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?
What a lovely post Colin. Your posh English Christmas Eves sounds like a scene from The Crown! We always cerebrated and opened presents on Xmas eve as my father had to work at the weather bureau on Xmas day (prime cyclone season) when I was a child, and decades on the tradition has stuck. Now my teenagers want the extra cash and will work on Xmas day too, so the making Xmas eve special tradition fits yet again.
When I look back on it, it seems utterly absurd, Cate. But I think the Christmas eve thing works quite well, especially if people are working the next day. My parents were Scottish and when they were growing up, Christmas was an ordinary day like any other – New Year was the big celebration. So I guess these things are fluid and we make of them what we want. Hope your Xmas Eve is a good one!
Loved reading this. Xmas Eve in Brussels was Mark and me in attic wrapping presents and drinking a lot of mulled wine. Heaven.
Ah, that sounds so sweet, Michele, especially being up in the attic. I think Brussels at Christmas is pretty special, too. Lovely to have these memories.
Christmas Eve was spoiled for me forever when we moved to France. Like you, I’d always enjoyed the low-key eves of my childhood, wrapping gifts and watching TV and eating something easy like pizza for supper. But the 24th in France is THE main event, and the main event is the food. Nothing like our turkey with all the trimmings, more like oysters and foie gras. Which is all very well and good, but it’s not Christmas, at least for me. Now we try and do a bit of both, which means the eve and the day are too much and I never really enjoy either in the way I hope. Your fancy Yorkshire evenings sound amazing, but like you I’ll take the cocktails in an exotic locale or even fish and chips with a laid back vibe.
Pizza vs foie gras – no contest, really, haha! It’s really something to step out of those long-held traditions, nice though they might have been. Evolution is key and I think you get to a point when you make a stand for what works for you… I must say, when I wrote that my mother was quietly happy in the kitchen, I don’t doubt that she might have preferred a little more help in the kitchen. I think I wrote from a very male point of view!
I get your point, Colin, and I often think of my poor mother who managed so much with little help from any of us (selfish beasts!), neither husband nor kids. Yet I also get the relative joy of simply doing things yourself quietly, so perhaps she really was happy in the kitchen.
(I suspect she was 😉)
A beautiful read, thank you Colin. And I loved seeing my everyday and Christmas day beach(Jibbon)in the background of your last photo 🙂
Have a wonderful Christmas and blessings to you and yours for 2021.
Thank you, Julie. It’s such a perfect beach, isn’t it, in any season. Happy Christmas to you, too!
I love your description of the Yorkshire Christmas eve. It reads like a scene from a Jonathan Coe book! When I was little we used to spend it in Norfolk in a Victorian House my father inherited from his uncle. It was bitterly cold and I remember stone hot water bottles and getting dressed in front of fires. Then the house was burgled and we started spending Christmas in Oxford. It was the first time I realised trees dropped their needles because that house had central heating. The trees in Norfolk never did that because it was so cold! This year will be very quiet. We’ve had sad news and don’t feel like celebrating much.
Oh, how lovely to be compared to Jonathan Coe! And you’ve jogged my memory that the Yorkshire house was abso-bloody-lutely freezing. On particularly cold Christmas Eves, we’d all be wearing thermals beneath our finery!… How wonderful to have stone water bottles. Goodness, we sound positively ancient!… So sorry to hear about your sadness. Wishing you both well and sending my love.
Great to read your memories Colin. I don’t think I have ever had two Xmases in a row that were in the same place or same style since I was an adult! My childhood ones however were ALWAYS the same….I used to present a little play or puppet show I had made myself on Xmas Eve and play carols on the piano – quite the little performer lol Once I left home and was travelling a lot I had Xmases in different countries, with different people and sometimes alone, like camping on Stewart Island at the south end of New Zealand one year, that was so peaceful. I decided to follow more seasonal practices and instituted a midwinter/Xmasy celebration in July and after my son was born, a midsummer picnic as well, with fairies leaving presents in the garden. When he was older and spending Xmas with his dad I would go off to music festivals with friends – Xmas Day is a great day to travel! (except this year…) Waiting to see if I’ll be allowed into the Northern Beaches where my elderly folks are holed up….fingers crossed! Have yourself and special one/s a merry little time 🎅🧚♂️👬
I love the idea of a puppet show on Xmas Eve – that seems to go right to the heart of a family Christmas, I think. It’s interesting spending Christmas in different places, isn’t it, and that’s something I hope to be able to do more of once this pandemic is done… Good luck to you and your folks. I think this year’s will certainly be memorable for all kinds of reasons. Hope yours goes well!