Ilove Christmas and I’d do anything for it. It’s a time for going all out, forgetting everything about caution, good taste or restraint. Everything ought to be excessive: fridges and stockings must bulge, your tree ought to pierce the ceiling, cereal packets should be decorated gaily, a bowl of foil-wrapped chocolate bells and reindeer should adorn every surface and holly needs to graze your head as you pad about the house. As an ambassador for the season all this seems to me almost my duty. The electric cheer that descends on me mid-November has the same urgency to it as a love affair. I don’t permit myself such free rein in the general way of things but I do believe that Christmas is a time for going, well, insane. If you’re making a gingerbread house why not melt Fox’s Glacier Mints to make little windowpanes? Why not melt Fox’s Glacier Fruits and make those windowpanes resemble stained glass? Bake 12 small 18th-
century gingerbread facades, ice in doors and casements, attach them to the four sides of your Christmas cake, and – hey presto! – a town square!
The Christmases of my childhood were so spectacular that my fidelity and gratitude to this festival is firm forever. For 12 years running, we five descended on the family of my mother’s best friend and, in a large modern house in Gloucestershire, 10 children crashed about, wildly merry-making. This family dazzled us with the warmth of its welcome. I didn’t know why they liked us as much as they did but it could not be denied. There was no sense that we were lucky beneficiaries in any way, for all their actions indicated that we, too, made their Christmases come true. I was not used to such high treatment. Our normal lives were straitened, no-frills, occasionally austere. I was anxious and wary by nature but the gorgeous memory of these lavish Christmases provided ballast for the first half of the year and the sheer anticipation of them carried me eagerly through autumn and winter. The glorious punctuation in my life that was Christmas seemed to prove important things about me. I loved these Christmases so much I almost envied myself. I think, as a family, we needed them. If people treat you extremely well in life, it changes your view of things. These Christmases weren’t just luxurious and sustaining, they were practically first aid. They raised the morale of the family enormously. Did I mention that the father of this other family owned a toy factory?
The presents formed great monumental banks in the room and each child was allocated a sofa or a window seat or a table at which to receive. Our hosts made continual trips to the top floor, bringing down suitcase after suitcase of gifts and distributing to the eager crowd. Once a great towering pile had been amassed by each child the unwrapping would begin and it could take up to two hours. And what presents! There was nothing mindless about it, for the thought processes that had obviously gone into the selection were both thorough and recherché. Something cosy, something glamorous, something to expand your mind; something to make you see that a new and fledgling personal development you had barely noticed in yourself had been acknowledged and admired and was being championed in the best possible way.
The mother of this family couldn’t have chosen better presents if she’d spent a week or so in a reality TV show discovering how each child in our family spent its days. A great Christmas campaign, I learned from this example, consisted of a proper understanding of need, want and desire. It might have been humiliating as children from a poor background to be given to excessively, for it could signal that a lack one wished to hide had been inferred. Yet all this was handled with extreme delicacy. There’s an art to being lavish without making things gross and it has to do with thoughtfulness and love and care. Is it any wonder that I grew to hold Christmas in the highest possible esteem? I still see in in its giddy lure a salve for any difficulty or strain. Christmas seemed so powerfully linked to comfort and consolation, when I was a small girl, that it was almost a religion in itself.
I have it wired into me that Christmas equals rescue and any present given should have a life-transforming potential. Christmas shopping, because of this sense of heavy responsibility, is almost more than I can bear. My Christmas-crazy inner Santa believes that it’s a little bit squalid to buy gifts for family and friends that are only really pretty nice. Where’s the effort there? I must, it urges me, seek out gifts that will change your life, or, at least, utterly melt your heart, as mine was melted as a child. I can’t just buy you things you might have seen already, from shops! I want anything I give to communicate that I know you are doing a brilliant job managing everything as well as you do and I applaud and salute everything that you are.
