Tuesday 25 December 2018 Beech House – 5.45am Christmas Morning

There will be millions of children lying awake or just waking up as I write these words. Excited, bursting with anticipation of what they will find under the tree when they go downstairs.  Over the weeks and months leading up to today, countless lists will have been written, one by the children asking Santa for all their wishes and dreams, and another by mum or dad, preparing a ‘to do’ list for the perfect day. What groceries will be required? Shall we order a fresh turkey or buy a frozen one? Does everyone like prawns? Note to self: Don’t forget to put the cranberry sauce on the table because you forgot to last year, and importantly, get the spare chairs out of the garage in plenty of time to dust them down. These are the principal, weighty issues, just for this one day.

It seems though at the moment, as a society, certainly in the UK, we don’t talk about these normal happy families. These normal extended groups seem to have been forgotten, replaced by other, diverse minority groups that don’t have a voice either, but even as they become new words in our everyday lexicon, they get huge amounts of column space and air time. Sure, we see the media images in advertising, which now sadly starts at the end of October, encouraging us to buy the latest smartphone for little Johnnie, at only 29.99 per month for the next three years.

Pan into a family of six people sat around a roaring fire, there’s a twinkling tree in the background, a lazy sausage dog in the foreground, and falling snow through a window to the right. They’re unwrapping Christmas presents, smiling, having a wonderful seasonal moment together. Suddenly, the scene comes to life with a multitude of green screen and cartoon graphics.  The Afro-Caribbean grandfather figure, morphs into a lean, mean lycra superhero, who chases and stops a runaway train saving millions of people, and little Johnnie of non-specific ethnicity or obvious gender (so he could be Janie) beams with pride and captures the whole incident on his/her new HD,1000 megapixel phone camera. Which incidentally also has the ability to switch on the central heating from the jungle/arctic circle or driving home from work, at the same time it can play Dad’s favourite song when Johnnie/Janie heads off to Uni and is feeling low.

‘Sold, to the electronic cigarette smoking single mother of four, who goes to the food bank every month’.

For weeks now, in the run-up to Christmas, all the media have been discussing are the estimated 120,000 ‘homeless’ children in the UK. Everyone; charities, social media, and every political party except the one in government have been pulling at the nation’s heartstrings to try to raise awareness. However and more accurately, the children are not technically homeless, they are in rented accommodation rather than in a ‘family’ home over Christmas. Clearly, this isn’t right either but many of them have been in this situation for many years, but at Christmas, it’s more newsworthy and easier to score political points when you are in opposition to her majesties government.

It’s Christmas morning, those millions of excited kids, including the homeless ones, didn’t sleep much last night and are desperate to sneak next door and bounce on mum and dads bed to get permission to go downstairs and see what Santa has brought them. The weeks of preparation and build-up to this one day is over, the adults have done all they can to make it the most memorable family day and the most perfect and enjoyable day of the year. Mainly, they just want everyone to enjoy the atmosphere and appreciate the time with close family and good friends.

So, why am I being such a miserable and cynical old bastard on Christmas morning?

Saturday 25 December 2010

Vicargate – 5.45am Christmas Morning

Overnight, the smell of cooking turkey had slowly drifted upstairs, it’s the Loftus traditional Christmas morning wake-up call. The bird has been in the bottom oven of the aga since 11pm Christmas Eve and will be cooked to perfection when it’s browned off a few hours before lunch. Downstairs, the smell of pine needles and cherry wood logs smouldering on the fire blend with the turkey essence to set the perfect ambience for the perfect Christmas morning.

I didn’t need to peak through the bedroom blinds to see if had been snowing, there’s been a five or six inch covering for days. Snowmen have been built, and the kids have already sledged and snowboarded down the hill from the house to the bottom of the beck that runs between us and the nearest farm, Well House. Olli Strong lives there, one of Dom’s best friends. Besides, it’s pitch black, and there’s no street lighting at Castle Sowerby, but, on a cloudless Christmas Eve night like last night, the clear moon and the millions of stars give a soft cinematic sheen to the ground snow, and on closer inspection of the snow-covered silhouetted trees, the moonlight transforms each one into a crystal chandelier that reflects its glass secrets like a whisky highball left in dining room candlelight.

As they went to bed carrying their pillowcases, the kids left a mince pie and a damson gin for Santa, and a carrot for Rudolph. Reuben had carefully placed them on the hearth next to the log fire, but the dog had eaten the mince pie even before he left the room. As they settled in bed, thinking their private seasonal thoughts, Susan and I quietly brought the boxes of wrapped gifts down from the spare bedroom. Eventually, when the kids were asleep, we stuffed their pillowcases with stocking fillers, and their ‘big’ presents would be left around the tree and added to the ones that had been dropped off by family and friends over the last few days.

