Our Christmas stockings were ordinary knee-length socks hung at the ends of our beds. In France, children put out their shoes in early December for St Nicolas to fill with fruit and nuts and small presents. He was a generous saint who once rescued three sisters from being pickled in a vat by their mean, beastly, but surely desperate father and organised them dowries so that they could get married and be secure. St Therese of Lisieux, a local saint who was born and bred in nearby Alencon, did not want a dowry or to get married but, motherless and vulnerable, she did want love and presents.
Prone to switch between sickly-sweet sentimentality and sudden flashes of raw honesty, she recounts in her bestselling autobiography, The Story of a Soul, that, aged 15 and motherless, she overheard her weary father sighing about how she would make an awful fuss if her shoes weren't loaded by St Nick with pretty gifts. Rather than burst into hysterical and reproachful tears, she heroically repressed her neediness and ran downstairs joking and laughing.
Though some of the time I yearned to be a saint, I could never deny my appetite for presents. I pretended to sleep as Dad shuffled off his shoes in the corridor outside, then crept into the bedroom where we three girls slept - with my mother behind him as assistant good fairy, shushing and giggling - and delivered our stuffed stockings. In the morning we woke early, in the chilly dark, and felt their lumpy bulk. As light filtered through the curtains, we drew out the contents. Heel and toe swelled with walnuts and tangerines. The piece de resistance, for each of us, was a cardboard plate of marzipan dinner. French, naturally. Exquisitely moulded and coloured almond-paste chops, petits pois, potatoes. Not at all too sweet: you tasted nuttiness. I still wish chops could taste of marzipan; I'd eat them if they did. No wonder vegetarians love nut roast. No wonder I love all those Middle Eastern dishes based on pistachios and chickpeas and sweet spices.
In England, we ate the traditional roast turkey. The chestnut stuffing was by far the best bit and, served cold with fried-up Brussels sprouts and spuds and more gravy for Boxing Day lunch, the most delicious. One Christmas, Auntie Joan served up her turkey, drew out her stuffing, and found she'd cooked a neatly sealed plastic bag of giblets.
We ate mince pies, into which our kind uncles inserted half-crowns, and Christmas pudding spilling out sixpences. I remember the taste of money. Over the years the pudding mutated, from being based on suet to featuring olive oil and grated apple instead. One year I gave Yvette a home-cooked Christmas pudding. "Hmm, kind of like cake," she pronounced. That was that. She served gateau de Savoie rolled up around mocha cream, iced with chocolate, mocked up as a frosted log: infinitely superior.
The dessert at the end of Christmas lunch was the best. By now it was dark. The tree lights twinkled. We sipped small glasses of golden wine and cracked almonds. If a particularly fat one yielded two nuts, as they often did, we could play my mother's game called Philippine. You gave your second nut to a friend; then, the following day, the first one to shout "Philippine" to the other was due a present. We cracked and ate a lot of almonds as a result. Then we attacked the tangerines. You drew a sharp knife horizontally around their middles, inserted your forefinger, eased off the skin in two cups, teased out a wick of pith rooted in the base of one dome. You cut a small hole in the top of the other, placed both on the mantelpiece to dry out for a few hours. Then you poured oil around the wick, lit it, put the lid back on, and watched the orange glow while smelling the orange fragrance.
Christmas allowed for greed. Greed for love. Greed for presents. Magical feast, which celebrated and fulfilled bodily longing. It worked until I was ten, until puberty ended childhood and the safe world dissolved. Now I know we have to reinvent the Christmases we need. We still need to desire, to celebrate, the return of the light, of love, of hope, at solstice.