her arm over her head as her shrill voice drifts through to me in the kitchen where I am frantically cutting little crosses onto the top of a thousand sprouts that I’m not even sure anyone will eat.
I’m so absorbed in my task that when Michael reaches his arms around my waist and nuzzles my clammy neck, I scream in terror. The boys decide this is a great game and join in the chorus as they run in and out of the kitchen. I beg him to get them dressed before the rest of our guests descend and he kisses me again before ushering them upstairs. I have a flash of jealousy at the ease, in which he redirects their activity, but the kitchen is now filled with steam from the boiling lard pool that the suet pudding is bathing in and I simply have to keep focused. I switch on the radio hopeful that it might block out Aunty Mabel, who is still screeching at me, but now two different carols bombard me and I can feel a headache coming on. I’m tempted to take a slug form the sherry bottle, but resist, knowing that I can’t handle my drink at the best of times and the last thing I need is to face the recrimination of burning the dinner because I am sloshed.
Midday arrives along with Uncle Brian who has clearly spent the morning in the pub if the waft of beer fumes and his swaying cheer are anything to go by. He pulls off a green scarf that matches his fisherman’s jumper and wraps it playfully around my neck as he performs his first speech of the day, waking Aunty Mabel who had mercifully dozed off in the chair and they begin a heated debate on the customs that were common when they were children, and how the youth of today have no appreciation for the bounty they receive. I clutch my fists at my sides, take a deep breath and hold myself back from pointing out their current lack of appreciation for my efforts, instead retreating to check on the turkey.
                The overwhelming joy I feel when I prod the bird with the special gadget Michael brought back from Lakeland last week and it tells me that dinner is safe for human consumption is equal only to the joy I will feel when this day is over.  With gargantuan strength I lift it out of the cooker and find a place for it to rest on the surface, only burning my arm once. A quick cooker refill of pigs in blankets, potatoes and parsnips and the end is in sight, although the roasting vapours have mixed with the suet steam to create some sort of mutant Christmas smog, so I open the window ignoring my aversion to doing so while the heating is on.
Soft flakes of Christmas Day snow drift silently past the open window and settle, covering the world in a white film. I watch, memorised, as they descend and transform my view from ugly winter garden waiting for spring, to something quite beautiful. I forget the stress, the chaos and simply enjoy nature’s enchantment.
Until, the boys, now fully dressed, but still high on sugar, rush in to announce the snow by pulling excitedly at my arms and beg me to extend their play area to outside. They look angelic dressed in their best shirts and trousers and I promise they can head out after dinner, which I assure them, won’t be long and will give the snow a chance to settle. They are satisfied with this answer and bounce with excitement as they head over to the living room and share the news with Aunty Mable and Uncle Brian, leaving me with a fleeting panic that the snow might settle so deeply that our guests might not be able to leave at the end of the day.
                Jane arrives on the dot of the allocated time and heads straight into the kitchen pouring two large glasses of wine, one of which she shoves into my hand and clinks the glass singing out “cheers”. She looks effortlessly glamorous in wide legged trousers and a jersey as she hovers in the doorway chatting for just long enough to calm me down then, taking a slug of wine, starts to carry crockery, napkins and condiments into the dining room. The girls float in wearing matching Christmas jumpers and skinny jeans that should look ridiculous but are worn in that ironic fashionable way that only teenager’s seem to be able to master. The oldest, Kathleen informs me that she is now a vegetarian and I turn to Jane in horror that I am just being given this news. With a look of indulgent patience, Jane wraps Kathleen into a hug and reminds her that she will be able to choose her own food from the serving plates and if she only wants the vegetables that’s just fine. Then as the girls leave, she looks at me conspiratorially letting me know it’s just a phase and she wouldn’t worry too much about the fact that most of the roasted items have been cooked in duck fat.
                “Of course, if she turns out to be an animal rights worker as an adult, I’ll be labelled as the worst parent in history!” She laughs and we both knock back another slug of wine.
                The last to arrive is Doris from over the road. She doesn’t have any family of her own and as the only thing I can think of being worse than hosting Christmas Day is to be alone, I extended the invite to her one day when she had taken in a delivery for me. Doris and Aunty Mabel must be about the same age so hopefully they have something in common and can chat amongst themselves leaving the rest of us in peace. Her soft knock on the door comes just as I’m taking the carrots through to the dining room, so I pull it open with one hand while balancing the serving tray on the other. Doris sparkles, her top covered in tiny black sequins and her wavy grey hair dusted with shimmer spray, the effect bringing out a shine in her cool blue eyes.  The meek old lady I see out in the front garden has been replaced with elegant style, although her head is lowered as if she is intruding on our family day. Michael spots her and rushes over to hug her in welcome, causing her to flush with pleasure as she swats him away and I smile knowing I made the right decision.
                We all settle in our allotted places at the table, Michael and I balanced on the garden chairs, and start to pass the serving trays. Kathleen turns her nose up at the turkey, but can’t resist the smell as the pigs in blankets near and takes a big scoop. Jane raises her glass triumphantly and gives me a little wink; I hope I’m as insightful about my boys as they go through these phases.
