I gulped and pushed down tears as my children asked if we could eat out on Christmas Day.
Through the din of their reasoning to break with years of family tradition, I heard:
“That’s it, then. Their father is no longer with us so why not have everything else go to hell in a Jesus hand basket?”
Growing up, I always felt a bit sorry for people who were elsewhere other than home on Christmas Day. Home with a gaggle of a family to get stupidly excited about a morbidly obese man coming down a chimney; children running around like wild beasts high on Calpol; whilst mum sweated in the kitchen like Charleston Heston rowing the Roman slave boat in ‘Ben Hur.’
I remember we didn’t have a lot of money for the latest toys and gadgets, even though dreams of owning a ‘Tiny Tears’ doll kept me up most nights. We had modest gifts, playing cards and board games. We also had a house which smelled insanely of Christmas, and one which was festively decorated – probably by mum when she wasn’t cooking a boozy Christmas cake or tiling the roof. Most of all, we had each other and the tradition of sitting down together to a lovingly prepared meal on Christmas Day.
An inheritance passed down when I had my own family.
Although, the tradition I did part with was spending the majority of my time in the kitchen. I’m a prepare things ahead and enjoy the hell out of my own party kinda gal. For big dinner parties, I have been known to lay the table a week in advance.
And with my own family, I inherited some traditions from my American husband – like the ‘The Night Before Christmas,’ which is lovingly read to children around the world on Christmas Eve. It is a tradition which is still firmly stitched into the fabric of our family, and continues today even though the “children” are in their twenties and beyond.
Bronnie also brought with him the tradition of decorating a real tree with an eclectic and eye-watering assortment of ornaments. These ornaments, bought, gifted or foraged, ranged from a precious gold stag to a miniature Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup. Children in the village looked forward each year to joining us to hang and marvel again at each treasured ornament whilst their parents shook their heads and knocked back Rum Punches in the kitchen.
In truth, I had always dreamed of an elegant and “tastefully” decorated tree. The kind I’d seen at Harrods and Fortnum & Masons. Some years after Bronnie’s passing, I got my wish when heavy rain and malicious mice ate through our ornamental memories which were stored annually in the loft.
Our “tastefully” decorated trees since have not brought me the joy I thought it would.
Bronnie also loved a real tree, and in latter years it has been me and my youngest son who have picked up the traditional baton of picking one out.
Except this year.
This year, he would be flying in from New York a little too late for my Christmas agenda.
Christmas organisers everywhere will, I think, know that feeling of “just wanting to get things done.” Waiting until the 11th hour for my son to source a real tree was an irritation too far – and I certainly wasn’t going to pick one out on my lonesome. Most things I can handle, but picking out a tree on my own after all these years? Nope, that was a sadness too far.
I therefore bought an artificial tree this year.
Like his father, my son would feel this betrayal to memory and tradition, even though he came close one year to seeing my point of view. But at the checkout my young adult looked at me with large doe eyes and asked me to reconsider.
I caved and we traipsed off to find the perfect tree capable of shedding needles at a rate of 10,000 per second onto my Persian rug.
But two traditions I have not caved on is 1) eating turkey as our main meal on Christmas Day. As an avid turkey lover parenting cosmopolitan young adults, I have staved off any suggestion of alternatives, including Quinoa & Pulled Polenta “as a nice alternative, mum?”
And the second guarded tradition is that of Ham & Eggs for Christmas Day breakfast. A ham which is always cooked on Christmas Eve night chock full of cloves, wafting around memories of my mother’s kitchen back when.
Now here we were, when I would have agreed to anything, including a Kale Smoothie as the main meal – as long as we could stay home, together, at my lovingly prepared table on Christmas Day.
Of course there was nothing wrong eating out with close family friends, but did it have to be on the big day?
This is the question I left my young adults with as we retired to separate corners. Me in the Blue Corner, crying and cussing interchangeably in the privacy of my bathroom, and they to the Red Corner in righteous youth.
And, as is often the way with “hot topics,” we went from talking about the idea to passively aggressively not talking about the idea, which left the whole thing in limbo. That is until I overheard one of them stage whispering (again) to whomever was asking “ we’re not sure what we’re doing on Christmas Day.”
“Fine”, I said, jumping into their face, “let’s eat out since that’s obviously what you want to do.”
My dripping sarcasm was not lost on them, but not being stupid young people they took my words at face value and ran with it. There may even have been hugs and kisses.
“Gits,” I thought.
The city on Christmas Day was crisp and white, and the children and I were like giggly interlopers as we traipsed unhurried through hush and powdered snow.
I wasn’t sure how I’d feel walking to lunch, but special was unexpected.
We arrived at said lunch to a loud warm welcome and great cheer. The children having known these people all their lives, were off. After my own hugs and kisses were exchanged with intimates, I was left talking to someone I had only just met about Thai brides.
