We’d better stop doing this before someone dies and we can’t,” remarked a dry-witted aunt at my mother’s annual New Year’s Eve dinner 20 years ago. So we did stop doing it.
As children we had enjoyed Christmas rituals in dogmatic fashion. But from that day onward my mother made a practice of breaking the seasonal routines. It didn’t go down well in a house full of temperamental teenagers. What she considered foresight, we regarded as acts of betrayal.
It started out, as all wedges do, thinly enough. First, there was no Christmas tree. My mother decided a branch painted white would look more artistic than a traditional evergreen. So she found a suitable branch, dabbed on some leftover emulsion, and decorated it with scarlet bows and china ornaments.
Like most Irish families, we communicate by remorseless mockery. So as visitors arrived we scornfully pointed out the “Christmas twig”. In an artfully lit shop window it might have worked; leaning against the embossed wallpaper in our sitting room, it made for a rather pathetic sight.
We made it clear what we thought of our mother’s initiative. It didn’t stop her, though. She continued to subvert the traditions my siblings and I zealously invoked. While we rooted out the best china, she extolled the virtues of dishwasher-proof Christmas plates. When I was about 16, she suggested that Santa wasn’t required to visit. We won that round. To this day, adults in the Carey household sit around and shriek each Christmas morning as they tear open gifts marked “From Santy”.
Attempts to expand our diet beyond a turkey and ham failed too. The spiced beef she brought home from the butcher is still referred to as The Spiced Boot.
Eventually my mother found an ally. A couple of years ago, my brother suggested we switch the Christmas dinner to his house. I, a supposedly mature twentysomething, was the chief protester. How could we not sit at the same table in the same places eating food from the same plates and drinking from the same crystal as we did every year? When the sister handling the intensive negotiations finally broke down on the phone, I relented and threw myself into the spirit of things.
The transition worked because the Christmas menu didn’t change. The youngest sister still made the pudding. The middle sister did the bread sauce. I made the caesar salad, and my mother did the gravy. Nobody makes gravy like my mother.
I learnt to deal with the change of venue, but made it a precondition of marriage that Christmases would always be in Enfield. Familiar with the perfection of the gravy to be had in the Royal County, my husband agreed. So you can imagine my horror when my mother announced the ultimate betrayal a month ago.
The brother in America can’t come home this year on account of the new baby. So she’s going there. Then my father reckoned he’d have to go too. The sisters concocted a pre-Christmas shopping trip in New York followed by dinner with her gravy in the brother’s adopted city of Washington DC.
The brother at home got a rush to the head and decided he’d follow the gravy, taking his wife and children too. They only told me that the gravy train was leaving when all the tickets were booked. My jaw dropped. They were all going without me. I was going to have to spend Christmas with the in-laws. In Belfast. Where they say Boxing Day instead of Steeeven’ses Day.
I’m dreading it. Santy will be in America, so no childish surprise in the morning. The in-laws are perfectly nice, of course, but I won’t know what to do. They make weird stuffing involving sausages. They eat dinner in the afternoon instead of at night. Having the Christmas feed late might sound posh, but it’s actually a hangover from the time when cows had to be milked. It was miserable having to work after Christmas dinner, so the habit began of doing the cows first.
I’ll miss our parish mass with the reading of the births and deaths and the mental calculation of the ratio. It’s been 3:1 births to deaths for the past few years in Enfield, you’ll be glad to hear. We get to sneer at the names of the newly christened babies, identifying characters from soap operas and boy bands.
So here I am on Christmas Eve, filled with anxiety instead of anticipation. Then I remember that someone could be dead and it would all be much worse. My dry-witted aunt is perfectly right: someone will die, and then what will Christmas be like? The empty place at the table will consume the whole room. The little job that person so faithfully performed will be done by someone else.
People die and families move on, but Christmas, by virtue of its tradition, is when the void is most felt. One friend whose father died suddenly absconds with her mother to Tenerife. His presence is too sorely missed for them to bear being surrounded by reminders of all the things they did together. The pain is still too raw to attempt to do things differently; they would be blindsided by memories. Instead they’ll come back tanned and refreshed while we’re still recovering from the self-inflicted hangover of gluttony.
Esther Rantzen, the television presenter, recalled last week the first Christmas after her husband Desmond died. She tried to re-create the celebrations he had masterminded. “It was a disaster. My children found it simply underlined our loss. Des should have been there to bellow out a uniquely tuneless Five Gold Rings as he always had. We yearned to have him back.”
Reading this reminded me of an innovation the middle sister insisted upon one year. We called it the New Material Only rule. While the whole family was together, anecdotes that more than two people at the table had heard before were banned. It forced us to develop new lines of conversation and proved a hit. If one of us does shuffle off this mortal coil, our contribution won’t be so badly missed.
And so it is better that my first Christmas without my mother is one when I know she’s coming back. It also means I need to learn how to make gravy. Instead of taking that secret to America, she could be taking it to her grave.