Child of the eighties, born in December, and the middle one of three siblings, the twelfth month of every year was defined by increasing levels of anticipation. The longest 25 days of the diary were punctuated by moments of ecstasy every 72 hours when it was my turn to open the advent calendar.
We’d have a new one each year but with three of us sharing the words “my turn” were wet-myself-wondrous. Hopping-on-the-spot levels of anticipation were reminiscent of the need-a-wee-shapes I would break at every summer service station stop.
I’d hold my breath and listen for that tiny satisfying crack that told me this one hadn’t been tampered with by sneaky sibling digits, and with barely contained excitement I’d ease that door open to reveal…
No toy to add to a ready-made scene, no present exquisitely wrapped, not even a chocolate to chew in determined enjoyment despite it tasting upsettingly similar to the cardboard it came in.
Nope, just a picture.
And I bloody loved it.
I’d fend off envy that it was my siblings’ turn by fetching down the previous years’ calendars from the loft. I’d play with them endlessly, pretending it was the first time I’d ever opened those doors, even though their edges would never again meet quite as closely as they once had. Occasionally I’d take a cheeky peek at number 24 way before its time.
We would buy our family Christmas tree on whichever weekend fell closest to my birthday, a tradition which meant we were often more than half-way through December before twinkling lights and tinsel made an appearance in our home.
It’s a tradition that my parents still uphold, although these days I wonder whether it was borne from reducing the necessary daily hoovering in the days before non-drop trees. Every slammed door would be followed by the whispers of branches unsheathing themselves needle by needle, and in a house full of teenagers it’s a wonder it wasn’t bald by the time Christmas Day rolled around.
It is these kinds of memories I have returned to several times over the last few weeks. I’ve been jokingly justifying my decisions not to participate in Elf on the Shelf, not to buy and wrap up 24 tiny presents or books for each child, or to think up 24 festive-fun activities to open each morning.
I’ve called myself “lazy” while not actually thinking I am, and wondered where people get the money, but underneath it all I’ve also spent too much time thinking that perhaps my children are being served the festive equivalent of chicken on Christmas Day – it kind of looks the same but is just a bit everyday.
Whenever I’ve told my daughter that No, the Christmas Elf has not filled the advent calendar up yet because she’s waiting for you to get dressed, I’ve wondered if I’m just being heartless and cruel.
When a crafting-induced fit of rebellion saw me throw the remnants of our creativity out of the back door, I spied an opportunity and used the sprinkling of sparkly stuff and lonely purple pompom as evidence of the Christmas Elf’s visit. My heart broke a little as I watched the girl wander in her socks into the garden shouting for Rudolph, worried that he might be stranded, and I marveled in mildly-appreciative horror at my own manipulative cynicism.
Despite my more machiavellian tendencies however, this year in particular I have felt the pressure of making Christmas “come alive” for my little girl. She’s four now, is really feeling the festive flavour, and her pleasure when The Big Man in red paid a visit to the nursery Christmas party made me kick myself hard for scorning the annual stampede to book tickets to the best grotto in town. It sells out by the end of August.
We call her our “magic”. Originating in the mists of time impenetrably fogged by too many sleepless nights, it’s a pet name which has come to represent the wonder with which we look at her as she spells her own name and other ubiquitous rites of passage that nonetheless stop us in our tracks.
But what if I’m depriving my magic, of her’s?
And so here we are again, caught up in the same old guilt-ridden cycle. Its spidery-tentacles stretch out around us like a creepy hangover from the horribly comercialised Halloween. They’re so transparent they are easily overlooked, until we find ourselves observing what other people are doing, how other people are celebrating, and wonder if we are getting it wrong.
I wonder if I should have done Elf on the Shelf. I’m full of admiration for some of the brilliance I have witnessed on social media (that wily mistress with her kleptomaniac tendencies for joy) but I guiltily feel like I’m under enough pressure as it is.
“Just” this one more thing to do might be the elf that broke the reindeer’s back, and the price-tag of the “real thing” makes me wince at the thought that this is just another idea dreamed up by commercial interests who’re exploiting the lucrative fertile ground of middle class parent’s concerns about being and doing “enough”.
But then I think enough.
Because Christmas will be magical because Christmas is magical.
I clearly remember driving back from my aunt’s house late one Christmas Eve and being convinced I’d seen Father Christmas’s sleigh through the car window. I didn’t want him to know I’d seen him as I knew this meant a lump of coal and an unwelcome satsuma in my stocking the next morning so I shut my eyes tight.
A few hours later, around a parent-punishing 4.30am, I breathed a sigh of relief when my sack of stash was waiting at the end of my bed…
It turns out that I didn’t need to be bought anything, I didn’t even need to be told anything, the magic of Christmas and a child’s imagination was all I needed to give me beautiful memories to look back on.
I didn’t need the personalised stocking – not once did I question why my presents arrived in an old pillow case that I knew for the rest of the year lived in a drawer under my bed.
I didn’t need a box full of presents on Christmas Eve – I’m pretty sure I never thought, “Christmas is brilliant but I really wish all my presents didn’t come on the same day”.
I didn’t need an advent calendar full of gifts as well as those under the tree, and I look back relieved my parents didn’t feel they had to bankrupt themselves to create the acceptable measure of magic.
As always, if you are doing these things because you want to then deck your halls, jingle those bells and eat all the figgy pudding you can manage. But none of the songs sound quite as good if you’re only singing them because you feel you should.
The truth is, I’m sure you’ll agree, is that the lights, music, trees, smells, carols, stories, The Story, food, family, smiles, and the never-ending chocolate, together create a time of year that is already like no other.
There is no need to fill it to overflowing, because just as we will all no doubt say at the end of Christmas Day’s dining, sometimes you need to know when just one more mouthful will make you feel sick, because actually you already have enough.