I want my presents to indicate what I hope you already know, that you are a hero and a star. I like gifts to elevate and enthrone in the way the presents I received as a child did. I want to make amends to you for anything that’s difficult in your life. Such is my hero worship of Christmas that I see a sort of poetry in all this mad effort. I want to give Christmas everything. It deserves no less.
Yet this kind of strategy, even for me, is approaching the end of its era. Fashions have changed. I can see a subtle shift in the way others regard my all-out Christmas craziness. They used to look at me admiringly with a satisfying “I don’t know how you do it!” but now people seem puzzled and judgmental and wry: “I don’t know why you do it” is what they almost say. “Isn’t it odd that you always get ill on Boxing Day?” those close to me observe. But it’s traditional, isn’t it? Don’t all mothers?
My Christmas extravaganza reflex has lost its innocence and I hate this feeling. Bishops give speeches saying Christmas shopping is the devil’s work. This hurts me more than I can say. I used to feel courageous and heroic taking 10 days off to source the best possible things. I even enjoyed the January frugality that Christmas necessitates. I thought going Christmas crazy was shouldering my responsibilities to the human race in the best possible way. I thought I was being good.
Even as a child I gave presents to all the girls in my class, even those who taunted and bullied. It’s what you do. Everyone used to think this way. Thirty years ago, a depressed cousin was prescribed amphetamines by her GP so she could make Christmas jolly for her children. It wouldn’t happen now.
Christmas craziness, these days, is regarded as an indulgence. I feel as though it’s barely tolerated and soon will be outlawed all together. “Shall we go a bit easy this Christmas?” those close to me say gently every year. Shall we do a present price-cap? Or just give to the children? Or do a secret Santa one-gift-per-person scheme?
All these suggestions strike me as faintly sordid. Please don’t take Christmas away from me. Why are we so ambivalent about celebrating? Can’t it just be a once-a-year expression of high optimism, or is that too self-indulgent, embarrassing and crass? Will we ban birthdays next? Eat oatcakes on Pancake Day?
I try to cling on to my beliefs that Christmas, like parenthood, means you have to require a great deal from yourself, that only the most elaborate plans and exhausting schemes will suffice, but I am fighting a losing battle. The disapproval of Christmas fanatics hovers in the air as thick as fog. How can one enjoy choosing lovely things
for people when you’ve heard them say, the night before, that Christmas is sick with commercialism? And then, increasingly, almost no one I know wants the sort of special life-ballast I wish to provide via presents. We buy ourselves our own treats now in a way we never used to. My wholesome excesses may be viewed as unseemly now that overspending has become stigmatised as an anti-Christmas activity. (God forbid!)
My motives may not be entirely innocent either, it transpires, for my extreme thoughtfulness about your gift may register as a sort of vanity. It has also been noticed that I can’t always keep my spirits up under the strain of trying to make Christmas perfect: in my quest for maximum yuletide glee – bigger! brighter! better! – spells of bad temper frequently descend on me that just aren’t pretty. I myself feel the need to be showered with gifts but I am ashamed of wanting this because I need nothing and can buy for myself what I desire. I would like to spend as much as I can – this seems to me the least you should do at Christmas – but I know this will be viewed as outlandish and askew. Seasoned gamblers say it’s no fun unless you risk more than you can afford and this is how I feel about Christmas.
Twenty-five years later I am still seeking the sort of Christmases that thrilled me as a child, but it’s a thrill that is no longer available to me. It’s all gone wrong. Yet I don’t know how to have a moderate Christmas. The thought appals me. It seems a loss of gigantic proportion. I find myself having the most extraordinary arguments with people: “I should be allowed to go crazy at Christmas because I am the only person in the family who believes in God!” Or: “Yes, I, who adore Christmas, would rather go insane during the festive season and then offset it all by becoming a vegan and not taking any flights all year, whereas you would rather have a low-key Christmas and travel and eat meat. So where does that leave us?”
