It’s early December, and I’m helping my Dad get the boxes down from the attic. Christmas music is playing in the living room whilst Mum declutters the everyday ornaments to make room for decorations and festive bits and bobs.
We unpack the familiar glitz and glitter and start to untangle the fairy lights. One set doesn’t work and so, armed with a spare bulb, one by one I work my way down the chain to find the fault.
Unfurling and clipping together shiny hanging ornaments that will hang in doorways. The Merry Christmas banner above the alcove in the back room. The step ladder is brought in from the cold of the garage and long trains of foil covered paper is pinned in arcs from ceiling corners to the central cornice. More contents spill from the boxes, the candle holder of coloured glass blocks, the carved santas for the fireplace, the delicate glass candle holders, and the wooden merry-go-round needs rebuilt for the hall table.
Finally the tree is constructed, the lights wrapped round and round, then the tinsel, then the ageing ornaments; some made by a younger me, some inherited, some new this year. After that chocolates are hidden amongst branches, then we all step back and squint at the lights, Mum directing us to move that row of lights there, change that ornament to a lower branch, until she is happy. The fairy atop the tree looks down with a smile.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the received cards are added to one of many cardholders adourning the walls. The fridge starts to fill, the baking begins to make sure there is plenty of food when neighbours come calling.
My christmas stocking is laid out on one of the living room armchairs, my sisters on the other, waiting for my parents to fill it. I still have my stocking, the sequins my Mother sewed on all those years ago are dulled and battered, the felt material thinning with time.
I don’t remember a time when I believed in Santa Claus but back then I was more than happy to go along with it for my younger sister, after all that meant more presents for me.
And so, all of a sudden it’s Christmas morning, and I’m tumbling downstairs with my sister, fuelled by her excitement to see what wonders Santa has left us. Switching on the tree lights, trying to be quiet. My parents would follow later and, sitting in our dressing gowns we’d show them what Santa had brought us! Then breakfast and time to open the presents waiting under the tree, the gifts from Aunts and Uncles. We’d munch chocolates as we sat amongst our shared bounty and for those brief hours the rest of the world faded away to nothing. Just our little family, my sister and I playing with toys, Dad already reading a book, my Mum drinking tea with a smile on her face whilst Sintra mooched around in the hope of a chocolate or two.
With our presents opened – a controlled affair with a list of who bought what carefully noted (to make sure our thank you letters would be accurate) – we’d be ushered to wash and dress. Then to the car and the quiet roads on the way to our grandparents house. A Merry Christmas to the toll booth operators on the Erskine Bridge, and a wee gift for them too (shortbread and a miniature of whisky), and then on to Rutherglen.
Bursting through the front door, my sister and I would shout our hellos and veer right, turning into the living room. My Gran always had a real tree, and for a few years before my sister arrived I would wake there during the festive period, negotiating pine needles in the hallway as I snuck in to find the last few sweet treasures hidden amongst the branches.
Chocolates found we’d follow our parents down the hall to be spoiled rotten by my Gran. Grandpa sitting in his chair would smile and laugh, my sister capturing his attention as she explained what Santa had brought her. Christmas dinner would follow, in the later years at my parents house, but regardless of where we’d eat the same stupor of Christmas evening would follow. I don’t recall much about those evenings, TV specials and Christmas family movies, with occasional fridge raids for leftovers, crisps from the big box bought at the cash-n-carry as a late night treat, washed down with Schloer.
And then it was Boxing Day. Leftover trifle for breakfast, a tradition that remains to this day, and a visit from (or to, we took turns about each year) my Aunt Anne who lived just around the corner. Another tradition maintained as we listed or showed all the presents we got, and who we got them from (a process repeated over the coming days as more aunts and uncles visited).
After that, a gentle rhythm of visiting family and friends, mince pies, marzipan balls and whatever else my sweet-toothed Father had created (coconut macaroons, mint fondants, chocolate truffles, and more). Reading The Broons or Oor Wullie annuals, completing jigsaws, building Mechano sets, or exploring all of the Action Man kits and equipment for future tactical operations in the wilds of the back garden.
Then, all of a sudden, it would be Hogmanay. The night where the adults would stay up and congregate in one of the houses of the street, laughing and shouting in good spirits. The years at our house I’d sit on the top step, listening to the sounds carrying up the stairs, ducking out of view as someone visited the ‘half-landing’ (as my Gran used to call it to save her from saying ‘the bathroom’ or some other crude word). She would be downstairs too in later years, enjoying a ‘little refreshment’, Martini Bianco or Drambuie.
Such are the traditions of my childhood Christmas. The memories all fold and merge into one, presents long forgotten, but a sense of the excitement and love remains palpable. Like everyone we had turkey, crackers with party hats and terrible jokes, we were allowed to eat too many sweets on Boxing Day, and if an Aunt bought us a jumper of course we would wear it when we visited them. But it’s those early memories with my little sister, the shared Christmas mornings with the dog snuffling around in the hope of a misplaced treat, my parents hugging and thank each other despite always getting the same presents each year (apparently jigsaws and liquorice are the way to their hearts), these are the memories that define my Christmases past.
Christmas as it is today has some similarities but time moves on and the cast has changed. Grandparents are gone, my parents have moved from the old family house, and I will wake and rise to my own schedule with no eager sister rushing me downstairs. I’ll drive to Dumbarton to be with my family but there will be no mooching dog under our feet.
These days I have newer traditions and on the 27th my closest friends and I gather for drinks and food and much laughter. It’s rapidly become the highlight of the festive season. We all bring food and, come late evening, the cocktail experiments start (Four Fingers of Fun anyone?), the Rod of Innuendo has been handed to several different people, and there is talk of party games.
But Christmas has changed, or I have, or the world has, I dunno.
Is it because I’m getting older that this time of year doesn’t feel as special? Or is it just inevitable that I’m looking back fondly on a time I know is gone?
This year is different though, this year there will be new traditions to begin with my still not-quite-one year old niece. It feels like a good time to start something new, to try and rekindle some of the magic of Christmas through her eyes, to start some new traditions. I can only hope that she too can look back on her early Christmases with the same happily tear-tinged nostalgia as I do (maybe that’s why the Christmas lights on the tree sparkle so much? Shut up, YOU’VE got something in your eye).
So, yes, time for some new traditions, an update, a handing of the baton to the newest generation of the family with all the hope and love that entails. I hope she can find her own traditions in time, and maybe even borrow from some that are already in place.
Although I really hope she doesn’t think she’ll be getting any of my Boxing day trifle.