Our family Christmas

2013-12-24 00:00

GROWING up, the arrival of the Christmas tree always signalled that the countdown to Christmas had begun. My father insisted that any self-respecting Christmas tree had to be cut down by us, so the family would pile into the farm bakkie and the search would begin.

No conifer was safe from the axe. We would travel far and wide until my father found the tree that he considered perfect for its designated job. So Christmas tree duly pilfered, we would squabble over who put what baubles where and watch wide-eyed as the present pile underneath it grew. Christmas cards would arrive from all over the world and my mother would string them across the fireplace in layers. So would begin the true magic of our family Christmas.

We would dress smartly for our traditional Christmas Eve dinner and assemble, with relatives or friends who were joining us, around the beautifully decorated table. My mother outdid herself every Christmas and it was a truly glamorous affair for us children. The table would be covered in red, white and green table cloths, with Christmasy flower arrangements adorning the centre. Silver candelabra would be adorned with wreaths of ivy or holly and flickering red candles would be nestled among prickly conifer leaves and cones. The best crockery would be dusted off and the silver cutlery would be polished to a high-gloss sheen. Christmas carols playing on the tape deck would set the scene for an evening of delicious food and good company as we basked in the security of a happy family.

Over the years, the Christmas menu stayed largely the same. Delicious salty gammon and turkey, bulging with Christmas stuffing, would be surrounded by potatoes roasted to crispy perfection. Accompanying this traditional Christmas fare would be mounds of Brussell sprouts, buttered carrots, and cauliflour smothered in a cheese sauce all coated in dark, rich gravy and finished off with a dollop of cranberry sauce. My father’s proud duty was to carve the meat, which he had down to a fine art, deftly slicing perfectly sized pieces to be dished onto waiting plates. Once our plates were filled to overflowing, we would take our places and wait for the signal that the feast could begin —

crackers. We would each grab a brightly coloured cracker and with arms crossed and eyes squeezed tightly closed, pull with all our might, only stopping when the satisfying pop signified that there was a joke to be shared and a plastic prize to be found. Christmas hats on, we would tuck in, forgetting that we still had to leave space for Christmas pudding with brandy butter, ice cream, trifle and fruit salad, finished off with my mother’s perfect homemade mince pies.

Happily exhausted and having eaten far too much, we would eventually be persuaded to go to bed, checking first that an empty pillow case was draped across the end. The next morning that same pillow case would be bulging with gifts, evidence that we had been very good children.

Christmas dinner at my mother’s house still largely follows this pattern, but other things have changed. We four siblings are no longer children and we all have families of our own now. We have in-laws who also want to spend Christmas with their sons or daughters and grandchildren. My father has died and my sister lives halfway across the world, so it seems at every Christmas that someone special is missing; however, that doesn’t mean that Christmas is bad, just different. With the arrival of adulthood and grandchildren, wonderful new traditions have emerged. Christmas Eve dinner is no longer only hosted by my mother. I have done it myself on a few occasions and although I’m yet to produce the feast that my mother seems to do so effortlessly, I’ve loved celebrating Christmas with my family and close friends in my home. While I miss the noise and excitement created by four children opening presents on Christmas morning, there’s something special about watching your own children repeat the cycle.

Of course, over the years as we have become older and more irreverent, there have been some hilarious incidents that we still laugh over. When the grandchildren were little, my mother, realising that their parents never would, took it upon herself to teach the children the true meaning of Christmas by taking them to the evening children’s service before dinner. Meanwhile, we stayed at home and made inroads into the copious bottles of wine decorating the sideboard. The children would then come home and before dinner would open presents from stockings that Father Christmas had mysteriously dropped off. Every year saw an ever more elaborate plan being hatched of how the stockings would arrive. One year, we decided that my brother would dress up in a Father Christmas suit and as my mother returned from church and crested the hill that led down to the house, he would sprint across the pastures and disappear behind the farm buildings. The children would see him and immediately assume that they had almost caught Father Christmas red-handed dropping off their stockings. This plan seemed to be working beautifully until my brother suddenly disappeared from sight in the thick kikuyu. When he emerged he seemed to be crawling around in crazed circles in the grass, with us shouting at him from the veranda to get up and run. It transpired that he had tripped in a concealed warthog hole and had lost his glasses in the process.

What we observed were his desperate attempts to find his glasses before the children arrived home and recognised him.

Christmas for me is about spending time with friends and family, and I get unreasonably miffed when they make plans that don’t include me. While my memories of childhood Christmases may be slightly rose-hued, they were happy times, and no matter how or why you celebrate the season, being happy and making others happy are traditions that should never be overlooked.

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