Christmas is Crackers

10 Dec Christmas is Crackers

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 7.12.20


In a year when you have to take your certainty where you can find it, I find myself inordinately excited at the prospect of Christmas. We have a plan, and I like it a lot – tootling south to join family and friends for a couple of days. I will be a guest, not a host – a rarity for me in the last 25 years – though I will be joyfully contributing my signature Christmas dish. So picture us, if you will, driving down with an enormous bowl of cherry-sherry trifle strapped in with a seatbelt on the backseat of the car. Let us pray for no sudden stops on State Highway 2 this Christmas Eve.

So much has gone wrong this year – holidays cancelled, work lost, expectations upended – I find myself less pressured about making things turn out “right”. I used to fuss and fret about getting the gift shopping done in reasonable time (and tried not to give withering looks to people who told me they’d finished wrapping all theirs in November) and got hot and bothered over menu choices and co-ordinating the cooking times for the steamed asparagus and the glazing of the ham while also keeping glasses topped up and saying the right kind of ooh and ah as people opened their presents.

On more than one Boxing Day I found the Christmas Crackers, unopened, under the spare bed where I’d stashed them a week before and unearthed the really good wine on a shelf in the linen cupboard sometime around New Year. Actually, that last one was pretty tremendous – there’s something extra fizzy about the champagne you open after everyone else has gone home.

Thankfully (possibly for all concerned) I am not in charge this year. But there has also been a shift in my idea of what really matters at Christmas. Feel free to try this yourself because it worked for me. Think back to last Christmas and what you got for gifts. I remember that they were all delightful, but I couldn’t provide a detailed list. About the only Christmas gift I vividly recall was the blue bike I got when I was six years old. Dad wired blocks to the pedals so my legs could reach them, which possibly helped imprint the memory. But what I got five years ago? Ten? No idea.

This doesn’t mean the gifts weren’t fabulous – they always are. But once you’re not six, they tend not to be the thing you recall.

Now think back to what you ate last Christmas Day. That’s easier if you have a tradition – we did roast chicken in the middle of a hot summer’s day when my grandmother was alive because that was her favourite, then shifted to hot ham and cold salads in the years after because that was my mother’s. But the exact menu? Couldn’t tell you – aside from the year Dad decided to barbecue mussels but I failed to put the baby potatoes on to boil in time, so the mussels ended up like rubber and the spuds had a certain crunch. Fiascos are memorable, but it’s hard to recall the faultless Christmas lunch.

And now, try to remember who was there with you for Christmas last year. And the one before that. And twenty years ago… I can give you a full and detailed list of the people who came to Christmas at ours every single time. Or the ones we’ve spent in other places – with my brother in Wellington, or my parents-in-law in Melbourne, or that wonderful one in Hawkes Bay when my kid and I and the rest of my family were treated to a magical time with our incredible friends and their extended whanau, some of whom had travelled all the way from England.

So I have no trouble remembering the people I’ve spent Christmas with – which suggests to me that this is really what the celebration is about. Sharing the day with people you love, or are related to – and isn’t it fabulous when those people are one and the same.

Here’s a special shout-out to anyone for whom this Christmas will involve an empty chair. We have had three now without my dad, and last year was our first without my mother. Grief is a tricky thing and will sneak up behind you and wallop you at some point, triggered by nothing in particular. So it can be useful to lay some ground rules in advance. Tell everyone you might need to slip away on your own for a minute, and that this will be okay. Maybe ask people not to raise the absence until you do, or agree to a pre-arranged moment that works for you all. And then go get the crackers from under the spare bed and share them with the fine people who are there, and make some new memories.