A dysfunctional family feast

Christmas today, writes Henry Sutton, means having to say you're sorry to your step-parents, stepchi

"Thank God it happens only once a year," my mum invariably says. Yet for years I had two Christmas Days, one straight after the other. Both with presents and hot turkey, and hours in front of the telly. Christmas Day itself was usually spent with my mum and stepfather, and possibly two of his real children from his first and second marriages, and maybe a former stepchild he'd inherited after his first wife had emigrated to Australia with his second wife's husband - my mother's his third wife. And for my second Christmas Day my full brother, sister and I would dutifully go to my dad's and his current wife's or partner's and some other odd assortment of children. My father's now about to get married for the fourth time - I think.

Quite normally also present on either day would be a few elderly relatives squashed in a corner, like extra stuffing. There was always someone I'd never met before, or if I had I'd have forgotten what they were called or where they fitted in. My proper siblings and I began giving them nicknames such as Mogadon Woman, or the Poisoned Dwarf, or Creme de Menthe (I've never seen a person consume so much of the sickly green liquid) and, when we were a little older, we always made sure we had a supply of small innocuous gifts we'd carefully wrapped but hadn't yet attached labels to. There were never enough to go around - except the year of my father's second marriage, which was so quick that they met, married and separated all between the two Christmases.

Although my parents didn't separate until I was ten, the odd thing is I can't really remember a Christmas when they were together. We used to live opposite a golf course and my father played golf whenever he wasn't working, which included Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The one time it snowed my sister and I made skis out of some old plywood (we used Sellotape to make the tips) and shot all over the fairway, though even that year my father was absent. Years later I learned that he had been visiting his father who had been sent down for dealing in stolen goods.

I have vague memories of being taken to my mother's parents but they were very strict and my grandfather didn't like children much - we had to stay in a caravan in the garden. Going to my father's parents (this must have been after my grandfather was released) was much more fun. My grandmother loved playing practical jokes and imitating her dog, or Peggy, the donkey she once had, though she used to favour my sister terribly (who always got much larger portions and her fags to light).

Of all my childhood Christmases (and I suppose I had one and a half times as many as I should have had, though no more than most of my friends) the one that particularly sticks out is the first double Christmas after my parents separated. For some reason we spent actual Christmas Day with dad (he gave up golf after he split from my mother) and Christmas Day Mark II with mum. Neither of them yet had official new partners so there were no extras, only strange phone calls - at my mother's, anyway.

On Christmas morning our mother dropped us off at a cold rented house. She didn't come in (she didn't leave the car), which was perhaps just as well because we found cereal packets had been nailed to the walls. My father was living off cornflakes and then I think it was Golden Nuggets (he's always loved cereal and diligently tries each new variety), and he'd had some friends over for Christmas Eve drinks, he explained, and they'd all decided to decorate the house. The cereal packets were about the only cheery things they could find.

That year my father's presents came wrapped in newspaper for the first time, which he continued to use, though sometimes this was substituted with M&S carrier bags, until he stopped giving us presents. We went out for lunch - which I think was the first time he'd ever taken us to a restaurant. On Boxing Day we ate cold food my mother brought back from her mother's (at least I think that's where she'd been). My mother's always hated cooking. It makes her tense and tearful. "Nobody ever bloody appreciates it anyway," she says at least ten times a Christmas. She usually follows this with, "I don't know why I've bothered with Christmas this year. Next year I'm going to leave you all to it." (She hasn't yet.)

I think what made my first double Christmas so memorable was not so much my parents' recent separation as the lack of any attempt by either of them to make Christmas even seem normal. They weren't pretending anything any more. There was dad hunting around for cash to pay for our lunch and mum who'd bought her first plastic Christmas tree because she couldn't face Hoovering up any more pine needles. As the years have gone by, what's struck me as particularly strange is this urge to create a "proper" family Christmas, to pull together all these distantly related people when most of you either don't get on or don't even know each other; this adhering to one tradition, one institution, when all the others have collapsed around it.

