I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Christmas traditions, particularly the ones that are built within our own family structures that underpin how and why we ‘Christmas’ in the way we do. When you first teach your children about the magic of Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, Befana, Mikulas, Krampus, or any other variation of wonder, you start to sew your own story of Christmas into their minds and with that comes a variety of traditions they grow up internalising and associating with this magical time of year. At some point you get to decide how you want your Christmas to go in your own unit and I’ve been thinking a lot about the gravity of this happening and what a massive change that is on everything I know and love about the Christmas of now.
Lacking my own Ghost of Christmas future, I have been musing on this subject over the Festive period. I was raised with the teachings of a consumerist Santa Claus, who visited our house on Christmas Eve at midnight to deliver presents into our carefully laid out stockings when we were asleep – as long as we had been good of course. We put out mince pies & glasses of milk, which later progressed into glasses of baileys which Santa rightly deserved in his age. Not forgetting of course to leave a carrot for Rudolph – because obviously the other reindeer weren’t going to be hungry – before closing our eyes tightly and willing sleep to not spoil the magic.
I have a mum & dad who would do absolutely anything to make Christmas as magical as possible for us, dressing the house completely in festive spirit. From more LED fairy lights than you can imagine, to homemade Christmas decorations, multiple sizes of Christmas tree, an entourage of scented candles that transport you into a magical wonderland & a whole cupboard full of Christmas desserts that is stockpiled over the build up to Christmas and can only be broken into on Christmas Eve. From Leicestershire, to Dubai, to The Hague, our house at Christmas has always felt magical. Having not yet built my own ‘home’ in London, my measly contribution in comparison is a ceramic Christmas tree ornament and a ‘countdown to Christmas’, which is really just a countdown until I can be at home with my family again. It is painfully obvious to myself and to anyone who has had the pleasure (or pain) of dating me long term, that Christmas magic is possible to smother others in and I very much intend on maintaining the family tradition of doing so.
It is probably because of my parents, that giving presents for me has long been associated with love. This doesn’t always equate to financial value, but I spend an incredibly long time in the months before Christmas shopping around to find the perfect present for the people I love. I am unlikely to ever give one present, instead it tends to be a selection made up of various trinkets and items that I hope the receiver will love and recognise their connection to. I pay extra attention to hobbies & holidays of the people I love and try to combine it with what I already know about them. For example, dark blue looks gorgeous with their eyes & they love to wear sparkly earrings around Christmas time. I spend hours trying to make Christmas as special for others as it is for me, because that is how my mum has always done it. I often have to recognise the privilege I have that Christmas is so magical for me and not synonymous with damaged relationships, grief or financial struggles. I know many particularly hate the gift-giving side of Christmas, seeing it is wasteful or a chance to show off how much surplus cash you have to flaunt on others. However, like so many wonderful people I know it can also be a lovely way to reconnect with your loved ones – find out what are they in to now? How have changed in the last year? What’s something I have received or bought this year that would be a great gift for this person? What talents or skills have I been working on this year I could utilise for Christmas presents (calligraphy, painting, sketching, crocheting)? I see Christmas as relationship building for me, as I associate it with more time spent with friends and family than I have the chance to for the rest of the year.
A big thing that really brings people together over Christmas is food. Whether it’s that first sip of mulled wine, drank out of a paper cup, where the spices hit your cold nose for the first time that year. The taste of cranberry sauce with soft cheese, a sip of baileys by the fireplace or the smell of parsnips cooking. Everyone associates Christmas with the food we lock away for a year and then gorge ourselves on & the traditions we keep even if we don’t enjoy them (I mean seriously who really loves turkey?) Christmas dinner is always such a grand event and people are so competitive about it. As a fairly average cook myself, I already know I will be shirking the pressure of cooking the best Christmas dinner. With my sister, mum & I all turning vegetarian over the last 5 years, Christmas dinner no longer involves a stuffed turkey wearing a bacon coat, instead we have variations on nut roasts and delicious cuts of meat for my dad and brother. The Christmas dinner is a beautiful spread of flavours without a showstopper centrepiece and that’s the way I love Christmas. However, our Christmas dinners back in Dubai were totally different (not just because we ate outside in the sunshine). To others, I imagine the dishes that make up Christmas dinner look quite different and we probably all prefer our way of eating it.