The gift opening was now getting progressively later in the morning, Dominic would be 20 in a few weeks, Chloe was 16, and Reuben was 13 a few days ago. It didn’t seem that long ago, that all three of them would burst into our bedroom carrying their pillowcases at 4 or 5am.

I would get endless hours of laughing and paper tearing on the VHS video camera. In 2014, I got 6 or 7 of these tapes, which also included footage of family holidays, parties at Vicargate, weddings scenes, and Christenings, transferred onto DVD.

As I write now on December 25th, 2018,  I still haven’t had the courage to watch any of them. Nonetheless, on Christmas morning 2010 even though all of our children are now in their teens, the anticipation of giving and receiving, and spending the day together, was still as very much a part of the Loftus family Christmas as it was in 1991.

We all came downstairs together. The kettle goes on the aga, a quick rake of the fire, some dry kindling placed on the still glowing embers, and we were in business just as the kettle started to whistle. An hour later, there was a pile of gifts around the feet of everyone, the living room carpet was camouflaged by torn wrapping paper, and without exception, everyone had said, ’Just what I wanted’.

Pan into a family of six people sat around a roaring fire, (Linzi was now living at Vicargate), there’s a twinkling tree in the background, a lazy whippet in the foreground as close to the fire as she can get, and falling snow through French windows to the right.

To start the 6000 calorie intake of this one day, I always cooked smoked salmon and scrambled eggs for breakfast served with a glass of champagne. The toast was buttered and cut into tiny triangles and left on a plate in the warming oven while the finishing touches were put to the eggs. As the eggs started to scramble, black pepper and salt were milled into the pan, the chopped salmon was added, and just before serving on the toast, a dash of cognac and a big glug of double cream was stirred in. To be fair to Dom, he ‘fessed up a few years earlier and said he preferred a bacon sandwich with tomato ketchup. Everyone else stuck to the tradition, but I suspect with one eye on Dom’s sandwich.

The rest of Christmas day always played out roughly the same too, Vicargate often also catering for a mixture of Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. After more Christmas gifts were unwrapped, at around 2 or 3 pm depending on how the aga was performing, homemade canopies were served, a turkey and a ham were placed in the centre of the table, pigs in blankets snuggled closely together in the bottom oven, waiting for their moment of glory, and celeriac, mashed potato, cream and garlic, made their annual pilgrimage, to sit next to the little piglets in the bottom oven, also waited for their roll call.  Sat aloof on a cheese board in the pantry, surrounded by his little celery soldiers, green grapes and a green apple waiting to be serrated, stilton knew he was the final, satisfying piece of the Christmas lunch jigsaw.

After lunch, and for the rest of the day, people chatted, sipped wine, dozed, watched a movie, or played games, the more competitive the better. Then, around 8pm someone would whisper, ‘Fried turkey sandwiches’ and it would get louder until I eventually gave in. The turkey came back out of the pantry, and once more the smell of a cooking bird pervaded the house. Dominic preferred his sandwich to be smothered in mayonnaise and this did become the norm for all the younger ones. As the turkey was being cooked, someone would choose a movie to settle down to, the log fire was banked up for the night, and the family stretched out around the living room, a dog or two sat waiting patiently for titbits.

This wasn’t the last time we enjoyed a ‘normal’ family Christmas celebration, but it was the penultimate and a poignant reminder to me of how families should grow and develop as a unit.

Around this time in 2010, we started to think about our children’s future, their careers, university choices, house deposits, and of course the first thoughts about the patter of new little Loftus feet.

As offspring make their own way in society Christmas time is often the only time a family might get together, we’ve been lucky, we were together every Christmas, and 99.99% of the time in between too.

So, Christmas morning 2018, why am I being such a miserable bastard? Apart from the obvious that Dominic is 28 in a few weeks’ time, but he is no longer a part of that happy family scene and the fact that scene hasn’t actually happened for the last six years because of his death. Life has gone on without him and all his friends’ lives are playing out as their parents had dreamed in their houses, on some similar family Christmas morning, as we did,.

This year, we have watched (happily) from the sidelines as one of Dom’s friends bought a house and was married, another fell in love and he and his beautiful girlfriend worked for months on their house, their friends helping out where they could, and they moved in together too. Another became the proud father of a baby boy and also moved into their family home with his girlfriend.

We are delighted that they and their parents have been privileged to progress through life as planned, but in the knowledge that Facebook doesn’t always portray the normal family ups and downs that dictate our lives. The everyday truths that, there could always be a bit more money in the pot, two siblings don’t get on particularly well, how can that be managed come wedding or christening day, or the in-laws have fallen out about the new-borns name, so is the baby going to called David John, or John David?

Thinking ahead, and with my miserable bastard hat still on, will it really matter in ten years’ time when you’re having a meaningful conversation with David/John about gender reassignment?

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