Thursday, 22 December 2011

A Traditional Christmas

Christmas is a time full of traditions, and every family or household has its own, that will seem odd to anyone that hasn’t grown up with them. Mine is no different. I love my family’s Christmas traditions. I genuinely look forward to them all year, or at least from when the first X Factor episode starts and I get my first sniff of Christmas. I’m pretty sure the rest of the family does too… well, they come back every year so they must do!
My Christmas prep starts in the spring as I buy the first present of the year and note it on my spreadsheet… yes I said “spreadsheet”. I buy presents from me, from me and my Baby Bro, from me and Mr G, and then from us all. It gets confusing, so a spreadsheet is the only way to manage it! Mr G and Baby Bro then get their Christmas invoice and an itemised version of the spreadsheet and various demands for payment by beginning of December.
I get myself all stressed out if it’s not finished before the end of November and if it’s not largely wrapped by the second weekend of December and under the tree which, incidentally, goes up as close to the beginning of December as possible, my Christmas OCD starts to kick in!
It does get more fun – I promise!
Festive decorations at my pad!
The first weekend of December is normally taken up with some kind of festive weekend break in a cold, snowy, pretty European city of some kind. This year it was Budapest. It was super festive and exceptionally cold!
As my Baby Bro’s birthday falls in the first week of December he was always allowed a week of birthday-card-time before I rip them all down and turn my parents’ house in to a Christmas wonderland! As a small child I remember going Christmas Tree shopping the weekend before the big day and then putting up the tree really close to Christmas day, sometimes even Christmas Eve, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve demanded that the tree goes up earlier in the month, and it’s now a fake tree – the needles caused too many housekeeping dramas!
Turning my parents' in to Santa's Grotto
So, for everyone else, the festivities get started on Christmas Eve. The family start to arrive, people start claiming beds, unloading presents, unpacking all the goodies they bring every year (marzipan fruits, peppermint creams, food, drinks, comedy hats…) and getting in to the festive spirit. And I mean “spirit”… we’re straight in there on the bubbly, cocktails and mulled wine!
Some nibbly bits, catch ups and a quick agreement on this year’s “Christmas Debate” topics and we’re ready for the Annual Potage Cup to begin…
Let me explain: in early December the adjudicator (Baby Bro) sends out the competition rules including scoring criteria (“ladleability”, colour, taste, presentation, ingenuity, moreishness etc), what constitutes a “soup” (a much contested definition in previous years) and comments on the previous year’s entries. On the night, all competitors prepare and present their soups and marks are awarded on specially prepared scoring sheets. As you can imagine, it’s as much about the politics as the ingredients! In the past outside entries from Mr G’s sister have even won – the cause of a year’s worth of sibling jibes!
The gold and silver Potage Cups

Jo winning the gold Potage Cup

Lots of wine, yummy food, a variety of desserts, coffee, liqueurs and petit fours follow before the Potage Cups are presented (gold for the winner, silver for the runner up) and then the first of the Great Christmas Debates start. These can range from the subject of tuition fees to whether or not we ever landed on the moon. I always pick a stance that particularly infuriates my aunt and my Baby Bro. It’s so funny to see them throw their arms up in complete exasperation or their jaws drop in utter disbelief when I say things like “nah, I don’t agree with Suffrage, I feel there were other ways to get women the vote” or “I don’t think we really ever landed on the moon”… hilarity!*
Those that can handle the incense then head off to midnight mass (not me – I cough and choke like a 40-a-day smoker) and the rest of us get settled in for the night. As a child I used to love the Christingle service but I feel I’m a bit old now to make an orange studded with Quality Street, topped with a candle and participate in the children’s procession of light, and sing Little Donkey, which is a shame! I can’t wait to take my children in the future though…
The kitchen caption competition
Later that evening when everyone is home and snugly with more drinks and nibbles we do a little round of Secret Santa with tree presents and jokey items (the Secret being that it’s generally me and my Dad that arrange the presents) and then slowly drift off to bed.
As I’m still technically “one of the kids” I still have to “camp” in the lounge with Baby Bro, my cousins, and, oh, my husband! I did ask when I would be classed as an adult thus qualifying for a bed, and I was met with a blank stare. I don’t think I’ll ever graduate to adult status in this respect, so that is my excuse for acting like a child for the rest of the festive period.

Normal Christmas attire
It’s normally well in to the small hours by the time we fall asleep. Just in time for my 5.30am alarm to go off so I can wake my Baby Bro to traipse up the stairs with the little stockings, I, sorry, we (yeah right) prepare for our parents. I figure that I hustle all year for the gift shopping and I suffer the paper cuts from wrapping, so he can drag himself out of his sleeping bag to deliver them!
Now that we’re older, we tend to get up at a more reasonable time than on Christmas mornings gone by, but by 9 or 10am most of us are up and queuing for our bacon and egg sandwiches in the Kitchen.
Apparently there’s some unwritten rule that says that we can only use the dining room for lunch and dinner, not breakfast, and so, seeing as the breakfast room only has seating for six, we eat our bacon sandwiches either standing, or in shifts.  A genius “wash bag queuing” system we devised on my hen weekend (19 girls, two showers!) and has since been employed at Chez Hale on Christmas morning.
I might add that during this chaos, Mr G’s Baby Sister has rung about fifteen times since 5am to summon him home for present opening**, he’s opened his own stocking presents, stepped over various sleeping bodies, gotten himself dressed by the light of a Christmas tree and on to the driveway to be picked up and taken home to get his family dinner on the stove.
Once I’ve opened my stocking presents, worked my way to the front of the bathroom queue and eaten my bacon and egg sarnie (a runny yolk, no rind, no butter, lots of HP sauce) I get my glitter on and head to Chez Griffith for present opening, a sniff of bubbly, and some more nibbles. Mr G Jr with (lots of) help from his Not-so-Baby Sister cooks up a feast whilst I chat in the lounge and play with my new presents!

