There’s something beguiling about eves. As in the evening before, not people called Eve. New Year’s Eve, Passover Eve, ‘twas the eve before battle, that kind of eve. I like the energy of them, being on the brink of something, the calm before the storm.
Christmas Eve is, for children brought up with Father Christmas, the time to go ballistic at the thought of the lovely things about to be delivered by a fat man in a red suit who invades your home when you’re asleep. For most adults, it’s the time to cross fingers that everything has been bought or organised because there’s nothing you can do about it now. It’s a moment to brace yourself for the onslaught of the big day itself, with family, friends, too much of everything, and probably a modicum of passive aggression to look forward to. For those on their own, it’s a period to get through, to try not to dwell on what was or what might have been. Or just to luxuriate in the peace and quiet while everyone else is tied up.
Christmas Eve was pretty low-key in my house when I was growing up. My mother would spend the day making mince pies while she listened to the Nine Lessons and Carols, live on the radio from King’s College, Cambridge. That was her ritual, to be happily alone in the kitchen. For the rest of us, it was about wrapping presents and blobbing in front of Christmas specials on the television.
And then we moved to Yorkshire and a new tradition started. Friends of my parents lived in a grand Victorian mansion and every Christmas Eve we were invited to celebrate with them. There were other family friends there, too, and everyone would be dressed up to the nines, some of the men in black tie in the early days. It started with drinks in the large drawing room and eventually the choir from the local church would show up, arrange themselves around the grand piano, and sing carols to us. After they had gone, we’d all troop through to the dining room and enjoy a sumptuous feast.
It was all a bit Downton Abbey. I remember there being port and cigars for the men as the ladies went through to the drawing room for coffee. I mean, really. I didn’t know anyone else who celebrated Christmas Eve that way and it was certainly not normal for us. When the choir arrived, it felt uncomfortably like the lords of the manor smiling on as the serfs sang for our pleasure. I remember how mortified I felt when one of my classmates was in the choir one year. ‘What are you doing here?’ she mouthed to me, and I blushed brightly in my velvet jacket and shrugged.
That was the 1970s. Over the following decades it changed, becoming more low-key (fewer people, less booze, simpler food) but my family was always there. In 2005, when I went back for my first British Christmas since I’d left for Australia, I couldn’t believe that we were there again, sipping our drinks before the fire and waiting for the choir to arrive. And yet how much had changed – the people who had died, the divorces and re marriages, the little kids who were now all grown up. And there I was, thirty years older, going through exactly the same motions, making polite chitchat, muddling the words of the singalong carols, and wondering if I had actually grown up at all.
It’s no wonder that, after I met Anthony in 1994, I was quite happy to spend Christmas with him in my little flat in Greenwich. It was the first I’d spent away from my family. That Christmas Eve, we went to the midnight service at the local church, a beautiful building that had been re-designed in the 1700s by Hawksmoor, and which was the burial place of composer Thomas Tallis. There was a lovely atmosphere, the whole place lit only by candles, and the singing was sublime. Afterwards we walked down to the Cutty Sark by the river, passing a few carousers along the way, but mostly I remember the hushed atmosphere, how tranquil everywhere felt. And how glad I was not to be perched politely in a drawing room in Yorkshire.
A year later, I was living in Australia and Christmas changed forever. It couldn’t have been more different. Christmas Eve meant people picnicking at the beach. The next day was spent with Anthony’s family. Lunch was always seafood, ham, salads, although there was an early attempt at the full traditional roast that no one could face because it was 35 degrees outside. Christmas was about a morning swim and putting on your smart shorts. We would often slip away in the late afternoon and drive up the coast to spend a few weeks there for our summer holiday.
Last year was our first without living parents. We were free to do what we liked so we went to South America. And a proper Christmas Eve was back again, this time in a little hotel by a lake in Chile that looked out to a couple of snow-capped volcanoes. Dressed in a clean shirt and trousers that weren’t spattered with mud from all the walking we’d done, I chatted to the other guests over drinks (pisco sours, this time) in front of a roaring fire and then we all went through for a dinner of locally-caught crab. For a moment, though, I was back in Yorkshire again and realised that I’d come full circle, only this time it was on my terms.
This year it will be quieter but there’ll be a Christmas Eve of some sort, even if it’s just fish and chips on the beach. There’ll definitely be no formality and that’s just the way I like it. Everything has its time.
How do you spend Christmas Eve?