In Dumas’s great novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantes was condemned to life imprisonment in the notorious Chateau d’If, an uncongenial tower off the French coast, plus an annual flogging. The human mind being what it is, he couldn’t sit peacefully enjoying his sea view. Instead his anxious thoughts continually anticipated the pain to come. I don’t know in which month he was whipped, but he was probably worrying about it for at least three months in advance, in the same way that some of us start losing sleep about Christmas Day in mid-October.
No one could have loved Christmas more than I did; as a child it was equal in delight to the first sight of the sea appearing over the brow of the hill on our summer holiday. Christmas, our week by the sea and, to a lesser extent, birthdays were magical. I think now that the intensity of that joy was enhanced because my parents relaxed their strict regime a little. We received presents which we didn’t get at any other time, and they made us a present of themselves as they became more friendly.
Everything about Christmas was exciting and interesting. My parents lived for a time on a council estate where they befriended an elderly brother and sister whose tiny flat was filled with antiques. I sensed they were not like English people (their family came from Alsace), more particular in their tastes, more cultured. One of their glass cabinets contained Netsuke, including one they called ‘The Wrestlers’. When I got older I realised it was two people copulating on a tatami mat. In my teenage years they asked me to take it to the local art gallery to see how much it was worth. I carried it around in my school satchel for months before I remembered to do so. It sold at Sotheby’s for thousands of pounds.
The brother and sister were invited to Christmas lunch every year. I never thought about what they would have done without our invitation, and always regretted it when they left at 3pm, not staying for our family games.
I wasn’t always so happy with the guests. My mother once invited an old lady called Bessie on Boxing Day. I thought she was very odd, and I was right. The day after her visit she became insane and was taken to a mental hospital. I was secretly amused when she whacked my mother over the head with a bunch of flowers when she visited her.
As I got older, Christmas became entwined with romance. Friends became engaged under the mistletoe. My first serious boyfriend at university bought me an expensive leather handbag, but we went our separate ways and subsequent relationships didn’t last. My mother and I continued with all our particular rituals. She insisting on doing the lunch into her 90s and we kept inviting lone neighbours to the table. Then she died and took Christmas with her.
Without her, my status suddenly shifted from benevolent host to grateful guest. But teenage children at the table didn’t seem to like me; at least they didn’t make conversation and I felt I was slipping towards that terrible category, the old spare part. Perhaps they saw me as another Bessie. I now understood about leaving at 3pm.
The first Christmas after my mother’s death I spent abroad on an art holiday, but I was mainly in company with rich widows in their eighties. The following year I invited another single woman to stay. She had no Christmas rituals to remember and she kept asking why I was putting cloves into satsumas and what was that crib thingy in the hall? I felt she was pushing any possible magic even further away. We became as tense as any relatives, but without the possibility of expressing irritation.
Since October I’ve been worrying about the lonely tower looming out of the fog again. I now see that my mistake was to try to cling to the past. I have to try to remake the event in a totally different way; so I’m going to the community centre which provides a lunch for people who are alone – not to be passively fed, but to give lifts and serve the food.
It will be the first time in my life that I’ve woken up alone on December 25th, but millions have to do it and conduct themselves in an adult way with a smile pasted on, and I also have this constructive plan. I’ll spend the evening with good friends, I have parcels to give and receive and a Boxing Day lunch to cook. It’s just a matter of getting through that huge day with something more than gritted teeth.