I am approaching some sort of Christmas stalemate. Some years, despite my insane travails, the month of December goes by and I am so confused by my natural impulses and the sense that I ought to correct them that I don’t feel Christmassy once. I don’t know how to behave any more. I regard Christmas now as a glamorous ex-love whom I can barely face, because we will never again be to each other what we once were. I am suffering from some sort of Christmas ailment. I have a seasonal maladjustment disorder. The whole thing has become excruciating for me. I adore Christmas and everything it represents – but part of me, now, cannot stand it one little bit. There, I’ve said it.
What to do? I sought advice from a priest and he delivered a six-point plan.
1. Make a budget for your overall Christmas shopping and, when you have fixed on a sum, immediately give half of it to a charity that really means something to you.
2. With every present you give, enclose a card that says how much you appreciate the friendship of that person, being as specific as you can.
3. Christmas is, traditionally, a time to give thanks and make amends, so put your Christmas house in order in that way.
4. Make as many of your presents as you can: putting in the effort helps create meaning.
5. Sing as much as possible throughout the season for it lifts the spirits and helps to make the Christmas feelings come through.
6. When you have done all this, allow yourself to go a little crazy. The church is good at speaking about fasting but has lost its confidence when it comes to the language of feasting. Eat, drink and be merry to your heart’s content.
I will follow this advice to the letter.
All present and correct: what would Susie give?
●I’ve been bulk-buying the incredibly delicate and beautiful tiny tea and dinner services from the doll’s house corner of FAO Schwartz in New York which will make any small girls and sentimental big ones feel heirloom-happy.
●I amgiving a DVD of my current favourite screwball comedy Sullivan’s Travels, starring the massively underrated (apart from her hair) Veronica Lake. With this film I am enclosing some Espa pink hair mud – a truly transforming treatment – to help each recipient achieve Lake’s lustrous locks.
●To a very select few I am giving fifth-row tickets to the Liza Minnelli concert at the London Colliseum in May.
●I will be giving the catalogue from the spectacular Courbet show at the Grand Palais in Paris. This can be lugged back lovingly with damage to the lower back or ordered from amazon.fr. Add the Giacometti catalogue available from the same source and you have a pretty great and fail-safe gift for any even moderate art lover.
●For children aged seven to nine I will buy six-month subscriptions to the Beano, available from www.beanotown.com.
●The Sylvanian Ballroom Set, consisting of two dancing bears in evening dress and a grand piano, piano stall and microphone, has been bought in quantity.
●I will be giving copies of Henry James’s Waistcoat (Stone Trough Books), a beautifully produced volume of 40 of the master’s letters – recently discovered by Rosalind Bleach in a chocolate box in a drawer in her mother’s bureau. These capture James’s kind impulses and his humour, charm and sensitivity.
●I will be giving The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice.
●I will be giving Wizard of Oz charm bracelets purchased at the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
●I have bought several sets of Gold Butterfly Correspondence Cards from the Museum of Modern Art in New York for little girls.
For some female novelist friends I have ordered pink pencils with their names embossed in gold.
●I have planted paper white narcissus bulbs and blue hyacinths in round, shallow wicker baskets for friends, to provide a fresh note among all the red and gold.
●I will give my children Christmas stockings instead of the usual stuffed tights this year. This will be hard for me. For my mother I will still give tights.
●I will be tying garlands of blue pine up the banisters, attaching it with red ribbons and I’ll get the biggest tree
I can fit in my house.
●I will be making the town square Christmas cake, as conceived by Martha Stewart.
●I have bought 400 sheets of cheap red rose green leaf flower-sellers’ paper from Covent Garden flower market.
●I’ll watch Meet Me in St Louis, Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town in rotation as I wrap, sipping a Whisky Mac and nibbling Stilton or Stollen, wearing my husband’s dressing gown and my present to myself – some champagne-coloured silk satin Prada slingbacks adorned with a gigantic tangerine-sized model of a rose.
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