The plate-smashing and walking out didn't start until the man who was to become my stepfather had actually moved in to my mother's, along with, over the years, various quantities of his real and ex-stepchildren. There must have been a few incident-free Christmas Days at my mum's - one for sure was when my stepfather's eldest son slept through it having spent Christmas Eve joy-riding (he had the biggest assortment of car keys I've ever seen). And there was the time my mother's father (the one who didn't like children) was seriously ill and we ate sandwiches at home while she visited him in hospital. But mostly my mother struggled to fit this ludicrously large turkey into the oven. And mostly it came out crisped beyond recognition, or still pink in the middle, weeping watery blood. Though that wasn't the real disaster. The real disaster came during the eating of it. Or the clearing up afterwards.

"Please try to get on," my mother would plead for weeks before the event, "just for me." Or she might say, "He [the stepfather] has promised to be good." Over the years my stepfather has supposedly promised my mother all sorts of things, but mostly that he'll change, that he'll be pleasant for once. And so have we. Yet none of us seems to have managed it. If anything we've got worse, we've become more ourselves. It's us (my brother, sister and I) against them (my stepfather and the various bits of his family). Now I tell my mother people don't change. We just have to learn to tolerate each other.

My mother, who's stuck in the middle, usually walks out first - often while we're still eating. My stepfather doesn't stomp off until after he's finished eating - he likes his food too much. My mother simply slips out of the room, perhaps hiding her face, leaving us shamefully wondering for a few moments whether she's just going to the toilet until we hear the front door quietly shut after her. Oh, we rush after her all right, our guilt horribly amplified in the dank Norfolk air soaked through with that weighty Christmas quiet.

Her husband, on the other hand, suddenly explodes. The slightest provocation by my sister, my brother or I can set him off - you get the sense that he's been storing it up throughout the day. He frantically searches for a plate, or a glass, or preferably the gravy jug which he picks up and hurls across the posh marble-effect lino he normally doesn't even like people walking on. And then he leaves the house slamming the door.

The only thing that gets out of control at my dad's is my grandmother. Now in her nineties and with her hair a lank white instead of a bouncy orange, she still smokes tons of B&H, which my sister has to light for her, and does remarkably energetic impersonations of Peggy the donkey. What I've always felt, going to my father's various homes (or more literally his current partner's home), is that I'm a guest, that I'm peering into somebody's life I'm slowly losing touch with. Christmas is about the only time of the year I see him now. He's grown grey and soft and has developed heart disease. However, no one ever stomps out in a huff, perhaps because no one knows each other very well. We're all too busy establishing connections, struggling for things to talk about. Resentment and jealousy haven't had time to build up.

My sister was the first not to appear for Christmas at all one year, and how my brother and I wished we'd made the break, too. But slowly and inevitably one or other of us didn't show up as we became more involved with boyfriends and girlfriends. In the four years I've been married, my wife and I have avoided family Christmases altogether - either with her parents or mine. Last year we had a non-Christmas with some minimalists in Northumberland. Their house was hard and empty, and because neither of them drank or ate meat, being polite, neither did we. On Christmas Day we went for a four-hour walk over snowy hills and bleak moors and, though feeling cleansed through and miles away, I couldn't help wondering whether my stepfather had yet smashed a plate, and where exactly my father was spending Christmas.

And I thought back to telling my mum that people don't change and realised that perhaps I wasn't quite right - people can change, it's just that it's all part of growing up and moving on. But when it comes to family Christmases and going home it's so easy to be engulfed by the past. Stuck in the minimalists' perfect house where nothing was out of place, sober and hungry, for the first time in my life I felt like smashing a plate. Not out of some jealous, childish rage but because I wanted to create a bloody mess. Because that, to me, I suddenly understood, is what Christmas is all about. I was missing it like mad.

Henry Sutton's novel, "The Househunter", will be published in January by Sceptre, £6.99