Christmas has always revolved around three things in my family (by which I mean the family consisting of me, my parents and my brother – my other family (wife and son) are relatively (pun!) recent interlopers and so must fit in with my family’s traditions).
These three things are:
- An absolutely enormous Christmas tree
- An array of presents
- A large amount of food
Religion has never really entered the equation. It has always just been a convenient opportunity to eat lots, decorate the house with sparkly stuff, eat lots and spend time together. And eat lots.
It’s not that we set out to exclude religion – it was just that none of us particularly cared about it. Which I suspect is the situation in the overwhelming majority of UK households.
The enormous tree has been a long tradition. When I was small and my parents lived in a normal-size home, our tree was probably only normal-size. But I was small, therefore the tree seemed enormous. It was always decorated with the same tinsel, baubles, coloured lights and threadbare fairy every year. Sometimes Dad would buy a few new decorations, always of the tacky, brightly coloured foil variety. I’m still attracted to that sort of thing and I’m glad that Tom is developing a love of tackiness too.
When we moved home in the late Eighties, we didn’t have a proper house. My parents lived in a mobile home and my brother and I lived in a shed. No, really. So we didn’t have space for an enormous tree, but we still had the biggest tree we could possibly fit in the space available, so it was relatively enormous. Eventually, these hardships ended when Dad had done enough work on the barn conversion that became our home for us to put a tree inside it. The barn is open inside, with all the beams exposed, so that provided scope for an 18 feet tall tree – pretty much the size that you see in your finer shopping malls.
Under this tree, the presents are piled high. Nobody is allowed to open a present until the food is in the oven and sherry has been poured. I’m not even sure that any of us particularly like sherry, but it’s a tradition and was some of the first alcohol I drank as a child (not counting the home-made elderflower wine that was put in my bottle to make me sleep). The youngest family member takes the role of “Santa”, wearing the hat bought from a street trader (“only a paahnd!”) many years ago, and distributes the presents one at a time to everyone seated around the fire. So present opening takes a couple of hours, by which time the food is cooked.
Then, all hands to preparing the table, getting the food served and carving the meat. Dad has always carved the meat. He has also always prepared the brandy butter for the Christmas pudding (two foods I detest). He has a special silver fork that belonged to his mother that is only used once a year for this purpose – otherwise it sits in a drawer.
Mum was never a great cook. Before marriage, she hadn’t had much experience of cooking – her own mother simply wouldn’t let her. So, upon getting married, she equipped herself with a copy of Marguerite Patten’s Family Cookbook (the original, black and white edition) and learnt the basics (the book is still in the kitchen and my brother and I occasionally discuss who should inherit it). Consequently, Mum was a competent, self-taught cook and excelled at producing vast roast dinners for Christmas day, with chicken, ham and beef. (Dad revealed a few years ago that he doesn’t like beef – this was after Mum had fed it to him for the first 40 years of their marriage). Certain foods were regarded as compulsory by tradition – carrots and parsnips cooked with mustard and honey; Brussels sprouts cooked with bacon; and carpetburgers.
There are two variants of carpetburgers. They can either be patties of pork sausagemeat flavoured with herbs, dusted with flour and pan fried, or they can be home-made breadcrumb stuffing, also flavoured with herbs (always fresh herbs from the garden) and baked. The latter is essentially the same as a traditional stuffing ball, à la Paxo, but flatter and more “patty” shaped. The name carpetburger derived from an excellent Hellman’s mayonnaise advert from the 1980s with Bob Carolgees (minus Spit the Dog), which also featured string beans made of real string. You can watch it here on the YouTubethingummy.
Mum died in 2011. That year, for the first time in my life, there was no tree at my parents’ house. There was no mountain of food. No pile of presents. No tacky foil decorations. No carpetburgers. Dad couldn’t bring himself to decorate the house, just eight weeks after she had gone. He came to us for Christmas dinner on what was a distinctly subdued day.
But someone didn’t like that. Tom protested. For him, Christmas is going to Granddad’s house. Christmas is an enormous tree. Christmas is being Santa (a role he has stolen from me, as the new youngest member of the family) in the battered Santa hat, giving out the presents, one at a time, to the family members whilst we sit around the fire drinking sherry that we are not really sure we like.
So, last year, my brother and sister-in-law helped Dad decorate the house. An enormous tree was purchased, erected and decorated. We mustered a big pile of presents. The Santa hat was dusted off. And we made carpetburgers. A glass (or two) of sherry was raised to Mum.
We’ll do the same this year. Because Christmas isn’t really about God, or baby Jesus or even about giving and receiving presents. Christmas, for us, is about family.