My parents kept this old box of Christmas decorations in the cupboard under the stairs. A magical place, where old hoovers and walking boots lived. We had one string of lights. You know the ones; those pink, yellow and blue ones, with the plastic flower casing? You could never untangle the wire without one coming off, which you then trod on and smashed and swore. Merry Christmas your arse blaring out the speaker. Shane MacGowan with no teeth, twirling Kirsty MaCcoll round under fake snow.
My dad and I used to lay the string out along the floor. Twist each bulb with bated breath. In that second, nothing in the world mattered at much as the lights coming on. Finding that loose connection and tightening it. If we failed, Christmas would surely be cancelled. ‘This it the chap!’ my dad would say as he twiddled about. Sometimes it was, and sometimes it was another chap’s fault. My dad always fixed it. We cheered when they came on, blinking and flickering. Embraced one another as though we’d won a battle. Marched up and down the living room stopping the calvary with Jona Lewie.
‘Dub-a-dub-a-dum-dum, Dub-a-dub-a-dum, Dub-a-dum-dum-dub-a-dum, Dub-a-dub-a-dum’ The record crackled, skipped if we stomped too hard. My dad went one way, me the other. A do-si-do back around, and off we went again.
We hung Christmas cards in long lines across the living room with those tiny plastic pegs. One red, one green. If the colours did not alternate, my dad didn’t like it. Do you remember how many cards people used to send? My mum would sit at the dining table with a pile of envelopes. Later, when she moved to France and could not find any, I liked to post her packs of religious scenes, just to piss her off. A string of tinsel would be saved to sew on a sheet for my nativity costume. Me, an angel or a shepherd, tee-towel round my head, scorched in the corner from falling on the hob. Cotton wool balls for snow on cards and a milk float decorated by the Round Table, driving slowly up the road. Santa in a too-short suit, green wellies on, a beard falling down his chin, tossing out Quality Street, while ringing a bell. Me, on the drive in my nightgown, waving as though my arm would fall off, a toffee penny stuck in my teeth. Christmas eve, watching The Snowman on the TV by the fire. My nan and grandad coming over with a sack of presents for us each. Trying so hard to sleep, wishing morning would come quicker.
Cold bare feet on the kitchen floor. That bike shaped lump under the tree. That year I got my rabbit (who turned out to be gay and left me for a buck two doors up). Did anything taste as good as a Wispa bar for breakfast at 5am?
My dad would move the dining table into the living room. My mum would get out the old hostess trolley, all silver and fake walnut. Dead posh. We’d use a tablecloth and everything. Nuts that never got eaten, dates the looked like animal poos. Prawn cocktail starters served in glasses with bright pink sauce. A Christmas pudding set on fire we were all too full to eat.
It gets harder to capture the excitement these days. They’ve taken my favourite flavours out of the selection boxes. I can’t eat cheese for a week straight without putting on weight. My kids are no longer fooled by the footprints through flour and the half-eaten carrot.
‘It’s okay mum, we know’ they say, patting my arm, ‘but we can pretend for you if you like.’
I do like, actually. It’s hard (and horrifying) to picture a fat man in a red suit coming down my chimney, but I don’t want to lose the idea that something truly magical happens on the 25th December. I like to picture romantic reunions at St Pancreas, siblings burying long held hatchets. Paper crowns and post dinner walks, full of grand plans and resolutions. It makes the extra kilos on the scales and the empty purses in pockets of January all worth it.