The Christmas Book
I’m sitting at my kitchen table, an oasis of calm and clear space surrounded by the entire contents of the living room bookshelves. Books, picture frames, CD’s, DVD’s and ornaments are piled up in teetering plastic storage boxes topped with potted plants and lampshades. We’ve cleared out the living room to lay a new wooden floor, but it feels like something bigger. Somewhere along the way, I realised we’ve been laying the foundations for a new life, a life with young teenagers. So far, they seem to be staying true to stereotype, stropping around, oblivious to the debris of their angst-ridden lives strewn on every surface.
But I’m smiling. Beside me is my Christmas Book, and wafting from the cupboard is the faint smell of cinnamon, apple and cloves from all the Christmas candles I have stored there. Every October heralds the start of my favourite season – not autumn or winter, but the festive season. Between now and the New Year, we celebrate my son and daughter’s birthdays, US Thanksgiving (what can I say – I ‘steal’ holidays!) and Christmas rituals from all over Europe, starting on the first Sunday of Advent. And every October, I get out my Christmas Book.
In those cosy few days between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, I take a few quiet hours to myself. Sitting in the flickering glow from the Christmas tree lights, the fire and some scented candles in green and red glass votive jars, I reflect on how we’ve spent the holidays.
My Christmas Book isn’t pretty, just practical. My kids made me stick a festive teddy card on the front a few years ago to remind me to have fun and enjoy being a kid at Christmas. I use a piece of gold, green and red tartan ribbon as a bookmark, and I only write in it with green and red ballpoint pens.
I write about what went well, what I enjoyed most and which scenarios or purchases to avoid next year. I compile detailed lists of what we’ve run out of, and reminders to myself of purchases made in the January sales. (Apparently, I need red and green bows this year, not gold, and it seems like I’ve already bought gift wrap and some gift bags for less than half price.)
I’d never remember any of this if I didn’t write it down. Reading these lists brings me waves of joy at the promise they hold and stops me from impulse buying, assuming we need things we don’t, and buying on automatic pilot.
In these tough financial times, I know there are cards from the January sales up in the loft waiting to be written and recycled ribbons ready to wrap the kids’ gifts; I know that we have “more than enough green and red gift tags” and “loads of small paper plates and big napkins” but I’m reminded that “we need small napkins.”
As I sat with a glass of wine last year and captured all of my thoughts, I covered everything from buying fewer magazines, to choosing jigsaw puzzles with bigger pieces and less snow. (Snow’s tricky.) I wrote about the advantage of pre-ordering some ingredients for our Christmas dinner, to be collected fresh on Christmas Eve, but I also described the anxiety it caused, worrying that I might forget to collect them.
I give myself stern advice about buying too many cheap and sickly Christmas DVD’s and about leaving it till the last minute to wrap sneaky gifts. I also used very big exclamation marks and threats of dire consequences if I was tempted to make all of our Christmas cards again! (I’ve been doing it for twenty five years and it ties up our table for a whole week in November.)
Every October, it’s like reading a long, loving letter from my happy best self, full of heartfelt commentary, tips, and wisdom. In among the warnings (“Don’t buy so many iced fruit slices this year!!” “Don’t start making mulled wine so early in December; you’ll end up scoffing it all!”) are congratulations and praise. (“You bought just the right amount of mini stollen!” “The carrots roasted with thyme, olive oil, white wine and garlic were a triumph!”)
But there was sadness, too. Last year we lost friends to tragedy and some simply drifted. A kind, compassionate me wrote:
“It’s hard, having fewer visitors and scoring out names in the address book, but I just have to learn love, live, and let go. There’ll always be addresses scored out in the book and new ones added. Try and make time to add new ones.”
But as I sit here, on a grey drizzly day in October, weary after a week of teenage tantrums and hormone-fuelled spats, these are the lines from last year’s entry that inspire me and renew my spirit; they remind me that the coming months are a time to lay up memories and dreams, gratitude and gifts to keep us going through tough times.
“I loved the stories the kids wrote for me as a present, but I wish I hadn’t told them off for disappearing when I needed them. I didn’t know they were typing them up.”
“My dad said his presents were perfect and that I had a heart of gold. It gets harder every year; what do you get someone who’s had 84 Christmases?! I know we gave him loads, but I don’t know how many more we’ll have together. He loved decorating the Christmas cake with us. He pretends he can’t use the icing pens, but his reindeer looked like something from Disney and he’s getting better at it every year!”
“My favourite surprises were the kids’ stories, the cushion M knitted and the metal painted Christmas decoration S gave us. I can’t wait to see it again next year – it’ll be like a surprise all over again!”
“The kids both said it was the best Christmas ever. JD behaved perfectly all Christmas day, and so did Mac. It made a difference that they were so appreciative; last year was scarier. Mac loved his stocking and so did JD. I’m so glad they still get pleasure from pens and pencils, notebooks and wee bits and bobs. I hope they never stop loving the details.”
Whether your winter is sweltering hot or snow-covered and glistening, why don’t you buy yourself a notebook now, and look forward to all the pleasure that can come with planning a season of celebration. You’ll thank yourself in 2010.