We promised to love, comfort and honour each other to the end of our days. We also said we would cherish and be faithful always, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, at a time in our lives when heart bypasses and new hips were beyond our imaginative powers. And, as if those vows weren’t extravagant enough, I held out for more, and in the rash way of premarital promises, the bridegroom agreed. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘We will always spend Christmas at home’.
As ours was a spring courtship and a summer wedding, it might seem a quixotic prenuptial contract, but soon after we got engaged, the youngest of my three future sisters-in-law explained the Three-Year Plan: every third Christmas in Warwickshire with my husband’s oldest sister and her family; the following year, everyone here at Wyken; the year after, half of the family here at Wyken. Eager as I was to embrace the traditions of my new family, the idea of the Carlisle Christmas Rota made me moody as a woodchuck.
My longing for a fixed Nativity began in the backseat of childhood, listening to my parents snap at each other and at us. They were worn out from the effort to disguise things that were meant to arrive on a sleigh, frazzled by the challenge of fitting it all into the boot and, no doubt, wondering why, year after year, they left the home they had created and hauled their hopes and fears of all the years 200 miles north in order to ‘go home for Christmas’.
The belief that Christmas is about Family is drip-fed into us from birth, but in this age of ever-changing families, Place is the scaffolding that provides the sense of permanence and togetherness. If your joy and sustenance is derived from fir trees, log fires and carols that begin at 3pm on Christmas Eve from King’s College, Cambridge, it’s hard to believe it’s Christmas in a hammock under palm trees. Place is as firmly fixed in the mind as the Angel Gabriel, the Shepherds, the Three Wise Men, and animals peering into the manger. But our faith in Place should come with a warning. It is transitory.
Cousins who have spent every Christmas of their married lives in North Wales are on their own this year, their son and daughter in London with new in-laws. Friends in Scotland are also having a ‘quiet Christmas’, their married daughters and grandchildren joining their husbands’ families. Suffolk neighbours have a full house, but their Christmas star, daughter Kate, is in India with friends. Everyone is trying not to be morose about these changes.
For some, these transitions mean arrival. This will be the first year Caroline gets to ‘do’ Christmas in the family pile, because her mother-in-law is going to her daughter’s family, thereby passing on, at last, the mantle of Mother Christmas.
I’m astonished at the good grace with which my parents accepted my own defection from the Christmas pilgrimage, although every autumn of my unmarried life, I received a letter from my father that began ‘Christmas isn’t a command performance, but just know we’d be so glad to see you that we’ll pay for your ticket’. I’m equally amazed at how casually I made other plans. But when I told him my husband had promised me freedom from the Christmas rota, his September letter took on a different tone. ‘Family is a delicate web,’ he wrote. ‘The strings are strong, but they can be torn apart. Think of the Carlisle rota as a well-worn tapestry and enjoy it, because it won’t last forever. I used to dread Christmas at my in-laws. Now, I’d love to relive one.’
My father typed his letters, but he always scribbled a postscript. On this letter, he added a nugget that makes me smile as we load the car on Christmas Eve: ‘One more thing. Christmas itself is by grace. So lighten up.’