Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I did enjoy Christmas as a child. But for a long time now, a really long time, I could take or leave it. As a teenaged child of divorced parents there was the issue of where to be and who to spend the day with, which, as I got older, turned into Christmas Days spent driving from city to city. Then I married someone whose parents are also divorced, we produced the only grandchildren on both sides, and the dilemma doubled in complexity. I would like to say for the record that there was never any pressure put on us by anyone, the grandparents have always been very flexible and patient and good at sharing, but we still wished we could be in four places at once.
Then, once the children get to a certain age, there are the expectations to be managed. Young children are easy but they soon grow out of that and into the stage of wanting very specific things. I don’t mind that when said things cost under about ten dollars but you’d be surprised at how often this isn’t the case. Some of our children helpfully talk non-stop about what they’re hoping for from around September, which means we can choose things we know they want and strip them of hope ahead of time for anything that’s just not going to happen, theoretically avoiding disappointment. Some of them, though, keep their cards close to their chest and whatever I choose is a great big gamble. It’s stressful, is what it is.
Noah seems to be in a transitional stage this year. He’s written a page-long wish list and stuck it to the fridge, but nearly everything on it is just a tad unreasonable. Cassia, who does everything that Noah does, followed suit and between them they’re hoping for, among other things: a computer, a phone, 3 pet fish in a fishbowl, 1 driver’s licence with car, 1 plane licence with plane, a remote-controlled unicorn, a hotel with a swimming pool, a bazooka, a dog, 2 parrots, a cat and an armadillo, a flying fox, a horse and saddle, a stable for the horse, and a ‘small loan’ of a million euro.
Well that makes it easy then.
Once the children reached school age December became a marathon of class trips, class parties, prize-giving for school, sports, and all the other extra-curriculars; dance shows, art exhibitions, farewell lunches and final assemblies, with – for added challenge – various hurdles along the lines of someone needing a plate or Secret Santa gift and only mentioning it half an hour before the school bus comes. Added to the usual end-of-year work parties and community events, by the time Christmas arrived it was just the last thing in an exhausting, stressful month. And hot. I don’t deal with heat well at all. Sometimes I have to turn the hair drier off mid-use because I’m feeling physically sick.
So you see, although I tried my best, the prospect of Christmas always made my heart sink. And I know I’m not the only one. Rest assured, weary travellers, there is a solution. All you need to do is move to the other side of the world.
Last year, for the first time in my adult life, I felt as though I was able to do a good job of Christmas. It was a very pleasant surprise. This year I’m doing even better.
There are three factors working in my favour. One is that it’s not hot. I am a functioning human being instead of a miserable wet rag. I rejoice in the cold. It energises me. At the moment the weather here is pretty consistently sunny, clear and cool. The only downside is that when I’m outside the sun’s almost permanently right in my eyes because it never gets high enough in the sky to go over my head, as it were. Still, totally worth it.
Secondly, it feels like Christmas. It is winter and it’s dark by 5 p.m. There are Christmas lights and decorations everywhere and all the shopping centres look truly spectacular, inside and out. Our local village has a little Christmas market along the waterfront, with wooden chalet things selling street food and crafts. There’s a saxophone busker playing carols. It’s not just a one-off, it’s all there for the six weeks or so leading up to Christmas, so every time I go to the library or the shops I feel like I’m in a Christmas card.
To get into the spirit even more, people wear Christmas jumpers. I had no idea that Christmas jumpers were a real thing. I thought it was just a gimmick used in British t.v. programmes for comedic value.
But no! Once December arrives, a good proportion of people you see around the place are wearing Christmas jumpers. Amy, Cassia and Noah all have them, and I’m in the market for one. Amy’s features penguins and stars with flashing lights. Daniel’s not keen and it’ll be over Josh’s dead body, grinches that they are. People Cassia’s size can wear whole Christmas outfits, and do. The local department store has leggings, socks, dresses and hats for children all in cheerful Christmas prints, and it’s all I can do to restrain myself. The tram line, the Luas, even has a weekend when people who are wearing their Christmas jumpers ride free. It doesn’t feel cheesey or kitschy, it feels like everyone’s joining together in enjoying the season.
Another thing I’d read about in Marian Keyes books and other foreign literature but never clapped eyes on was family-sized ‘selection boxes’ of chocolates. They are stacked up about six feet high in all the spare spaces in Tesco and SuperValu and all the other supermarkets, and they are quite something. They’re essentially chocolate buckets. Last year I bought one early in December for Christmas day. I showed it to Josh so he could marvel too and we accidentally ate it. This happened once or twice more before the children ever knew they existed. You get the best deal if you buy them in threes anyway so it was all for the best.
I will say though, Roses are not what they used to be.
The third factor in my wonderful rediscovery of Christmas is the fact that December is not the end of anything here except for the calendar year. It’s only half-way through the school year and the ballet term and the sports season. So once we get past Hallowe’en the only thing coming up is Christmas. November and December are free for relaxed planning and considered shopping, not the frantic last-minute rush I always used to end up in. My Christmas cakes are already in the freezer maturing in Gladwrap and a few pages of the Irish Times. I have a packet of mulled wine spice in the cupboard. Many presents are hidden around my room, although I think I need to come up with somewhere a bit less obvious. Most of the things that need to wing their way to New Zealand have been posted. I know where the Christmas tree stand is, and as soon as the man turns up in the SuperValu parking lot selling trees we’ll get onto that. I have the Christmas dinner plans made: delegate to Josh and his mum, both far better and more interested cooks than me. A trip to Marks and Spencers food hall and they’ll be good to go. In fact, if push came to shove, even I could produce a lovely Christmas dinner with the help of M&S. Yesterday in Lidl I found a DIY gingerbread house pack – I think it’s sort of pre-fab and you just glue the walls together with icing and stick the jubes on – so that can be my contribution.
Now, lest you think I’m being smug and skitey, the reason I have all this in hand is not that I’m super-organised or anything. Without all the other December clutter I have plenty of time, which also means that for the first time I’m actually enjoying it. Instead of having to drag myself around doing the absolute minimum needed to create a passable Christmas for the kids, I’m motivated to do everything I can think of to make it magical. It’s not just about going through the motions for everybody else’s sake this year, it’s about finally achieving the Christmas feeling for myself. I’ve had plenty of happy Christmases over the last few years; I’ve been with friends and family and had wonderful food and company and lots of fun, and it’s been special and memorable. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just that it’s always fallen into to category of ‘it’ll be worth all this effort when the day arrives’ rather than ‘Yay! Christmas is coming!’
Although I’ve spent my whole life in the southern hemisphere, Christmas here has a feeling of familiarity about it, a feeling of being home, of this is how it should be. I suppose that’s the result of forty years surrounded by wrapping paper and cards and Christmas books and movies and carols full of snow and reindeer and robins and mistletoe and bundled-up children making snowmen. It just feels right.
Well, I’m off to dig the tree decorations out of the attic, which I’ve been putting off because it’s a bit chilly up there even for me. Then I’m going to get myself down to the village to search out a Christmas jumper in my size. I think I need one of those scented candles too. Or we could just start on the mulled wine right now, that would do the trick.
Even I am not so on top of things that I have Christmas Day photos already, so I’ll leave you with some from last year, along with my sincere hope that you make it through December with some Christmas spirit still intact. If not, there’s always the shifting across the world option. I’ll have a bucket of Roses here to welcome you.