My only emotional hiccup was when one of my young people ordered lasagne as their main meal.
“Lasagne?!,” I said.
“It’s okay, mum, it really doesn’t matter,” I heard one of them say from a great distance.
A pivotal moment.
The moment I let go and let God as I just couldn’t be asked with it any more as I enjoyed good food, raucous laughter, bottomless glasses and a very merry time.
Later that evening, I walked home alone leaving younger stamina to play out the festivities.
As I entered my hallway, I was struck anew with what had happened. What I had agreed to as I stood in that clean, quiet apartment twinkling with Christmas lights in nutmeg darkness.
I gulped hard with the enormity of what I was feeling and thinking, which was:
“This is bloody marvellous.”
I threw off coat and shoes, poured myself a family sized whiskey and nose-dived into a soft sofa and rubbish Christmas TV.
In the quiet bliss of having nothing to do, I wondered if people who went out on Christmas Day had been feeling sorry for people like me all along?
This year, thoroughly embracing Brave New World, I went as far as to order a turkey crown in a roasting bag, ready basted and stuffed with all the fixings.
Except the supermarket did not send me this wonder of efficiency. Instead, I received a frozen turkey as big as my bottom.
Looking back, my level of upset-ness may have been disproportionate to the supermarket’s error. So my sister, mother and a couple of friends each told me on separate phone calls. The gist being:
“If this is your biggest problem…”
And I do know, but I just wanted someone (anyone) to feel pain with me even if, yes, I know how to cook, love to cook and wasn’t half bad at it.
But I had lost traditions, embraced the loss, and now I was being forced back to wrestle with a turkey when I could be in front of the TV, sipping whiskey and watching rubbish TV.
Could no-one understand the mental anguish?
Maybe my lovely neighbour would.
“Hi, Laura,* here’s a problem. Have you already bought your Christmas turkey?”
“I have a frozen turkey which the idiot supermarket sent me instead of…..”
After completing the story on one breath, Laura observed:
“Is this the problem you’ve called me with?”
“Okay, okay, I know what you’re going to say. What about the homeless charity around the corner, do you think they’d take it?”
“No, I think they’re vegetarian.”
“It’s a free turkey!”
“I don’t think that’s how vegetarianism works, Mel.”
Laura did, however, give me the advice to humanise the turkey to dampen my annoyance. I struggled to make the connection between lessening my angst and dressing a frozen turkey in T-shirt and jeans.
“Mel, give the thing a name, put it to defrost and when you see it again you’ll feel more kindly towards it and your, er, predicament.[Silence]
“Let’s call him Trevor, Mel.”
Albeit a departure from the “There are greater problems” schtick, I was desperate and surprised at how well it worked. Trevor and I had a great time preparing for the kids’ arrival home, wrapping gifts and listening to Christmas Carols. Almost seemed a shame to cook him.
I cooked Trevor, intending to then cool, slice, freeze and defrost him ready for our main meal on Christmas Day.
Except a drinks party and one too many Rhubarb Gins laid hostage to memory and good intentions and Trevor had later to be thrown out along with the food poisoning he’d potentially have brought with him.
But by a show of hands, the kids and I agreed there was nothing wrong with ham for Christmas Day breakfast, ham for Christmas Day lunch and ham pickings for Christmas Day supper.
I didn’t even lose my crap when I fetched Harry the Ham from the fridge and realised I’d bought a ready-to-eat ham, which would not require cooking for hours, wafting Christmases past into the apartment.
Nope, instead I filled a roasting pan full of cloves and put it on a high heat in the oven to pick up wafting duty. I then poured myself a Rhubarb Gin and tried to smile amidst familiar smells and memories past.
Woody Allen said “Tradition is the illusion of permanence,” and which may have been at the heart of my “Turkeygate,” tears and tantrums.
Now back on Planet Sane, I believe I know what that frozen turkey, instead of my lazy alternative, was sent to show me.
I think my take-life-as-it-comes mantra may in itself have become a tradition. That to accept the new, I let go of traditions which had gone before. Because what had gone before, steeped in love and history, had not kept me safe and not given me a happy ever after with my husband.
And having come to terms with that, now even my new found tradition of non-tradition was letting me down?
Cue hysterical phone calls to bemused family and friends.
The essential trouble with tradition then (in any form), is a reliance on its stability. Tradition by its nature comes around every whenever, and when it doesn’t we panic and are sent headlong again into pain.
A reminder, perhaps, happiness, loss and healing are often intertwined and it takes things ostensibly breaking to remind us the only tradition worth hanging onto is the one being forged in the moment.
Something I’ll try to remember next year – with or without Trevor.
Even if we’re sat down to Tofu Porridge on Christmas Day, I’ll give thanks that so far in my 57 years on this earth I have been blessed with sharing this day with family and loved ones.
Give thanks, but not rely on it happening again next year.