                When everyone’s plate are piled high with food and glasses filled, we pull our crackers and cover our heads with multi coloured paper crowns. The air is warming and smells of citrus candles, their light reflecting off each guests face. Aunty Mable has spilled gravy down her jacket and scoops it up with her finger giggling to herself at not wasting it. Uncle Brian thinks I haven’t noticed as he takes another Yorkshire pudding and pops it whole into his mouth and the boys are clearly plotting to do the same as soon as the serving dish is close enough. The girls’ heads are together discussing the merits of the new boy in class and Michael is eating silently, looking across the table at me with a broad white smile and only the tiniest fleck of sprout showing between his teeth; my prince.
                The conversation moves to judgement of Jane’s recent separation from her husband and more specifically, how she can possibly justify her lifestyle now that she is a single parent, despite the fact that she was always the main breadwinner in the marriage. This is the first Christmas since the divorce and I am in awe of how she manages the girls and a full time job and still looks the way she does. Aunty Mabel proclaims that she doesn’t understand the ‘modern way’ and sets about advising Jane on the best way to secure another husband before she ends up stuck on the shelf. Her widowhood in her early 30’s does not seem to have been subject to the same rules, but Uncle Brian, as a confirmed bachelor, quickly steps in to defend Jane. Doris is concentrating on eating the last small pieces of her dinner and politely, but firmly, deflects any attempt Aunty Mabel makes to draw her into the argument. Jane ignores their debate and opens up another bottle of wine squeezing her slim frame round the table to refill everyone's glasses. I can tell their comments bother her, but she hides it well. She squeezes my shoulder as she reaches me and helps me carry out the plates from the first course. We take the opportunity to pop out to the garden for a quick smoke, snow settling in our hair as we ready ourselves for the second round.
By the time we are heaving the suet pudding and chocolate gateaux into the dining room the atmosphere has softened and Doris is now centre stage. She is delighting the girls with fashion tips from her career as a designer in the top London houses. Kathleen has her elbows on the table as she leans forward to take in every word and declares that she would like to go to fashion college when she leaves school. The boys are the only ones unimpressed, but they have brought their new plastic toy cars to the dinner table, despite being told not to, and are cheerfully driving them around the spilled sprouts and using the John Lewis runner as a race track.
Jane flicks the lights off as we enter, presenting the pudding, its alcohol flames met by a moments hush before the room stands and a rendition of Happy Birthday is begun. The boys are standing on their chairs, which they are not allowed to do, but behind the blaze their joy sings out,
“Happy Birthday to Jesus. Happy Birthday to you!” There is applause as the glow fades and we switch the light back on to let Aunty Mable have her annual honour of cutting the cake.
Everyone has a slice of pudding and a slice of gateaux, served in the same bowl, covered in pouring cream. Christmas calories don’t count Jane confidently tells Kathleen, who clearly doesn’t mind as she tucks in. Doris looks amused as she watches our strange family ritual, then concerned as she bits into something hard. We cheer as she pulls a silver farthing from her mouth and holds it up to the room like a monocle. Uncle Brian delights in telling her the origins this strange display and how when I was a child, Mum had explained the Christmas story to me only for me to decide that it wasn’t fair we didn’t wish Jesus happy birthday when we got all the presents. Although she’s no longer with us, the habit has stuck.
Not to be outdone, Aunty Mabel explains the suet pudding was a tradition she picked up from her husband’s mother, the farthing intended to bring it’s finder good luck for the rest of the year.
“I’ll need that back in June.” She instructs, describing how she marinades next year’s pudding during the summer months.
We’ve all eaten more than we can manage and there is enough left over to eat the same all over again. I sigh in relief when Jane volunteers to be next year’s host and we all ignore Aunty Mabel as she wonders aloud whether there will be a new husband on the scene by then. The boys have decided that they have sat still long enough and plead to be allowed out to play in the snow. Surprisingly, the girls offer to keep an eye on them, which is clearly just an excuse to let them play along too. While the children are wrapping up in warm clothes and heading outside, the adults grab their glasses and move to the comfort of the living room. Aunty Mabel and Uncle Brian are asleep almost immediately, their snores and snorts competing with each other even while they sleep. Doris is very complementary about my cooking and I’m grateful to her, we’ve enjoyed the addition of her stories to our Christmas.
We watch the Queen’s speech on catch-up, which might be cheating, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind then, relax as the sounds of Disney wash over us. My eyes are heavy as I rest my head against Michael’s shoulder and let them close for a little longer every time I blink. When I wake, I’m laying on the sofa with a blanket over me. The boys are playing quietly on the rug and the rest of the room is empty. I worry that I might have missed saying goodbye to everyone, but I can hear talking in the kitchen and find them all in there, a conveyor belt of washing, drying and putting away.
“We thought we’d let you sleep a while.” Michael says as he leans over to kiss me and covers my nose with soap suds.
“It’s been a wonderful Christmas.” Aunty Mabel states and I’m taken aback.
“Well done love.” Uncle Brian gives me a rare hug.
When all the cleaning up is done, we clutch warm drinks and head out to the garden where the girls are still busy putting the finishing touches to the snowman they helped the boys to build by wrapping Uncle Brian’s scarf around its neck. The snow has stopped falling now, the world, almost silent. The boys hug my legs and Michael has his arm around my shoulder; our quirky chaotic family, all together.
I have a confession. I think I might actually love Christmas.

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