|My heart, my glacial heart|
Rituals. We all have ‘em. Even more so at festivals like Christmas. When I was small, Christmas always began with my mother choosing a colour theme. She would buy two or three packets of crepe paper, cut them into strips and make the most bizarrely inventive decorations by stringing them into vast complicated cat’s cradles across the ceiling of our living room. The letter to Santa was always sent up the chimney; the same dog-eared decorations would adorn the home-made cake; the same lights and baubles would be reverently hung on the tree. There were presents in a pillow case in the morning and, come evening, teeny tiny ‘tree presents’ – a bath cube, a tiny plastic figurine, a tin of tomato puree (don’t ask me why, I had a thing about tomato puree). ‘Snowballs’ made from advocaat and lemonade (dear God!). After Eight mints seemed the height of sophistication. My father went down the pub and there was usually a row at some point (timing variable). J
|stained glass and alchemy|
When my mother married the Viking, the presents became bigger, the rituals ever more complicated and extravagant. There were no rows because we were all too sozzled to care much about anything. It seemed like every hour of the day was marked by some kind of booze. Buck’s Fizz with bagels for breakfast; Brandy Alexanders (of course) plus liqueur coffee for elevenses; champagne and various wines and ports for lunch… Dear gods, after that it was all we could do to stagger to the sofa and burp drunkenly at the afternoon film, before realizing with horror that the carol singers were due and we hadn’t got the wine mulling and the mince pies heating and…. Aaaghhh. One year we turned out all the lights, hid behind the sofa and pretended we’d gone away. Yeah, right…
It all got a bit much, truth to tell, and so, when my parents died, we had a ritual cull. Cos rituals are important but you have to make them your own and you have to know when to shift and adapt them. If they become rigid, if they live beyond their sell-by date, they run the risk of becoming atrophied and even sour. You gotta know a good ritual from one that’s gone a bit mouldy round the edges.
Good rituals are comforting and children, in particular, love them. They mark the passage of time; they show that things are in their rightful place, that all is well in the world. Even now James is 13 he will still cling fervently to the rituals of his childhood. ‘This is when we…’ and ‘It’s time to do…’
And we do. We get the tree the weekend before Christmas and we decorate it together, he and I, to the accompaniment of medieval carols. We take out each decoration and bauble (discarding, with a sigh, the ones that the mice have gnawed past recognition) and remember its history, its provenance. I love them - with their mix of symbols from a huge number of traditions, they represent all manner of wonderful things. Each year we usually buy one new decoration for the tree and, over the years, James has chosen some crackers – including his totem fox and, bizarrely, a jeweled shoe. But most of all I love the ones he made, when he was very small – various disintegrating angels which I stroke fondly while he rolls his eyes.
|One of James' angels|
But anyhow. Some rituals are gone. We no longer cut down our own Christmas tree. I no longer make garlands and wreaths. I no longer bake puddings and cake. We no longer track Santa. And I wonder if, this year, we will still leave out the sherry, mince pie and carrot on Christmas Eve. Things change and really, that is inevitable.
I always remember a conversation I had with a friend whose husband was adamant that present-giving happened in the late afternoon. The presents would sit, winking enticingly, under the tree until lunch had not only been eaten but digested and the dishes all cleared away. Then, and only then, with due ceremony, were the presents opened, slowly, one by one. Which was fine, my friend said, except that by this time their young daughters were climbing up the walls in small whirling frenzies of frustration.
|Baroque bauble & broken-winged butterflies|
‘Surely you might be a bit flexible while they’re so small?’ I suggested. 'Even if they just had one present to tide them over?'
‘You tell him,’ she snorted.
So…foolishly… I raised the issue.
‘Absolutely not,’ he said, his face like fury. ‘That’s the way it is always done in my family.’ Ah, in his family... See there's another thing - when families come together, whose rituals do you follow? Do you suffer from ritual wars?
So. Rituals. Good, bad? Carved in stone or bending with the wind? Do you go through the motions or love each and every one? Do you follow someone else's rituals with gritted teeth? Or ....you tell me.