Once upon a time there was Christmas, the most magical and eagerly anticipated day on the Lee Family’s calendar.
Preparations in our household started early, indecently early. Even before the sun had lost its summer lustre or kissed the autumn apples into blush, Christmas fever would slowly spread. Boy, did I enjoy the build-up to the grand event. So much to organise, so much to prepare and always maintaining an air of secrecy. Although Santa could count on plenty of suggestions from my kids, there was forever the challenge to come up with the ‘surprises’ that would light up their small expectant faces when digging into their bulging stockings on Christmas morning. And in the great Lee tradition, Santa never forgot to include the adults and left overflowing stockings for them as well..
End September used to herald my first swoop on the shops to explore any early temptations, followed by a flurry of purchases throughout October and November, long before most of England would have woken up to contemplate the dwindling days to Christmas. I don’t like crowded malls and stores, so made sure I finished my Christmas shopping well ahead of the throng of the masses. This meant that by end November I could concentrate on the more important aspects of the celebrations: food, writing Christmas cards, wrapping presents and decorating the Christmas tree. As early as end November mince pies would feature on the menu, drowning in oodles of thick, luscious cream. And because few of our Christmases were spent at our own home, mid December required a pre-Christmas Christmas dinner, complete with turkey, trimmings and crackers. Baubles, garlands, Christmas bells and twinkling lights festooned a huge spruce, filling the house with the delicious smell of pine. And then there was the Christmas Carol singing – outside Sainsbury’s or Tesco – with St. Edmund’s Church to raise money for the homeless… When Christmas day arrived in all its glory, we were just left to savour its splendour in the company of family and friends.
And then things changed. That first Christmas, we could not face staying in my Cotswold home, a home brimming with memories of many happy Christmases. Christmases with Grandma and Auntie B, opening our stocking presents over early morning coffees. Christmases indulging in the mesmerising smells wafting from the kitchen. Christmases with the dogs needing a brisk walk in the crisp winter air before chasing discarded wrapping paper from far too many gifts. Christmases with friends or just the four of us. That first Christmas we ran, we escaped to the sun of Los Angeles, and peace of Big Bear in the San Bernandino Mountains, to a Christmas that was unlike our normal Christmases.
And if India, last year, was meant to give me a reprieve from Christmas, I had chosen the wrong part of the country as Kerala’s Christian population made sure Christmas was celebrated in style. Stars in garish colours, garlands in all hues, nativity sets aplenty and noisy Christmas parades, but I spent the day in bed nursing the one and only bout of gastroenteritis I fell prey to in the ten months I spent there. It seemed a fitting way to get through the day; I was in no mood for festivities.
So avoiding another dismal Christmas on my own, I booked my flight to the UK for the beginning of December, plenty of time to work up a Christmas appetite. But the Christmas carols greeting me on my arrival at Heathrow grated and jarred and rather than evoking a joyful air, they sounded hollow, empty and did not arouse my Christmas cheer. And aimlessly wandering the High Street of the small market town where my daughter lives, I witness locals busying themselves with their Christmas preparations. Holly wreaths, Poinsettias red and white, mince pies and stollen scream to be bought. Shop windows have been jollied with colourful decorations; snowmen and winter landscapes stop passers-by, young and old, in their tracks. The Salvation Army band choruses ‘tidings of comfort and joy’, but the message is lost on me. Father Christmas has set up his grotto in a snow globe in the middle of the shopping mall. Whereas a few years ago, all this would have warmed my heart and sent my Christmas spirit bubbling, now the lead grey winter skies settle tightly on my chest.
Christmas has definitely lost its sparkle. And when my daughter asks, ‘‘What would make you feel Christmassy?’, I cannot suppress the honest answer, ‘Boxing Day???’
‘Once upon a time’ does not always end in ‘happily ever after’.