My family’s early bird approach to Christmas day might explain why it is the earliest memory I have of being tired as a child. Struggling each Christmas to subdue my immense excitement and go to sleep, I would wake up soon after sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 am the following ‘day’.
In the nano second that I hovered between sleep and waking up, I knew, even before I opened my eyes that it was Christmas day at last. It was still dark and my face would be cold, the only part of me exposed above the blankets. It was the 1960’s and we had central heating, but not the kind that turned itself on in the morning. Living in County Durham, in the north of England it was essential to emerge from bed with socks, slippers and a fleecy dressing gown tied tightly at the waist.
I would wait in my little mustard bedroom (a strangely fashionable colour at the time) imagining the scene downstairs; three piles of presents in front of the brick fire place in the living room; one for myself and one each for my older brothers. I willed my brothers to wake up so I could follow them down and begin unwrapping my gifts. I never really believed that Santa Claus had brought them – even though we had a chimney big enough to accommodate him. My brothers were keen to confirm what I suspected; that “Mum and Dad have done it all”.
I didn’t have to wait very long on those Christmas mornings; padding around the house in the small hours like cat burglars, one of us would plug in the tree lights while we surveyed the equidistant piles of presents. Crossed legged and quietly ecstatic in the half light, with pine tree smell enveloping us, I would carefully go through my pile and place each present in what I felt might be an order of priority (a technique I’d learnt to prolong the anticipation and fun I think).
Later on in my childhood I would be amazed to learn that some families opened their presents after breakfast, lunch-time or even later in the day – after the Queen’s 3 pm speech. I was in awe of the restraint this must have required and also a little sorry for those friends! In our house we would save the chocolates until after breakfast, but the board games, Jackie Annual, Etch-a-Sketch, poster paints and dolly’s paraphernalia had all become completely familiar to me by the time our parents got up. I liked it that way, after all, I’d already waited a year for that most sacred day to be counted off the Reader’s Digest calendar, why wait any longer.
My early Christmases were some of the most special – a common phenomenon, I imagine? After a relocation to the south of England when I was nearly eight, the festivities lost some of their intensity, that moment of innocence had passed. Much later, when I had my own young children I experienced again the special pleasure of Christmas, reliving some of my own family’s traditions and combining them with my husband’s; he cooks scrambled egg and smoked salmon for breakfast (not a particularly Welsh tradition, a place where simple food is valued and unnecessary mixtures scorned!).
With motherhood there also came the responsibility of making it all happen and a little cynicism around whether the massive input was worth the output. In Britain, like most westernised countries, our monstrously early build up seems to begin just after ‘summer’ subsides with Christmas cards and wrapping paper on sale for around a third of the year.
We are currently living in Houston – I suspect if it wasn’t for the hysteria around Halloween there would be nothing to stem the flow of Christmas crapola filling our trolleys even earlier. That said, on our first overseas posting to Singapore, I was surprised to find that the commercial build-up really did contribute to the overall experience of Christmas; a maddening discovery. Being a shining example of a culturally and religiously mixed society, demand for Yule tide goods was diluted in Singapore. As my first Christmas in Singapore came close, I felt quite panicked at the lack of festive items (no crackers) it was late November by the time stocks of Christmas goodies arrived. Presumably my over reaction to this was rooted in an unquestioning desire to yet again provide a near perfect crimble for my family.
That first Christmas was memorable for all the wrong reasons; we had recently arrived from the UK, naive about culture shock and without extended family around us, it was tough trying to cope with the other missing elements as well; the familiar TV specials, fresh Brussels sprouts, After Eight chocolate mints, going to church in mittens and a brisk walk before it went dark at 4:00 pm – I could go on.
By our second Christmas in South East Asia not only had I put into perspective what we didn’t have; we were fortunate to have grandparents staying with us and by a further stroke of good luck some old friends who had moved nearby. The wine flowed, the roast potatoes were cooked to crispy perfection and although the day was still strange by comparison, I made it through with dry eyes. What mattered was that we were sharing the experience again. And a turkey dinner eaten in the sapping equatorial heat, worked off in the condominium pool would certainly be something to remember, not something to forget!
On reflection it seems to matter more who we are close to rather than where we are on Christmas day. This year I will strive once again to focus on the fundamentals – remembering why we celebrate Christmas and enjoying and being thankful for the giving and receiving.
You can read more of my adventures in ‘An Inconvenient Posting: An expat wife’s memoir of lost identity’ published by Summertime Publishing.
Do you have any festive traditions, quirky or otherwise, you’d like to share? Click on ‘Leave a reply’ below.