I’m sitting at my desk. It’s the end of the day and the end of an unforgettable year. I should be writing a scene set on a steam train in the heat of July but instead I’m watching as the houses opposite disappear into the December gloom. Smoke smuts and hot weather seem too hard to conjure so I’ve switched on the tree lights and let my mind drift to Christmasses past.
The news is filled with stories of how people are having to adapt to a different, perhaps lonelier Christmas. Tier 4 has just been announced, over a thousand lorries are stranded at Dover and life, having had a brief fillip of optimism over the COVID vaccine, has sunk into despondency. The promise of a family Christmas, after a year of sacrifice, has been snatched away and people, quite rightly, are feeling miserable.
For various reasons, my Christmas is spent with my husband and the dogs. It’s a quiet affair and probably seems a bit odd to those who usually surround themselves with friends and family. As a child, Christmas was wonderful. My father loved the season – as long as it was done his way. I can clearly remember the excitement of waking up to the pillowcase of presents at the end of the bed and one memorable year of finding a bike! How my parents managed it, I’m not sure as there wasn’t a lot of money and Dad had at least two jobs.
We had lovely family Christmasses but it took place within a bubble; strictly no outsiders admitted. Occasional relatives were tolerated including my aunt who was considered quite the daring thing as she wore stilettoes and drank gin. Even the idea of someone phoning us and interrupting our special Christmas family time was met with horror. My father died many years ago and I often wonder how he would cope with our reliance, these days, on iPads and mobile phones. He’d hate their intrusion on Christmas Day. As I grew older, I chafed at the drawbridge closing on Christmas Eve, with no intruders allowed until the day following Boxing Day. The cosy bubble had become a boring and suffocating one.
The year, when aged sixteen, I asked to go to a party on Boxing Day night caused predictable outrage. I went but felt guilty at being responsible for the upset. As I said, my father loved Christmas but as long as it was done his way.
Aged seventeen I had the opportunity of a lifetime – to sail to west Africa on the SS Uganda, the ship renowned for its educational cruises. The only slight problem – we would spend Christmas Day at sea. As I recall, somewhere off the west African coast and heading to the Canaries. Maybe the reins had been loosened by my insistence on going out the year before, or maybe my father could see what a huge adventure it would be, but he let me go. It was a life-changing, life-affirming experience and instilled in me the itchy feet and longing for travel that I still have. However, when I unwrapped the present my parents had given me to open on Christmas Day, in my musty dormitory below the waterline, I wept buckets. Literally and figuratively at sea, I wasn’t prepared for being away from home at such a special time.
Although looking on with horror at the scenes at St Pancras where those in London were cramming themselves onto trains out of the city before Tier 4 locked them down, I also had sympathy. As a young adult in London and working at one of my first jobs, I had to work late on the twenty-third and was due back for a shift on Boxing Day afternoon so had the briefest window of opportunity to get home to the Midlands for Christmas. It felt very wrong being put on the coach to Victoria early on Boxing Day morning.
Another adventure beckoned when I spent Christmas and New Year on the Trans Siberian Railway in a just pre-Glasnost USSR. I’m going to have to research where I spent the actual day (on the train heading through the snowy wastelands of Siberia, I think) as I can’t remember but can recall a group of us aimlessly wandering around a soulless Tashkent on New Year’s Eve, trying to find something to do. We gave up, having come across some truly terrifying policemen and retreated to the hotel and some fiercesome Russian vodka.
Since then, Christmas has sometimes been spent at my mother’s, sometimes at my in-laws but mostly at home. One memorable Christmas Day, when I’d recently moved to the countryside, was spent tramping the snowy fields with the spaniels. Perfect!
I think we get sold the TV version of Christmas. You know, the one with the beaming children, the juicy turkey, the cute carol singers, the immaculately decorated tree. The reality can be very different. I remember one Christmas having a spectacular argument over how best to make custard, another with no alcohol (I’m still shuddering at the thought of that one!). One year we ate ham sandwiches in the chilly foyer of a hospital as a family member was very ill.
I suppose my point is, Christmas can be a many and varied thing and rarely lives up to the commercial hype or personal expectation. If you’re not having the Christmas you planned, or are stuck on your own, my heart goes out to you. Let’s hope it’s just for this year and that Christmas 2021 will be everything we hope for.
Now, to get back to steam trains and July …