I’m trying to reign in the Christmas traditions this year. For one thing, they’re dammed costly. I’ve just been out finishing my festive food shop, or, more accurately, continuing it. The festive food shop usually starts, as it did this year, some time mid-November (buying non-perishables for my ‘special’ Christmas cupboard) and doesn’t stop until late Christmas Eve, when I pop out to buy ‘just one more thing’ and return home with fourteen selection boxes, a vat of brandy butter, a gala pork pie the size of a manger, and enough nuts to constipate a camel.
Come Christmas morning, I find myself chronically short of bread, milk, toothpaste, washing detergent, tea bags, toilet roll, butter and, you know, things I actually need. My Christmas kitchen is filled with everything but the essentials. I’m forced to improvise: instead of Tate & Lyle, I drop the heads of sugar mice into my tea; I brush my teeth with a cocktail sausage, using the shaving foam from a Gillette gift-set as toothpaste; I use cinnamon potpourri as a herbal tea; I wipe my bum with bubble wrap. My festive food shop is mock opulence to the point of stupidity. Well, this year, I’m putting a stop to it. Kind of. (I don’t really do those things, by the way. But the bubble wrap thing does sound fun. Maybe an idea for a cheap after-dinner parlour game? Try and wipe without popping. Fun for all the family. ‘Come on, Gran. Your turn.’)
Case in point: this is the first year where I’ve deliberately held off buying one of those Twiglets tubes. It’s not that I don’t like them, I just don’t like them enough to eat a bucket’s worth. Surely nobody eats more than two handfuls of Twiglets per annum? Twiglets are invasive. Whatever you eat afterwards, there’s always a twang of Twiglet to it. The taste lasts for days (especially when you’re having to brush your teeth with Gillette and a cocktail sausage). And this isn’t a revelation; I’ve always felt like this about Twiglets. Yet every year I buy the big tube and look at it with contempt as the twelve days of Christmas pass. The sweets, the fruit, the crisps, the meat, they all disappear. But the Twiglets hold on. Drying, softening, sticking to one another.
Why do I buy them? Tradition, innit. The same goes for the ‘traditional’ tube of Mini Cheddars and the ‘traditional’ box of Jacob’s Cheese Biscuits which, within fifty minutes of being opened, dries out to such an extent that it attracts tumbleweed. Most of this ‘traditional’ food ends up in the bin.
(That said, I would still buy Cheese Footballs, but for the fact they’re nigh on impossible to find. They’re the food equivalent of that bloke from the Manic Street Preachers.
‘They’re very popular,’ says the supermarket manager. ‘Sell out every year, we do.’
‘Get some fucking more in, then!’ I want to say, but opt for something more polite.
‘Too late now, Sir,’ the manager replies. ‘They wouldn’t arrive for another ten days. We’ve got Twiglets, though…’)
Not all Christmas traditions are profligate, of course. Far from it. There are the glorious things like seeing old friends, guiltlessly drinking port at 11am, and playing board games (which you don’t fully understand the rules to until you’ve already lost: ‘Ahhh,’ you say, ‘I get it now’). And there are the films, too. What would Christmas be without seeing John Candy’s performance in Home Alone or the magic of those whitening fields in The Snowman? But even these worthwhile traditions can add up, snow-on-snow, creating the feeling that Christmas is a regimented series of repeated rituals, rather than something spontaneous.
It’s the breaks in tradition that have served up the majority of my favourite Christmas memories. When things go too smoothly, the days slip away. Yet, despite being aware of this, I struggle to embrace change; I don’t know about you, but I set the season up in such a way that, if all goes to plan, it locks change out, or at least limits its likelihood.
And somehow, despite this, each year does bring new traditions. Last Christmas, I went to a carol service at West Runton church and enjoyed it. So I’ll be doing that again this year. Ten years ago, I went to a carol service at Cromer church. I’ve been doing that ever since, too. Even this blog has become a tradition. Basically, if I’m not careful, by the time I’m sixty, I’ll have so many traditions that my entire festive period will need to be meticulously timetabled to fit them all in:
Dec 23rd, 2040
8.03am – stand near sink, looking for toothpaste
8.05am – think about capitalism
8.06am – hum Stop The Cavalry (verse only)
8.08am – eat Twiglet
And so on. Hence why I’ve made an early, or late, New Year’s Resolution to trim back the traditions. Starting with the food, namely Twiglets.
I watched an old film called The Holly & The Ivy last night. It’s about dispersed family members all trying to get back home to Norfolk in time for Christmas.
‘There’s something about Christmas morning,’ says Celia Johnson, at the dinner table, as the camera closes in. ‘The first moment when you wake up. Somehow, I don’t why, I always know it’s Christmas morning… And you lie there, taking it in and realising, and this is strangest of all, that it’s Christmas everywhere.’
Christmas morning. Laying awake in the dark. If only for a minute. Before the first words are spoken. That’s the best tradition of all. It’s the easiest, and most worthwhile, one to keep.
The Holly & The Ivy is a lovely film. I’ll probably watch it again next year, on the 21st December, at around eight pm. Or maybe not.