Ben and I were watching telly the other night when one of the Age UK ads came on. June and Leon from Gogglebox were telling us about the horribly high number of elderly people who can go for as long as a month without speaking to anyone, and it ended with June saying, “How awful to be on your own at Christmas.”
A pause, and then Ben turned to me and said wistfully, “I think I’d love to be on my own at Christmas.” I tried not to take this too much to heart (he doesn’t mean it, really) or to upbraid him for being facetious (of course he understands the plight of lonely elderly people), and so we laughed. The thing is, it didn’t really surprise me; he’s always had a bit of a problem with Christmas, and I suspect he isn’t alone.
I used to be the same. In my late teens I felt too cool for Christmas, confined by all the expectations, chafing against the childish joy of it all. So when I met Ben I joined him in playing it down. Irony hadn’t been invented in the 1980s, so we didn’t have the option of wearing Rudolph sweaters to make a point. Instead, we slightly ignored it all. We’d often be on tour in the US in December, and would fly home just in time to do shopping on Christmas Eve, sometimes going home for Christmas lunch, sometimes not.
I even wrote a song with a sarky Christmas reference – “Come on Home”, in which I sang, “Every day’s like Christmas Day without you/It’s cold and there’s nothing to do,” which led to near-ostracism from my Christmas-loving family. “Oh no, Tracey hasn’t got her tree up yet – she hates Christmas,” they would say, arms folded and looking at me as I weakly protested, for several years, that it had been meant as a joke.
But then when our kids came along something inside me clicked back on to an automatic, preprogrammed setting, and I realised that, far from not caring much, I loved Christmas more than anything else in the world. I set about re-creating in intricate detail the Christmases of my childhood. Set in motion by my mum, they were reliable, repetitive, reassuring – everything that children love life to be – and ran to a schedule as precise as a Swiss railway timetable. You could set your watch by the delivery of special drinks (Advocaat, Tizer), the appearance of a box of Eat Me dates, the arrival of my grandad in a three-piece suit, penknife poised and ready to take the peel off an apple in one single strip. We would eat a Chocolate Orange on Christmas afternoon and Matchmakers in the evening, and never the other way round. That’s how it was.
Ben’s childhood Christmases, by contrast, were unpredictable and volatile. There was often awkwardness in the house on the day, as divorced parents attempted civility, stepchildren and half-siblings were crowded together, drink was taken and tempers frayed. This even culminated one year in fisticuffs in which an elder sibling push a step-parent backwards into the Christmas tree, which duly collapsed. Another year, in an effort to avoid the tension of the present-giving ceremony, it was decided that people should just hand presents quietly to other family members as and when they felt like it throughout the day. This resulted in sullen exchanges on the landing and a general flatness that was possibly even worse than the fighting.
Ben’s stories sounded lively and hilarious when he told them to me. Well, things do, in retrospect. But I think the events unsettled him and left him with the feeling that Christmas was high-pressure and stormy and so best got through quietly and quickly. Years of living with me have not entirely cured him of this. He joins in, and he has his Christmas roles – making the music playlist, compiling the Boxing Day Thorn Family Quiz – and I’ve noticed recently that he wears his paper hat after lunch for longer than anyone else, which I count as a kind of victory. But there will always be a part of him that needs to creep away for an hour to sit at his desk, in a quiet room and a low light, possibly with a Calvados. Alone. Perfectly happy.