Extendable forks for roast potato snaffling!
When they sit down to lunch I make my way back to Chez Hale for yet more nibbles and canapés, napkin folding, table setting, and to hit the cocktails and bubbly, hard! Dinner is usually scheduled for about 4pm, and we generally sit down at about 5 or 6pm. It continues much the same as the Christmas Eve dinner but on a grander scale and without the 9 assorted soups! We have extendable forks for stealing the last roast potato from my aunt’s plate, an assortment of themed and silly hats (a cowboy christmas hat, christmas pudding hat, reindeer antlers, the works) the usual round of polite declines for the last piece of smoked salmon, before the impolite hustle to snaffle it, a giant cracker for us all to squabble over, the annual 14 Days of Christmas sing-along (each person pulls a number out of a hat and keeps it a secret until their turn to jump up and belt out their number and gift), the Alternative 14 Days of Christmas sing-along where we find our own versions of things to sing (“12 Nick’s a Nicking – ‘ello ‘ello ‘ello”) and then we do our annual phone-in to our family friends in Germany for their contribution to the song. Never has speakerphone been so fun!
Conducting the bells and whistles orchestra

dressed as a Christmas angel, playing number 3

Yip, bells and whistles. Each person gets a bell or a whistle, sometimes both, if they’re musically gifted, and my uncle conducts us through some traditional songs, and some non-traditional ones, replacing a music score with big sheets of paper covered in sequences of numbers.
Some of us are, erm, better at this than others. The alcohol doesn’t help!
Some point after this Mr G returns and we head back to the lounge for PRESENT DISSSEMINATION!
This is a precision manoeuvre that has been honed over the last 30 years, and involves me and my cousin handing out the hundreds of presents to each person individually, creating a little (or a big) pile for everyone… except my dad. We perform numerous feints with gifts in his direction, always bypassing for some else. I don’t know why we do this, when it began, or even why it’s funny. But it is. It’s super funny! One day I shall teach my own kids this little ritual!

A room full of presents!
Back in the day we used to open our piles one by one, I’m pretty sure this was so all the grown ups could watch the kids’ faces as they opened their gifts, but nowadays it’s a bit of a free for all and it’s so good to look up and watch a roomful of people surrounded by boxes, paper, ribbon, presents and labels desperately trying to call out their thanks across the room to each other for their lovely presents.
Some of the funniest lines are the usual “hey, [you] thanks for my [thing]! I love it” and their response “oh, yeah, glad you like it, uh, what was it again?”
After presents, despite doing nothing but eat non-stop for 24 hours, we’re suddenly all hungry again and a magical buffet appears in the kitchen full of cheese, ham, cold meat, turkey (obvs) pickles, chutneys, breads and various left over desserts. At this point everyone gets in to their (new Christmas) PJs and snugly socks, grabs a cushion/duvet/blanket/beanbag and settles in for games in the dining room, festive telly in the lounge (this year it’s all about Downton and Ab Fab), reading somewhere quiet (good luck finding that place!) or computer games in the study.
And that’s it all over for another year….
Untiiiiiiiil, BOXING DAY! This is generally a pyjama, bubbly and Christmas film day followed by another massive dinner, so we can chill out and fully prepare for the grand DAY-AFTER-BOXING-DAY-GIRLIE-SHOPPING-TRIP-TO-SPEND-EVERY-PENNY-(and more)-OF-MY-CHRISTMAS-MONEY event. That requires a lots of energy I can tell you and there’s usually none left for cooking so we head to the cinema en masse or out for a cosy pub dinner. However, last year we had some special guests for Boxing Day so we pulled out all the stops again, or in fact all the bells and whistles. I feel that this is a new tradition in the making!

Mother Bear and our special guests. Look at MB clutching that Bellini...
By New Year’s Eve most people are gone, including me, (but it has been known that the visiting family are all still in residence Chez Hale until New Year’s Day – that was a good year!) and the house slowly returns to normal.
That always makes me sad, to see the house so empty and quiet, but I suppose all good things must come to an end.
Reading this back it sounds manic, hectic and crazy. It is, but to me that IS Christmas. I could never spend Christmas away from my family, and I hope I never have to. There’s always room for one (or two) more, and we’ve taken in various waifs and strays over the years (including Mr G on our first Christmas together – amazingly we still made it to the new year as a couple!), everyone feels comfortable enough to do their own thing and I like to think that everyone has a thoroughly lovely time. One day I look forward to joining my and Mr G’s family Christmases together in one GIGANTIC Christmas celebration, now that’s going to take some planning - and a HUGE table. In the meantime…Three sleeps and counting!
* Just to clarify – I don’t always agree with my debating stance, but I do argue it until I’m blue in the face!
** this year we have agreed it’s to be at least 9am before any calls are made!
Me and Baby Bro, in festive disguise!

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