My mum was the Queen of Christmas. Starting in November with the making of aromatic brandy, cinnamon, raison Christmas puddings and ending in January with sweeping up the needles from the always impeccably decorated real Christmas Tree hung with twinkling lights and glinting baubles with the pine cone ‘Nissa’ hidden in the centre. For a long while in the weeks before Christmas the house was also strung with rows of her exquisitely carved Lino print Christmas Cards as they dried before being sent out in large numbers around the world. In later years these were replaced by the dreaded Christmas letter but in Mum’s unique style of family bragging, ‘too much information’ medical details and political calls to arms.
Excitement built as the day approached with mysterious wrapped presents appearing under the Christmas tree. When were younger my brother used to spend a considerable amount of time under the tree feeling their shape and texture trying to guess their contents.
Christmas Eve, when we were younger, was often marked by a kid produced and acted puppet show. I remember Cinderella with a sound track from the Beetles and another year Lamby lambkin hysterically voiced by my best friend Clare. Her family the Nickalls often joined us that night to munch hot freshly baked sausage rolls and mince pies while the adults sipped my dads very boozy mulled wine.
But the crowning glory of all of this was the day itself. It started with fat bulging stockings opened in pyjamas, providing shiny golden chocolate coins, nuts and a satsuma to graze on before breakfast. Breakfast was a light meal often of grapefruit sprinkled with brown sugar and toasted under the grill. It was this way to save space for the table cramming Christmas Dinner of Turkey and all the trimmings, homemade bread and cranberry sauce, chestnut stuffing, roast potatoes and parsnips, sprouts with bacon, frankfurters, more and more till it fell off the sides if your plate. We would pull Christmas crackers, wear the paper crowns and share the terrible jokes and riddles. After a slight pause the Christmas pudding would be brought out from the boiling water where it had steamed and be covered in brandy and set fire to by my dad. It was then brought ceremoniously to the table and, despite the full stomachs, tucked into by all with fresh cream and homemade brandy butter. We would all look to see if we had the lucky sixpence (actually a 5 pence coin). One year my brother was so determined to get it he added a handful of coins to the mix but no one seemed to notice!
At some moveable point we would open presents carefully handed out in even order from under the tree. But this never seemed to be the highlight of the day. Except in watching to see the reaction to the gifts you gave.
It was the five of us and an alternating grandmother (we took turns with my uncle and aunt) Though often we were joined later by various members of our adopted family, Kitty my gran’s best friend and Patrick, Jane and her father Dick – who stood in for my two grandfathers (who had both died before I was born). We would all play board games, or charades. When my brother was alive we used to dress up and perform sketches, either our own or read out from Monty Python. But we always broke to watch the Queen’s speech. One nice days we would go out for a walk and then in the evening watch a movie which seemed always to be the Sound of Music repeated yet again!
So many of those people from those Childhood Christmas’s are dead now, both grandmothers Margaret and Phylis, Kitty, Patrick, Jane and Dick, Jill and John Nickalls, my brother Tom. But the biggest gap is left by my mum, the Queen of Christmas.
It was the second Christmas without her this year. I dreaded the first, then was relieved to find it was actually possible to still find some joy in the subdued event. This year I actually looked forward to it. Wales, on a farm, a fridge full of British treats from Waitrose, a walk to a pub for a pint of beer. We would move on, accept mums absence, make no attempt to have a mum Christmas but forge our own traditions. Bucks Fizz and Shreddies cereal (you cant buy this in America) for breakfast. Top Gear on the Television, no Christmas Dinner not even a sit down meal at all. The highlight of my day a Chelsea Bun from Askews bakery in Crickhowell.
But it was not a complete success, it was like pretending that she never existed, cutting her traditions and history out of my life and rather than making me miss her less made me miss her more. From our cottage on the farm the view of the Sugarloaf was beautiful, and Wales remains my hearts home, but the empty chairs around the table only reminded me of past times where we had had to cram people in on bar stools.
While the kids excitedly petted the farm animals I missed Dougal and Magic and Nutkin pets of times past.
So next year I shall be the Queen of Christmas and have mum with me as I make the Christmas puddings and sausage rolls, we will have a puppet show and play charades, drink mulled wine. I shall make my own Lino Cards. I may even resurrect the dreaded Christmas letter!