Joy. Family. Love. Lights. Stars. Festivity. And yes, all of those, if you’re lucky, and they are happy words, words that give you that fuzzy glow. Others come fast down the track, of course. War. Disasters. Accidents. Distress. Tears.
I am old now so my most familiar Christmas word is “memory,” although I live in the present and “fun” is definitely a Christmas word — but “funny?” Yet as I have been sitting by the log fire thinking about Christmases past, funny keeps cropping up.
One should never laugh at another’s misfortunes, but the first Christmas after the war, I got a third-hand red tricycle, made of what seemed like cast iron. It was sent down on the train from cousins in Sheffield and was a thing of wonder. I was only three and I found it tricky to get the hang of the pedals so Dad got on to show me. He was a big man and the thing must indeed have been cast iron, but he had no idea how to ride it and landed on his bottom on the pavement. I laughed until I got hiccups.
The next year, on leave from the Royal Air Force, he brought home a reel of tinfoil — actually radar chaff — worth a Google — to be plaited into streamers. First Dad cut himself and then the cat got the reel and tied itself up in it, before cutting itself too. Our streamers were smeared red, but neither needed stitches so it was funny.
Every emergency room is full of Christmas injuries, too serious to be amusing. The year my husband stuck a fir tree branch in his eye ended in hilarity — though as he might have been blinded, we didn’t laugh. I just drove him to the local hospital minor injuries, where he was the only casualty. Duty doc administered antibiotic drops and an eyepatch and the nurse medium sherry, instead of the usual tea. Cue laughter all round. Daughter wrote “Merry Xmas” in red felt tip on the eyepatch.
Television played no part in our festivities until I was an adult and even then Morecambe and Wise were only in black and white, though still rib-achingly funny. But I spent several Christmases with friends whose son worked in a TV shop during vacations and in 1968 brought home an early color set. It wasn’t homegrown comedians that split our sides then, but an American program called Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. If you saw it you don’t need me to say “Beautiful Downtown Burbank” to you, but it was funnier than anything I had ever seen. Still is.
The Christmas when the electricity went off at 11 a.m and didn’t return until the next day wasn’t funny: we were hungry. It was only much later that we noticed the lights were on and discovered the Aga had actually run out of oil. Starting over again to cook an already half-cooked turkey a day later is a recipe for salmonella poisoning. The laughter had a bitter edge.
But the incident remembered by the then-children, who now have children of their own, involved fruit pies, meat pies and the deep chest freezer. We were six adults and four children for Boxing Day lunch, and children between three and seven laugh more than any other group. It is a known fact. Pudding was fruit pie, made by me from our own apples and hedgerow blackberries a few weeks earlier and frozen at the same time as I had made a couple of steak pies. In order not to mix them up I put a pastry star on the lid of one kind. Except that when I got them out I had forgotten which kind, though being pretty sure it was the fruit, I cooked that. The five-year-old next to me had saucer eyes when I said, knife poised, that I hoped it wasn’t the steak pie we were about to eat with our cream or custard. You know the rest — and it is true about the laughter of little children, although, while wondering what was for pudding, even I joined in.
Last Christmas. Ah yes. Well, it’s funny now. We packed the car within an inch of its life, luggage, presents for our hosts — my elder daughter and family — the dog’s cage containing the dog, and set off for Brighton. It’s a long way from north Norfolk; traffic was heavy and after four-and-a-half hours we were at our last pit stop, Clacket Lane services, where my phone rang. “Erm… you can’t come. We’ve all tested positive for Covid.”
So a Christmas Eve of nine hours’ hard driving ended back at our own front door, car still full, dog restless in its cage, and us trying to remember if there was any food in the house.
You had to laugh.