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Going home for Xmas

First published in Psychologies, January 2014

Until I had children of my own I almost always went home for Xmas to my mum and step-dad’s house in Leicestershire and so did my siblings, all 4 of them. So, right into our 20s and 30s there we’d all be.  It should have been awful, sometimes it nearly was. Often I imagined I’d not go, but I almost always did and it always turned out great.

The run-up would start around September 14th – my sister’s birthday – when we’d all say to each other, ‘are you going home for Xmas?’ and though none of us would want to commit just in case something more exciting cropped up (it did once for me, but that’s another story), we knew, once it had been mentioned, it would soon be upon us.

Then, sometime in late October, my mother would phone round in her special mardy Xmas voice and ask if we knew yet what our plans were because she was about to put in her meats and hams order at the local butcher (a thing she hated almost as much as the cooking bit, but was doing her best to be a good mother) and needed to know whether to go for a medium, large or gigantic bird or just a capon and how much sausage meat etc. At that point you’d have to admit you were actually going home for Xmas and therefore nothing more exciting had cropped up.

As well as firming up your Xmas intentions, the meat-order enquiry might introduce the idea that the bird was still at that moment alive and happily pecking corn and sipping antibiotics somewhere in Norfolk unaware that it was about to be ordered for Xmas dinner. So, if you felt a wave of sadness and regret at that point, you could put it down to that.

Then, throughout December, you’d get progress calls, wanting to know when exactly (what day, what time) you’d be arriving in Leicestershire and how many meals you’d be requiring through the festive season and if any of you were still vegetarian. And at that point – not yet having been through the ordeal of Xmas hosting yourself (and therefore mistaking essential planning for neurotic hassling) you might feel irritated and beleaguered and say you really didn’t know. You might even say, ‘Relax, Mum, for God’s sake.’ just for the hell of it.

Then you’d be there and the central heating would very much be on and the windows very firmly shut. And your old home might seem smaller than it used to and cram-packed with overheated siblings and the odd friend asking to borrow Selotape. There would be radio 4 blaring in the kitchen and radio 2 whispering in the sitting room. The tree would be twinkling in its corner, bald already on account of the temperature not mimicking that of a Norwegian forest and it having been up since the 5th and you might look through the Xmas cards on the bookshelves and ask annoying questions like, ‘Who are Angela and Graham?’

The turkey (gigantic) would be plucked, but not yet basted, sitting in a large roasting tin on top of the downstairs toilet (it being too big for the real fridge and the downstairs toilet being as cold as a fridge). You might tease your mother about the turkey on the toilet for a while – it being traditional to do so – and maybe take a photograph of it with a Toilet Duck in the background and then you and your brother might have a scuffle for the camera and drop Domestos on to the bird and then you might stop and remember that not so long ago that turkey was pecking corn somewhere to the East and your mother was making the Xmas meats order at Williams the butcher (a thing she hated etc.) and there you were being disrespectful all round.

Then, with that all out of the way, Xmas would really begin; you’d start being helpful, you might make the bread sauce with clove infused milk while chatting and you might even lend someone your Selotape.

It seemed like the last resort at the time – going home for Christmas – as though there was something else we should or could be doing but hadn’t quite risen to, on our own and preferably abroad in a new coat and fluffy boots.

The funny thing is though, of all the Christmases I’ve had since – the ones with my own captivated little children, the ski trips, skating in Central Park – it’s those trips home to that hot, crowded, chaotic house that stand out for me as Christmas proper, with my Christmas-phobic mum and the turkey on the toilet.

And, even funnier, my mum feels the same way.

First published in Psychologies, January 2014

Posted in Nina Stibbe