Beer and Skittles
Christmas. Undoubtedly my favourite time of year. From as early as September it starts to occupy my thoughts. It becomes my main focus for the following three months. As the days darkern, my excitement starts to build. I begin introducing aspects of it into my life and home; watching films and reading novels that help to bring the spirit of the season alive for me. But for the last few years I have noticed a change within me. Whilst I still love Christmas and embrace it as much as I can, I’ve realised that I’ve come to dread it in equal measure.
As a child my mother would always wait until mid December to put the tree up. This was partly because we had a real tree and she didn’t want to be inundated with fallen pine needles everywhere and also because she liked to keep the decorations up until after New Year’s Day. The chocolates and treats wouldn’t be put out for consumption until the afternoon on Christmas Eve and would continue coming until New Year’s Eve. That time between 24th of December and January 1st was the ‘Christmas week’ and that was when we celebrated; nine days of laughter, celebrating and overeating.
Somewhere along the way I have lost this mindset. I have quite a few friends who often say they like to keep Christmas in December and I always ask why? Why would you confine one of the most beautiful times of the year, one that is filled with love, peace, goodwill and charity to just one week? It has never made sense to me, until now.
I keep a tidy, organised (and for the most part) immaculate home. I love filling it with beautiful things that I have grown, gathered and made. I enjoy bringing each season into the house as a way of documenting the year through nature and nurture. For me, Christmas has always been the pinnacle of this habit. A chance to collect berries, evergreens and pine cones, to make paper stars and wreaths, to festoon my windows and mantelpiece with fairy lights and burn fragrant candles. But this year, despite decorating with unbridled enthusiasm at the beginning of the month, frustration soon found a way in. The enjoyment of seeing my little Steading look so pretty waned as I started to drown under the clutter of Christmas. Endless deliveries of boxes piling up in the hallway, blocking the flow of my house. Envelopes, wrapping paper, food containers sprawling out and obliterating all the space on my work surfaces as I searched around for a space to put things down. I realise now that I gave Christmas too much time to grow. In all honesty, this year, like most years, I peaked too soon.
And it wasn’t just my home that was affected by it, my health was too. I’m going to tell you something now that will shock most of you. I nearly always smoke at Christmas. It’s an emotional craving rather than a physical one. I know this because after January 31st I will usually go a whole year before having another one. It’s all linked to my childhood memories of Christmas. My father was one of four brothers and they were extremely close. We all lived within an hour of each other and spent every Boxing Day at my Nan’s house in High Wycombe. It was always a wonderful day. We used to exchange family gifts from aunts and uncles as well as my nan of course. We would sit down to a huge meal of cold meats, mashed potatoes, pickles and salads. It was like an additional Christmas Day and I always looked forward to it. After we had arrived and greeted everyone the ‘men folk’ would go off to the pub whilst the mums made the lunch, old fashioned I know but they didn’t mind, they had sherry in my aunt’s kitchen and could catch up on their gossip. Late morning my dad and my uncles would return with the smell of the pub lingering on them. After we’d done the tree and had lunch, my dad and uncles would sit around my aunt’s huge glass table and play poker, smoking, drinking and laughing, endless laughing. And so the smell of cigarette smoke takes me back to a time when Christmas was uncomplicated.
Then there’s the food. I love Christmas food. Who doesn’t? I used to tell myself that I wouldn’t have my first mince pie until after the beginning of December, that way I could manage how many calories I would consume and how much potential weight I could gain over the festive period. But like most things, this year I started far too early and by December 18th I was already feeling bloated and lethargic. I had started smoking the week before and my lungs felt tight. My breathing was shallow and any enthusiasm and motivation I may have had as the month began soon deserted me. Those of you who follow me on Instagram will know that I posted on that day, a post that was so unlike me, where I shared my feelings with you all. I felt so low but mostly I just felt disappointed with myself for allowing it to happen. As I sat and watched endless Christmas films, despondency grew within me and I just wanted it all to be over. Imagine that! Wanting or rather needing Christmas to be over before it’s even begun because of a crippling fear of what it might do to you if you continue on the road you’re on.
