Monday, 29 December 2014

Comparing Christmases

What is Christmas?

Is it a time for family? A time for relaxing? A time for thanking? A time for remembering? Is it just a religious holiday? Or has it become a commercialised holiday? Is it even a holiday? Or has it become just another series of stress-inducing days and social constructions that no one really likes but will still follow anyway?

For every Christmas of my full but meagre couple decades alive, I have spent it at home with my immediate family.

A view from the windows of home.

Here's what it looks like: 

As the morning light streaks through the windows, a gaggle of voices can be heard, excitedly whispering or groaning "go back to sleep. It's not time yet."

Then, some minutes later, the call is given. It is time to come upstairs. But first, a staircase photoshoot of all the siblings in their fresh pyjamas from Christmas Eve. 

The rush into the room is accompanied by excited shouts, hands grabbing at presents and reminders of "not yet!" and "stockings first!" The rest follow at a more sedate pace, used to the ritual and settle into corner chairs near the quickly roaring gas fireplace.

Soon the stocking circle begins, in which each individual pulls one or two items from the red velvety depths, to show off to the rest of the family.

Once concluded it is time for breakfast. This usually consists of a mandarin orange and a cinnamon bun (whether they are homemade or storebought, changes from year to year) and the accompanying drinks are anything from the usual orange juices, milk, hot chocolate or a recent new favourite of eggnog lattes (now that a large portion of the family is older).

Breakfast is concluded and followed by the morning round of present unwrapping which is done in a similar manner to the stockings. Each individual is passed a gift and then, generally in age order, gifts are unwrapped and shown to all.

Sometime in between, the turkey is dropped in the oven and by 11am most of the morning festivities are over. The family trails off to get dressed and burrow into the newest favourite thing for that day, whether it is a book, a game a puzzle, a noisy, light-up toy or something else entirely.

A haze of wintery sun, snow and turkey waft through sparkling dust clouds which alight on dark wood floors between loose tinsel, bits of pine and a ribbon or two.

Evening comes with some help in the kitchen to get the Christmas meal rolling and often there is a Christmas show or movie playing in the background.

The dishes set out, circle what is often a 12-15 pound bird with stuffing and cranberry sauce to accompany. There are brussel's sprouts, mashed carrots and turnip, mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, traditional and cranberry ambrosia's, warm oven buns and sweet potatoes soaked in butter, brown sugar and cinnamon.

This gets devoured via seconds and thirds of things, though there is always the best bit, leftovers for dinners and lunches.

Following the stuffing of bellies to the degree we probably resemble turkey's ourselves, there is dessert. Pumpkin pie, sometimes apple pie, piles of sugar cookies, fudge, chocolate cookies, gingerbread, shortbread, sometimes mincemeat pies and thick slices of fruit cake.

The consumption of sweets occurs around the musical celebration in which the siblings play a few Christmas tunes (after a lot of cajooling) and the secret santa gift giving between family members which reveals the magnitude of individual creativity as the gifts, especially in recent years, are all homemade. Storybooks, films, cds of music, favourite sweets, musical concerts and who knows what will be created next.

And that, my friends, is Christmas day. Filtered in and out by days of skiing, skating, tobogganing, cookie baking, Christmas movie watching and general relaxing.

The wacky wonder of catching the London Eye at Christmas with bright filters for night photos.

This is how it was done with my extended family in England: 

It begins sleepily. See, there was a late midnight Christmas service at the twenty-person village church. Waking to sun streaming through white curtains. Tea is made, along with salmon and cream cheese sandwiches. This is piled up on a tray and set in the living room. Presents are distributed from under the tree. This is a quiet Christmas. No one is under twenty in these parts. That's sleepy Yorkshire villages for you. Though in recent years there has apparently been much less, to no snow which to me, feels less sleepy in the crisp green and gold of the morning than anything. After presents, it's time for the merry gentlemen to get dressed.

This is followed by a singularly sleepy day, augmented only by a little walk out in which holly and ivy sprigs are gathered to finish off the final decorations. Then it is time to head to this year's family host of the Christmas dinner, set for 4pm.

Here we are offered drinks (wine being the main option) and we settle for a bit of chat before all the dishes are set out on a warmer table. The table is set like so:

Each place has a Christmas cracker, a large red plate set underneath a main white porcelin dinner plate and a smaller dessert bowl on top, with a glass topped with shrimp, lettuce and a seafood sauce. The cutlery set around the plate consists of a main fork, a dessert fork, a main knife and dessert knife and the same for spoons at the top of the plates. On the left side of each dish sits a wine glass and on the right sits a water glass.

Dinner is called. People are settled and Christmas crackers are pulled between each pair. The paper crowns are worn, the jokes are laughed at and little gifts are giggled over. Tiny purses, finger puppets, wooden or ring puzzles.

Then it is time to gather up the main dinner course and soon all those bits of cutlery and plates are used. For example, unlike back home where a knife is picked up where necessary, it is essentially seen as an extention of your arm in England; you always use a knife. Turkey, ham, roast potatoes and parsnips, along with stuffing. Brussel's sprouts, steamed carrots, califlower, broccoli and Yorkshire pudding with gravy and warm oven buns with lots of butter.

Dessert follows right after and is either a trifle; spongey, creamy and drenched in sherry, or it is a heavy, divinely sweet and warm Christmas pudding.

Like back home, everyone retires into the sitting room feeling as stuffed as turkeys to pass around Christmas gifts while idly snacking on crisps, nuts, chocolate coins and there is a cheese tray, though most aren't cracking into it.

The evening is settling in around the telly for one of the Christmas specials and a Christmas film or two. For me that was Downton Abbey and Arthur Christmas. They do love their telly in England; after which bed is sought, at a late hour, after a bit of tea.

And that, my friends, is a Christmas dinner in England. Not much different and plenty much similar. Just so.

So what is Christmas?

Christmas is a time to spend with family. It is a time for lazy reflection. Looking back on where you have been, looking at where you are and looking at where you might be in the coming new year.

Christmas doesn't need the trappings of gifts. It just needs the reminder that people are thinking of you and you are thinking of them. It doesn't even need the elaborate dinners, desserts and nibbles. It just needs good company. Again. Nor does it need Christmas concerts, favourite movies and shows or a particular order and ritual to every act.

Christmas is not a time for giving or getting. It is simply a time being. Being with people you feel some connection to.

Maybe it means you don't have the million dollar Christmas skydiving in Dubai or the thousand pound weekend in a 14th century tower on the banks of the Ouse river in York. Maybe it means you don't celebrate Christmas at all and you just sleep in with your significant other, go for a walk and alternate your lazy day between games of Scrabble, a puzzle, some films and computer games.

It's just another year, another day, more life and living. It is what you make of it. Not what society does.

Christmas Fayre time.

How did you spend your Christmas?



  1. Another thoughtful and inspiring post Moony. I love the picture you posted and today it looked a lot like that here. The idea that Christmas is a time to just "be" really resonated with me. Well, I'm off to go and watch the Downton Abbey Christmas special...a little bit of England wafting over the sea to remind us how it is done...or at least used to be done. However, a person chooses to celebrate the's good to know that the world is a small place, we all just want to be loved and at the end of the day, we are all connected by our beingness.

  2. We just stayed in and played games together with the pets. It was low key, but kind of nice being on the opposite coast from our families. There was no pressure to be at EVERYONE'S one day!

    It was wonderful!!!