For me, the build up to that Christmas dinner is incredible, from every food outlet in the country offering a festive take on their usual menu, the countless Christmas dinners with friends, work & various social groups, the Christmas parties & trips to Christmas markets, the fact supermarkets stock mince pies on the 1st September, the ridiculous amount of booze consumed and the generally good spirits everyone is in alongside the exhaustion. Working in events, I attend a lot of Christmas parties. Traditionally I’m running them rather than enjoying them, but that obviously doesn’t mean that I can’t scream along to ‘All I want for Christmas is You’ or enjoy the post event bottle of wine. It does however slightly change my relationship to corporate parties; there are only so many times you need to see a few hundred smashed glasses & drunk guests perform Christmas karaoke. The catering industry however does bring with it the joy of really high end delicious menus and takes on traditional Christmas food & drink. With a whole plethora of Christmas related spirits and spices, writing cocktail menus and selecting wines is brilliant fun. Building menus that are both nostalgic and high end is very gratifying and as you can imagine, I quite enjoy sampling and designing menus for Christmas events and seeing all of my Christmas food & decor fantasies come to life. At least for me in London, the corporate carnage of Christmas has become somewhat traditional. I associate December with working my ass off in a black dress and reindeer antlers, but also spending a lot of time with my colleagues and getting very little sleep. This does mean that when I go home for Christmas I do go into hibernation for the first few days as I finally hit ‘STOP’ on my internal alarm clock and actually relax for the first time since September, but I wouldn’t change it for anything at this point.
Traditions are complex but malleable when it comes to Christmas. Most of us have experienced the change when you move out of home for the first time and you are travelling home for the first time over the Christmas period. Whether you are literally “driving home for Christmas” over mad Friday, or your family live far and wide & it isn’t always an option for you to be there, we have probably already changed our relationship to Christmas in the same way a lot of us have changed our relationship to Santa Claus.
Then there are the other traditions, the time we rise in the morning, when we open our presents from Santa, when we open our presents from the family, when we eat Christmas ‘dinner’, what happens after Christmas dinner, are there board games? Is there a cheeseboard? Do we spend all day in our pyjamas or do we descend to dinner in black tie? Do you spend the whole day with family? Do you see friends? So many elements that probably are completely different to everyone else you know and are very rarely discussed, because for us, that is just how it is done. I have many friends who go out Christmas Eve and get absolutely smashed, nursing a hangover with their Christmas roast and copious amounts of alcohol. Likewise I have friends who don’t see or speak to a single other person over the whole Christmas period they aren’t directly related to. I also have friends who avoid seeing absolutely everyone they’re related to over the Christmas period. We all do it differently and that’s okay.
So what I have been thinking about a lot recently, is when we start to create our own traditions, because that’s happening at some point in the future. Whether it’s sooner or later, a lot of people are likely to start to build their own family unit of traditions. Whether that involves a partner, or children, or a job that takes them far away, or a tight knit circle of friends who choose to spend it together. At some point, we make a decision on what Christmas is going to be like for us from now on, or at least for a little while. What traditions from home do we keep? Dressing the house from top to bottom in fairy lights? Opening 1 present on Christmas eve? Stockings before lunchtime? 8 naps? A time of year where a lot of us don’t have to make the decisions because we are so trained in our families structure, suddenly opens up a whole range of decisions to make and things to do. Christmas sounds absolutely exhausting for a lot of parents, I’m not sure I’m ready for that.
First there is the biggest step, the first year you decide you aren’t spending Christmas with your family. For some people this may happen when you’re 18 & move out, or when you have a serious partner, or when you have a baby, or when you move too far from home. Suddenly a day that has felt the same all of your life is drastically different, whether for good or for bad.
For me, the most important part of Christmas is spending time with the people who love you and who you love most in the world. Even if that’s not in the traditional sense, sometimes it’s about choosing what is least exhausting for you & brings you happiness.
So what will you change when the time comes? What traditions are you desperate to keep or to get rid of from your life? I personally don’t see turkey in my future and love the idea of gifting a book to read on Christmas eve, but lots of what makes Christmas special to me I want to keep. Living away from my family means I don’t have the option of popping round on Christmas day, so I really have no idea what the future will hold, but with the start of a new decade I’m sure there are lots of changes coming my way over the next one and it makes me particularly nostalgic about all of the amazing Christmases I have grown up with and how I have such strong memories of each one because of how it felt and the amazing people that were a part of it.
Happy New Year, may 2020 and the next decade bring you joy. Hope you enjoyed this food for thought – thank you for reading.