For some reason, I know not why, there is always some aspect of Christmas that I decide to make more difficult for myself than it needs to be. For a couple of years it was making my own Christmas puddings (yummy, but needing a large number of hours steaming and then maturing under the bed in the spare room before steaming again, on The Day). Home made pastry for home made mince pies. Gingerbread houses. (Last year, for some equally bizarre reason, we decided – or rather they decided – to have a go with boiled sweetie stained glass. Mary Berry makes it look so easy, after all. No doubt she doesn’t have to trail around the shops fetching said boiled sweet on her lonesome, along with all the other shopping.) This year, after having a word with myself at the end of November about not making a song and dance about it, it was fill your own crackers.
Now, I am, I freely admit, totally in love with crackers. A festive meal isn’t a festive meal without them, I’m afraid. When I was a very little girl, my mum used to save bits off them and put them in the useful drawer and my sister and I would pore over them, delighted by the shiny foil and scraps of tinsel, using them to create our masterpieces throughout the year. When we were older, we were instructed, by our dad, as to how to pull the snap without damaging the body of the cracker, and later, when the jokes were told and the party hats discarded, he would reconstruct them carefully, and they would come out, every year, to decorate the beams, along with the holly my mum had liberated from the local hedgerows (there were never any berries, the birds were too hungry). In 1999, when I went with friends to see in the new year in in the far north of Scotland, the crackers were my job, and I bought enough to cover the table, twice.
The thing about crackers, though, is the gifts. We all enjoy the terrible jokes, and some of us wear the party hats for the rest of the day (and some of our children hide them away in their bedrooms for some unknown reason), pulling them is fun in itself and it makes us all laugh, but the gifts are always a bit of a disappointment. When I was a little girl (again) we had some crackers that contained china figures of animals. I don’t remember the crackers, but I do remember the animals; we played with them for years, and nothing has ever lived up to them. A plastic moustache and yet another pair of nail clippers that don’t really work cannot compete, not in any way, shape or form.
So this year, thinking I’d be organised and buy my crackers while there was still a choice, as I hemmed and hawed over the options, I discovered a small, flat packet of fill your owns. There’s nothing really whizzy about the design (I usually go for something the more bling the better, if you know what I mean) and these, in their holly-printed simplicity are nothing of the sort. The designers have gone for home-spun-wisdom-stylee, no doubt. I thought that the cracker itself would be enough (why waste the the money on a useless gift you will only chuck out in a couple of weeks?), until, that is, I showed them to my daughter.
What a great idea, she declared. We can put gifts in that people would like!
So, there you are. This week, instead of sitting at home, doing something useful like wrapping all the presents while the kids are out of the way, I found myself trailing around the shops looking for gifts of no more than 5cm in diameter, and something that family members would like and appreciate, to boot. Making Christmas life more difficult than it needs to be. Again.
I kind of enjoyed it, once I got into the swing of it. Once I came up with some ideas about what to put in them, it wasn’t too much of a chore. I enjoy gift giving, and I love thinking of things that those I love will love. It gives me pleasure to bless them in a small way. But then, as I exited the last shop, no-more-than-5cm-in-diameter sized gifts in hand, I realised something that made me feel…sad.
I had spent so long, running after everyone else that I had neglected to think of myself. