Monday 19 December 2011

Ritual wars?

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.
shamanic moose
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 tell me.  


Rachel Selby said...

I would have thought having the children occupied with their new toys all morning would override any notions of afternoon presents. I'm all for rituals but lets not cut off our noses...

Sessha Batto said...

I guess I'm odd, we have no holiday rituals . . . some years we have a tree and decorations, others we don't. We never exchange gifts until January (when money is not as tight), we don't sing carols or eat special foods or ANYTHING :( Our ritual is, I guess, no rituals.

Exmoorjane said...

@Rachel - yeah, me too...or at least one eh? But hey... :(

@Sessh - Love it. :)

Anonymous said...

nope. no Christmas rituals for me either apart from eating tonnes of potato stuffing. haven't got a tree or decorations or anything like that.

the only thing that happens every year is that mental old bat of a mother in law gets into some kind of Xmas frenzy and pisses everyone off starting around August bank holiday.

Zoë said...

Funny thing rituals - K's family are afternoon present openers too - us, we were morning so K's rituals had to change to fit in with mine as it was my house my rules in the early days of us being together! (What a baggage I was!)

Living here, I used to get up at crazy O'clock to cook Xmas lunch, and we used to have hoards arrive and strip the house bare like locusts. With 5 brothers and sisters, their spouses and sprogs (one of my sisters has 5 herself) my parents and the occasional come to us rather than be on your own type guest - Xmas became a military operation that I started to dread. Year on year. None of my siblings mucked in, they just turned up and expected largesse. Me being the mug I am provided.

Then I got ill and was recovering from surgery/treatment for breast cancer diagnosed in the August, and told everyone I wasn't up to hosting Christmas that year.

You'd think someone else would offer? You'd think at the very least someone would have invited us to theirs instead. Pah! Fat chance!

So since then the ritual is I get up when I wake up, me, K and the kids mooch at our own pace,we invite no one, have a leisurely breakfast, open pressies, and then I start to cook lunch (well its more like dinner by the time it is ready) and just enjoy the 4 of us being together, watch a movie, play board games and generally be together as a family.

Like you the tree doesn't go up until the weekend before Christmas, nor does the wreath on the door, nor do the card that have arrived by then get strung up in strings over the breast of the fireplace in the sitting room. Apart from a huge ball of mistletoe that gets suspended some 20 feet from the hall ceiling, that's it as far as decorations go. Like you I do this with carols blaring, folk and medieval being my favourite; have several versions of Gaudete - as its one of my faves. Lunch gets cooked to carols on the radio too from Kings usually I think.

I much prefer how our Christmases are now. Being ill really made me reevaluate so many things and what really counted.

Ashen said...

I grew up near the Alps, a light meal at Christmas Eve and then the tree was lit, with real candles, and presents were stacked up under the tree. As a child I wouldn't see the tree before that time.
On Christmas day we had a sumptuous meal.
My parents were not religious, but they occasionally took me to a midnight candle mass - an amazing experience.
Today, if my son or friends are with me around this time, I still share the sequence, otherwise I light a candle.

Dump Him Love said...

I guess the only ritual we've really followed is changing the venue of where Xmas day is spent. We used to spend it with parents until we produced and then they came to us. We've done the same. I'm not really into big splurges I just want the people I love with me. I've been lucky enough for that to have been the case :)

Exmoorjane said...

@Sheena - you surprise me...I had you down as a decorations and tree girl. Sorry to hear MIL is still causing you grief... I guess that IS a ritual huh?

@Zoe - ah yes...think that's quite a common situation for a lot of women. I don't cook which is a godsend...and very rarely have more than four for the it's all pretty low key. Would love a big ball of mistletoe - damn, should have asked my friend Kate when she came over earlier...
Yes, yes, yes - to re-evaluating. People get so stressed and really that is so sad.
@Ashen - sounds lovely. I always used to go to midnight mass but haven't for a few years now..something magical about a church lit by candles...I always have candles - and yes, even more at this time of year. :)
@Babs - yup, that's the bottom line. The whole feeding frenzy of Christmas makes me sad...

Tattieweasle said...

Love rituasls in that they are comforting but hate that I have to adpat mine to fit in with his family, luckily after 12 years miner have prevailed aklotugh somewhat sogf=ftened by his soon they'll change again and wait for a tiem when I can bring them out again when they are married so that they fremember and perhaps adpat them for their children and their families...who knows where it will end!

Anonymous said...

Ours have inevitably changed and adapted over the years, to certain things being a big deal and others not.
Last year, because of my operation, I didn't have time to do my own personal rituals and as I was so ill post-op, never got the tree up until N decided to put the tree up on Christmas eve. Somewhere my angel lights got lost, and I miss them.
I used to make our own cake etc etc, and E and I used to sit down and make clove oranges in the week before.
Now, I just want to finish the tree and get the house tidy.
I'm tired.

Kismet said...

What a great blog! Ritual wars--how true. I wonder how many divorces have happened because of when you decorate the %*$*&@ tree, even if you use colored or white lights. I once made gravy from half cornstarch and half flour to keep my mother and mother-in-law from war. Happy holidays!

Anonymous said...

LOL @ Kismet !
Will never have my mother and mother and mother in law in the same room again at Christmas. Too much talk of "what's this foreign muck? " Ha ha!

janerowena said...

I had just got rid of many of my childhood rituals - tree presents, champgane and smoked salmon for breakfast, huge stockings, midnight mass etc. etc. - largely because of expense and also because it was bloody hard work, when one of my sisters moved up here. She wanted us all at her new house for Christmas just how it used to be and all of a sudden i found myself back to square one, buying presents for nieces and nephews that had been dropped once they reached 21 and who now have more money than I do. I shall go along with it until my son is 21, then I shall knock it on the head very happily. I much preferred our quieter Christmases, but have to admit they were perhaps a bit boring for a 16 year-old.