When my kids were little, it was always quite important to have something really special on Christmas day, though mostly it meant that we spent xmases with their grandparents, alternating sets of parents and in-laws year by year when I was still married to their father. And even after, while my parents were alive and my ex’s, we would plan it so that the kids, rapidly becoming young men, would still see their grandparents on xmas or xmas eve.
This year I found myself suddenly in the role of an in-law and a grandmother: all my grown-up sons’ grandparents have died: I am now that: the parent who hosts xmas for grown up kids and their progeny(in my son’s case stepdaughters). The last couple of xmases I had preferred doing xmas eve dinner parties, rather sophisticated and serious affairs, adults only, including my adult sons with their girlfriends of the day. Not so this year: my xmas eve was spent deboning a turkey, a duck and a chicken, wrapping presents for two little 8 year old twin girls, wondering about what they would like to eat in case they did not like turducken, thinking that I should have gotten more kid friendly snacks…
Of course I still wanted a sophisticated and grown-up lunch. I had planned to set a table with minimal silver table decorations: but my new daughter in law brought red and white xmas crackers, and when my son poured the sparkling wine into red glasses, I conceded to a riotous red-themed xmas lunch table.I found a red beaded runner in my table cloth drawer, and more red baubles in my xmas decoration bag. I snipped off red roses from a bunch in the lounge and put them in silver votives. We all wore those silly paper hats from the crackers, and even read out loud the jokes printed on little slips of paper which flew out with the ubiquitous plastic trinkets, and I was transported straight to my earliest memories of Xmas lunch at my favourite grandma’s.
But it’s really those long lost xmas eves which I remembered, and which I felt very sentimental about yesterday, nursing a little headache from too much sparkling wine and food.
We would arrive either a day before, or on xmas eve, at my gran’s house in Welkom. She would have strung up paper decorations:paper bells and stars concertina’d open, hung from light fittings, and tinsel streamers across picture rails: the same decorations from years before. A artificial xmas tree would be up in a corner, with real glass baubles and more tinsel and draped with flickering multicoloured fairy lights. But there would be no gifts under the tree: because, you know, Santa only comes just before midnight on xmas eve: that was what we were told for years. And for years, until we were too old to still believe that, my gran and the other adults(my parents and assorted aunts and uncles) enacted the same ritual with us. On xmas eve we were all bundled off to bed early. I would fall asleep, reluctantly: I always tried very hard to stay awake, with the smells of gammon cooking, or some such, and adults murmuring in the kitchen and the far off lounge. I did not want to miss anything of what was to come. But in the end I always fell asleep.
My gran would wake me, and my siblings, all excitedly saying that it was almost midnight, and that we had to be very quiet so that we would hear Santa when he arrives: we had to listen for sleigh bells. And soon after, there would be a tinkling of bells, what I knew afterwards as a more grown up kid having rejected the Santa story to be glass wind chimes this gran had hanging on her stoep, and which my dad or an uncle was jingling as he walked around the house. We waited breathlessly for the bells to fade away, and then ran to the lounge: and there, under the tree, was a stack of presents, to my child’s eyes sparkling with magic dust. And then, my gran and the other adults would announce that it was midnight: Christmas! and we were allowed to open our presents. My father usually handed them out. Our faces must have been bright and shiny and happy in the flickering light, and we were allowed to stay up until we eventually faded and needed to go to bed, clutching our presents sleepily to our pyjama’d chests.
I don’t know what the adults did: maybe they had sherry or sweet sparkling wine, and maybe slightly boozy sex later. But when us kids woke up on xmas day, the table in the dining room was all set with my gran’s best dinner set, and brightly coloured xmas crackers in crepe paper and foil stickers of Santa’s jolly face or xmas trees. And special xmas paper serviettes folded artistically by my mom next to each plate. And we would take our places and pull crackers and wear the silly hats and the grown-ups would read out loud the silly, safe jokes on slips of paper curled in the cylinder of the cracker, and I would covet the ring if I had not been able to sneakily switch crackers to find it by peeping into the hole and shaking it and putting it next to where i wanted to sit…
And we would eat and eat and have tiny sips of sherry or sweet wine permitted on that day only.
So, on this xmas day, we ate and ate, and had not-so-sweet sparkling wine. And I had real linen serviettes on the table. But I wore a silly hat and the pink plastic set of dracula fangs from my cracker….and the 8 year olds played with their toys and toasted marshmallows over the candles, and when everyone had left, I lay on the couch listening to sentimental xmas songs and thought of xmases past and wondering about xmases future….