Saturday, 27 November 2010

Aah, the festive season

It comes around fast, doesn’t it? One minute you’re thinking about what you might be cooking for dinner tonight, the next you’re being pressed for your plans for the 24th, 25th and 31st. Of December. And you’re still in October.

But that’s the thing about the festive season: one minute it’s something you’re going to get around to thinking about once you’ve done everything else on your to-do list, the next it’s here. And you’re forewarned, even if you don’t want to be: this year, I saw my first TV Christmas ad (like last year, for Fruit & Veg City) at the end of September.

So what are you doing for Christmas Eve? Christmas Day? New Year’s Eve?

For many years, while my kids were growing up, Christmas Eve followed a fairly established pattern. I and my kids, various friends and their kids, and other members of the family and their kids, would gather at my parents’ house in Cape Town. There, we would eat mountainous amounts of food, drink as much as our kidneys could process and then a bit, dance in a very silly way to very silly music, and, after midnight, once all the children had been put to bed in various corners of the house, assemble a complicated train set.

My son was my father’s first grandson (although he already had two granddaughters) and clearly he really wanted him to have a train set. My father’s first gift to my son, age one day, was a wooden engine and three cabs, which my son, over the next year or so, jawed, drooled on and flung across the room, before moving on to more interesting things like my box of bead necklaces.

My father, not a bit discouraged, bought my son, for his third Christmas, another, slightly more intricate train set (in that it included a simple circular railway), which we faithfully set up after midnight that Christmas Eve (always a challenge, given how much wine was consumed before this act of creation began). On Christmas morning an argument ensued between my son and my father: my son agreed to be the station master only if he could exchange the station master’s peak cap for his sister’s fairy wings. And still my dad didn’t twig.

Two Christmases on, and my father hadn’t given up the fight. This time, the train set had 120 pieces, which required the combined skills of about six sozzled adults to assemble, and even then it wasn’t done with extreme success (the bridge went nowhere, and when we finished we realised we’d somehow neglected to include the tunnel; about 20 pieces of track and other scaffolding were discovered under the sofa the next day). The train was battery-powered and came with a range of different cabs – passenger, rolling stock, water tanker, etc. On Christmas morning my son, then 5 years old, made a stand: he’s be station master, by all means, but only if he could be so in the person of his sister’s Malibu Barbie. And he wanted to wear his sister’s Princess shoes too. My father dug in his heels: fine, he said: but then my son had to help him mow the lawn first.

Anyway! And so on to Christmas Day. Since the grandchildren had usually started the morning in a glut of excitability at 4.30am, and all the presents had been opened in a butchery of festive wrapping by 4.33am, all that remained for the adults was to clean up the mess, take some painkillers, make a greasy breakfast, drink champagne and orange juice, stand on various spiky children’s toys, lose their temper with their offspring and spouses, and, by 7.30am, wonder if it was too early to fuck off home.

It was: because it was around this time that my mother would begin making her famous salmon mousse in preparation for the big blowout Christmas Day lunch, in case anybody’s internal organs were in any way in need of yet more saturated fats.

My mother’s salmon mousse was a source of hilarity in our family, thanks to Monty Python’s Mr Death sketch. So I was surprised, a few years before my mom died, when she asked me why everyone laughed hysterically every time she said the words ‘salmon mousse’. ‘Don’t you know?’ I asked, genuinely astonished. She didn’t. For almost 20 years my mother made salmon mousse, we all chortled at it, and she never thought to ask why.

I’m going to draw a veil over much of Christmas Day, except to say this: by lunchtime, all the children’s toys are broken and all the adults are overtired. The kids who haven’t fallen down in an exhausted heap are crying, hiccupping or throwing up, and the grownups are either laughing like hyaenas or declaring undying love for each other, almost always inappropriately.

Then, just as you’re recovering, New Year’s Eve arrives. Not to teach you to suck eggs or anything, but unplanned (or at least vaguely dishevelled) New Year’s Eve parties are usually the best. My favourite one was a hectic party for about 40 people that I was supposed to share with two friends who, for valid reasons (excessive drunkenness and overenthusiastic ingestion of a psychotropic drug, respectively), didn’t turn up, but whose friends did. So my indefatigable mother and I ended up catering for a horde of strangers on a South African summer’s evening that encompassed, bizarrely, a tsunami-type windstorm that swept the tables, chairs, several large vases of flowers and two little old ladies all the way down the garden, and a monsoon-style downpour that ruined all the women’s makeup and forced everyone into a space large enough, in normal day-to-day life, to have a modest snuggle with a small cat. It was such fun.

Less fun was * being stuck in traffic as the clock struck 12 * being subtly commandeered, at someone else’s party, to be part of the domestic drudgery (I don’t do this to you when you come to my house, please don’t do it to me when I come to yours) * starting too early, then clock-watching from 10pm * starting too early, then waking up the next morning and realising I'd missed all the festivities * high-spiritedly feeding a guest an excess of black sambucca, then having to wash the black vomit out of my down duvet the next day.

Aah, the festive season. I can’t wait.

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1 comment:

Claudine said...

Oh gosh I think you and I went to some of the same family gatherings and parties!

Least favourite - 7pm 31 December one year. People started queueing for one of the 3 toilets on the premises. Stomach flu. Only two people escaped the bug.

Best - that look on every kid's face when they finally get why all the adults are happy (champagne and orange juice for breakfast) and start ripping open the presents from Santa.