When my children were young, when the three of us were left on our own, I tried to put some ritual into our lives to ground us. On a Sunday evening I would dutifully polish two pairs of small black shoes ready for Monday. The basket with the polishes in was falling apart, bits of it fell away from it gradually as the years wore on, and every Sunday I’d do this all over again, the basket disappearing into itself bit by bit. The children were very young, the world I had to navigate on my own with them suddenly felt very large, too large for me. This small thing, an insignificant act which really made no difference to them, grounded me in those days when I felt as though I was falling apart too. It anchored me to a present that I had to get through and, because I knew I would do it again next Sunday and the week after, it gave me something to move towards. Week by week, month by slow month.
Over the weeks, the months that followed I would keep doing it and add other things building ritual into our lives, making a shape to it. At the end of every summer term we’d have an outing somewhere, to the Lake District or to Knowsley Safari Park for a picnic with wasps and rain and other people’s mewling children. I would mark parts of the year by hiding Easter eggs in the garden of my parents’ home where we had come to live, or, at Christmas, by going to the film with live music at the Liverpool Philharmonic: Peter and the Wolf, The Wizard of Oz, The Snowman, visiting the towering and magical Christmas trees in the Anglican Cathedral before heading home. I never did anything like this myself as a child, but it felt important to build this into their lives for them, creating them anew. Every Christmas Eve I read them ‘The Night Before Christmas’, the three of us huddled together, listening for a toe tap, a reindeer step on the cold roof of the house and downstairs the sherry and the carrot would be waiting. One year I bought them reindeer food from Manchester Christmas market, all sparkles and oatcake, it spilled everywhere and the cat sneezed trying to eat it. Then I would spend an hour with my father wrapping their presents, he with an Ardbeg whisky, me with a Baileys and wait, and wait, until we were sure they were asleep, to deliver them.
Christmas makes those of us who balance uneasily in our lives feel unsteady on our feet and as Christmas is now only days away, with it the pressure increases. I can feel it.
The rituals in our lives have changed and the stories have moved on but still at Christmas it’s the stories that root them. Different stories it’s true, but ones that grow with us. A Christmas Carol with The Muppets and Michael Caine of course, and always The Polar Express which has traded places with The Night before Christmas because we all want to believe just a little bit don’t we? My children are young adults but the magic of story remains and this is the most precious thing I could have given them. My son’s favourite Christmas film is Gremlins the Lord of Misrule living on and my daughter’s I think is one of the Harry Potter films, maybe the The Goblet of Fire because Christmas is central and the Yule Ball is magical, and me? I fall somewhere in between. The stories I want to believe are that people can change like Ebeneezer Scrooge and, sometimes, they do. But more often I find myself thinking of the Mistletoe Bride on her wedding night on Christmas Eve trapped in the great oak trunk, unable to get out, listening to her husband’s deceit that has sealed her fate forever. I see her lift the lid of the chest a little bit, peep out and wait for him to find her but he never does and then the lid slams shut and she hears him with someone else in the room but they don’t know she’s there. I like Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of this story best of all, it’s visceral and doesn’t shy away from its horror. On better years I step up to the plate like Sir Gawain and accept the Green Knights challenge, go for it, lop his head off and then spend the next year searching for him thinking why did I do that? 2019 feels like it might be a Sir Gawain year…
So all those years ago, long after we packed a van, myself and the children, and moved north, started again, in fact just a few days ago, I found the basket of shoe polish. Still falling apart, the polish cracked and dried, my shoe shining days long gone. It was found as my children arrived home for Christmas, the shoes in the hall too big, too independent now to be polished unless in secret they are whisked away by an elf for a shoemaker… The tree is up, the pudding made, carols on the radio, mince pies are cooling, that’s all we need and, maybe, tonight we might start to tell a new story.
Mince pies dancing in the window. Oxford Street, London, Christmas 2018