Illustrated by Rhia Cook // @rhiacookmakes
I have had the misfortune all my life to have been surrounded by Scrooges. Exuding that thing that people that hate Christmas exude. December chloroform, the moment you open the first door of the advent calendar.
My dad, long dead, would dig the garden rather than watch us open our presents; my mother has been known to park the car behind the village hall and turn the house lights off, just in case people realise she’s home and ask her round for a mince pie; an ex would unfailingly choose to work; a friend celebrates by dieting through December. Someone (me) should just have said, ‘Stop it! Stop it now! It’s Christmas”.
Perhaps; no: because of, these curmudgeons, I embrace Christmas, and winter, and the build-up, the darkening, the closure. I left a home that wasn’t a home at 18 and set about creating my own version of adulthood. I have learned to celebrate it in spite of those that would turn on the overhead lights, have pizza on the 25th and bang on about grasping businesses destroying the ‘true meaning’. I stock up on firewood, break out the frankincense, put my Christmas tree centre stage, in the front window - lights on, curtains flung open.
And the embrace though is tight; rules and boundaries to be observed. To take Quentin Tarantino way out of context, I get seriously medieval on its ass.
A blanket box at the end of the bed has all the Christmas I need; things that, glow and tinkle. Three favourites never fail - the LED plastic polar bear, the white ceramic bauble with a bee on it, and the long-dead pet stick insects from Borneo, sprayed with gold, that crawl over my tree.
There is food to be made; the cake is Sicilian, (because my heart is half there), fruit cheeses and chocolates that go out as my predictable presents. A bowl overflowing with pomegranates, English apples, furry quinces and dappled grapes. The decorations cannot go up before the 13th and the greenery cannot enter the house until Christmas Eve. And the mistletoe must come from the orchards that encircle the Herefordshire village where my mum lives and hides her car. If I’m in Herefordshire, I’m out the door at dawn and I take the dogs to Murder Oak, and say ‘Happy Christmas, you’re not forgotten’ to the young woman who was battered to death there in the 19th century.
Most often, I am alone at Christmas, or with my festive averse mum, who will, unfailingly, as she clears the dinner table pronounce ‘well thank goodness that’s over for another year’. For all my exasperation, I get sucked back by love and duty to a Christmas that I hate and kills a little bit of my soul.
But, I have a trick up my sleeve. I have a co-conspirator in my aim and desire to shake the last strand of tinsel from Christmas. My oldest friend, who shares my insane glee for weird customs and superstitions.
On News Year’s Eve, as the light begins to fail, he comes round.
In the garden, the crab apple tree will still have some stubborn and indecently scarlet fruit clinging to its branches: their time has come.
Cider is mulled, the apples get roasted, toast gets toasted. A flask, two enamel mugs, me, Jez and my spaniels head up to the allotment where, half-cut on hot booze, in grey dampness - we wassail my fruit trees - cajoling, threatening, doing a little jig. It is stupid, it is ridiculous. Two middle-aged men throwing bread and cider around an inner-city allotment. No one with a camera must ever be allowed near this spectacle.
It is joyous and hilarious. It makes my damn, bloody Christmas
And this year, the Comice that has never fruited, has 12 blushing pears bending its branches to the ground.
Recipe for Wassailing Mulled Cider
Crab apples and butter
A flask, a good friend, a sense of abandonment.
It’s Christmas; go heavy on the cider, the brandy and the sugar. The rest is up to you.