This is Christmas and it’s all pretty standard: no presents go under the tree until Christmas Eve, a day on which my mother is very smiley, having been making the brandy cream (not butter, never butter) all afternoon while listening to the carol service from King’s College on the radio. The crib is arranged in the hall around the gold-sprayed leaf arrangement. A film-probably James Bond, although, in earlier years, it was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-is followed by large and lively dinner. Those who have been confirmed are deemed old enough to attend midnight Mass. As are those who will be cooking lunch.
Christmas morning: on waking, you may open the presents outside your stocking (books so that you can read before the point at which you’re allowed into your parents’ room). All items in stockings to be wrapped in tissue paper. Presents for and from brothers and sisters at breakfast. Church for the unconfirmed. One present, possibly two before lunch. Champagne cocktails. Lunch. The Queen’s Speech. More presents, followed by a brief yet antici-patory lull. Tea, with Christmas cake, which nobody eats, but is essential because it’s not until after tea that you’re given the Big Present from your parents. Another lull, with an edge of exhaustion. Dinner with family best friends. The End.
Then I got married, and it appeared that other families have other rules. Or, stranger still, a marked absence of rules. Presents, Zam suggested, could go under the tree as they enter the house-part of the fun, he and the children explained, is in the build-up, the growing pile, the shaking, prodding and squeezing of the parcels so that there’s barely any need to open them on the day except to confirm what has already been surmised. Or, one year, the presents being unwrapped by my then six-year-old daughter a couple of days early. On recognising the enormity of her actions, she wailed: ‘I’ve burgled my presents.’
‘Sometimes, we used to collect all the presents addressed to us under the tree and make a pile of our own,’ Zam says. I dismiss this extraordinary idea. ‘And I prefer brandy butter.’ ‘It might be nice to have Christmas supper instead of lunch.’ This strikes me as stepping over a pretty profound line, but I agree to experiment. We have the Champagne without the food and, by 3pm, are too tired and bad-tempered to open any battery compartments and insert nine AAAs. The children are starving and mildly sickly having eaten smoked-salmon sandwiches all day. When we suggest a walk, they stare at us as if we’ve just cancelled the best day of the year. By supper, all we want is scrambled eggs. Preferring to take things to the wire timing-wise, Zam and the children spend Christmas Eve buying presents, delivering parcels and driving around with a ladder in search of mistletoe.
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I manage to keep control of the present opening, insisting that everybody writes who’s been given what in a Christmas Book. This also lists what we give everybody year after year, ensuring that I don’t repeat myself. But when I look back, I can never read what’s been written because it’s all been crossed out at least three times as I realise, while wrapping, that none of it’s quite right. I don’t, however, do what one father told me was the rule in his household: no presents opened until the thank-you letter for the previous one has been penned. On The Day. There and Then. Now, that’s what my children would call a Fun Sponge.
One last staple of the family event. My sister, who adores Christmas more than anybody I know, is often ill on the day, a condition that once got so out of hand, she had to be carted off in an ambulance. This disorder also affects one of our children, who usually has suspected appendicitis mid morning and has to lie on the bathroom floor. We pay no attention. It’s a family tradition.