"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbles the opening line of Little Women, the book that surely holds the distinction of delivering on the best, cosiest Christmas ever. With Jo et al singing their way through the hard times, many of us could be forgiven for believing that a Christmas of scarcity in Civil Wartime New England among the March sisters would be far preferable to any other plans one may have.
Christmas is more than a day, as every Christmas movie has laboured to explain, it is a state of mind. An ephemeral magic, impossible to manufacture, that is brought about by the people you share it with and the traditions you exhaustively honour year on year.
The Christmases of my childhood were frenetic. A tide of people flooded the house from 10 until 10 on the day itself. My parents had a day-long drinks party for their friends and their kids that then segued seamlessly into dinner with family that at the height of our togetherness required tables shoved together, someone perched on the piano stool and some other poor unfortunate getting the "broken chair".
I feel the Broken Chair is a widespread phenomenon that haunts many families. My mother always put the broken chair at her place because she had perfected the special knack, the lightness of bottom, to hover delicately on the broken chair thus not causing the seat to fall through the chair frame as was its way. Somehow, without fail during the pre-dinner melee the broken chair would stealthily migrate, seeking some unsuspecting uncle or cousin. Memorably one year, it thwarted my uncle at the height of a rant about Gosford Park being extremely overrated. He pitched back from the table, hands desperately clutching at air unable to save himself.
Everyone had a specific place around this rowdy table, my granny, when she was alive, took the head of the table and deployed the kind of hilarious non-sequiturs that all our grannies specialise in.
"I would get sick if another man tried to get into my bed," she announced apropos of nothing. It was Christmas 1998, she was nearly 80 and the likelihood of this happening was slim, my cousins and I were in hysterics. In a few more years she would be gone and the next Christmas, we swore we saw her face in the flames of the pudding and after that seeing her appear in the flames of the pudding became another family tradition
The volume at those Christmases was always turned right up. A cacophony of Bing crooning and drinks being poured, shouts of laughter, shouts of greeting, shouts of welcome and some actually shouting: usually my mother to my father who always disappeared at a crucial moment to work on his Christmas masterpiece: the bread sauce. The bread sauce was an element of the dinner she didn't like and therefore the rest of the family disproportionately venerated to piss her off.
Now our Christmas is quieter in many respects. The numbers have dwindled. There are many more empty chairs this year. My dad and granny have been absent for several years. Family have made other plans with the families of their own making. The mantle of conjuring this Christmas spell is changing hands. It's a period of transition that every family grapples with. Even the Marches did.
Piecing together my own set of traditions
Now I have a new appreciation for the alchemy my own mother created, weaving together the disparate strands of a family with all the love and baggage that entails and creating a tapestry both familiar and wondrous. In my memory, her dedication to the Santa spectacle was impressive. She'd stomp around scolding him and the reindeers for making a mess of soot on the carpet and invariably unearth a missive from the great man whose handwriting looked oddly familiar.
These days it's my turn to bring the magic and it's not easy. I am missing the family I had, as much as I love the family I have now. So many traditions are lost because the people who rigidly stuck by them are no longer with us. Traditions are the things we moan about when we're trotting them out for the umpteenth time at the behest of our family, but they are also the things we mourn when they're no longer forced upon us.
I am slowly piecing together my own set of traditions, a framework upon which to hang the new Christmas, we're ditching the turkey at long last – no more endless anxiety about when the turkey should come out! – the broken chair is retired but we're keeping the bread sauce, it is now my personal project and I cannot make it without my dad joining me there in the kitchen for a quiet moment of memory. We made him a tomb by a lighthouse near my house and another new tradition is visiting him there on Christmas.
The perfect Christmas is of course a fallacy, and trying to recapture the essential and unique essence of the Christmas' of our childhoods is futile because beyond simply being impossible, much of the time, hindsight is rose-tinted anyway. The best we can do is appreciate our good fortune in having happy Christmas memories and concentrate on making new ones for our loved ones. And I'm not talking about something aesthetically pleasing or insta-worthy, it's important not to allow Christmas become a site of stress in pursuit of some kind of perfection. For me, I know the best thing I can do for my kids is keep it simple, to not become hung up on delivering material magic, when the true enchantment often lies in the beautiful banal.