So as always I did what I’ve done for so many years now. I told myself next year will be different, it has to be different. I bought a desk and a notebook and started to make plans. How can I affect a change to my lifestyle that is realistic and will ensure that I’m not in the same boat next year? Trust me, it’s much easier to digest your fourth mince pie when you have made a plan of action for the months ahead and you believe wholeheartedly that you have the means to bring that plan to fruition.
I don’t think going away helped either. It was a great idea but in actuality it left me feeling directionless and out of step with the festive build up. The idea of going away came after a family discussion about Christmas gifts. We were asking each other what we wanted and suddenly realised that there wasn’t anything we actually needed or wanted. We realised to our horror that we were simply replacing perfectly serviceable things just because it was Christmas. And so I suggested that we have a family experience instead. With Eliza heading off to university this year, it sounded like the ideal thing to do. I’d always wanted to visit the German Christmas markets and I knew they’d help us get festive because let’s face it, the Germans know how to do Christmas. Berlin is an awe inspiring city and I truly enjoyed it but I didn’t account for one thing; having Alan, the keen military historian, as a husband.
Berlin, to my mind, is a city of two halves. It is a bustling, vibrant city and the people are friendly and welcoming. But it would not be possible for any city to have experienced the things that Berlin has and not carry the scars. And so we went in search of history, a history that is hard to understand and process at any time of year. I am not ignorant of the things that have been. I’m perfectly aware of the darkness that can override the gentleness of humanity but I have always been one of those people who doesn’t feel the need the see it. I know it happened, I don’t want to witness the evidence. I’m extremely sensitive to these things and they can have a detrimental affect on me that can last for weeks. So as you can imagine, seeing things like the remnants of the Berlin Wall and visiting the Stasi Museum left me feeling quite flat. Coming home felt strange. With very little to prepare for Christmas, I felt out of sync with everything and adrift without purpose. But then my best friend saved the day, in the way that only she can.
We were invited to spend Christmas up in Banchory with my best friend Natalie and her family. She had organised everything and was determined to spoil us all. We arrived on Christmas Eve and headed straight out to the pub. It was just like old times. Her husband is one of Alan’s oldest friends and was the best man at our wedding. When the four of us get together, the laughter flows, as does the piss-taking! (Pardon the language but no other word describes it as well!) Natalie knows me like no other person outside of my family. She knows and shares some of my struggles and is always there with support and advice. The minute I saw her face my spirits lifted and I was reminded that love and friendship is all that matters. Just enjoy the here and now because there is always tomorrow to put things right.
And so this year and I did something that I haven’t done in many years; I kept my decorations up until after Hogmanay. Normally I take them down as soon as Christmas is over. I’ve been known to take them down as early as December 28th before now. Usually by the time I get to Boxing Day, I’m feeling so bloated, sluggish and ashamed of myself that I just need to sweep the remnants of Christmas away and crack on with the promises I have made to myself. My feelings of desperation are so intense that I tell myself I can’t waste a single day more. I often end up shutting myself away on New Year’s Eve and hiding under the duvet. But since living in Scotland, I’ve realised that New Year’s Eve, or Hogmanay as the Scots call it up here, is a huge thing. They have a tradition called ‘first footing’ where you call on your neighbours after midnight with a lump of coal and sip a wee dram to bring best wishes for the year ahead into their home. It’s a beautiful tradition. So this year, instead of turning out my lights at 11pm and hoping no-one would call, I invited everyone round, all sixteen of my neighbours and we danced, drank and sang until 4am in the morning. The tree lights twinkled, the prosecco bubbled and the sound of the Proclaimers carried us along to the end. It was the tonic that I needed. The next day I relaxed in the comfort of my home and enjoyed the peace that only the first day of January can bring. The day after, I packed my decorations away. As I wrapped each item I felt a sense of control come over me. I had an epiphany and I’m committing it to print here and now.
Next year will be different. I will keep Christmas in December. I will buy a real tree for a change but not put it up until after the second week of December. I will start the season in a better place, both spiritually and physically. I will spend this year documenting my days, recording the highs and lows to try to ensure that next Christmas will be fully embraced and not shied away from or feared.
Alan has this saying, he says, “Life isn’t always beer and skittles” and it’s so true. But this year I’m going to have the odd glass of beer and ‘play skittles’ whenever I can. I’m going to work on my aim because with enough balls and a bit of patience, I’m bound to hit something eventually.
Happy New Year everyone.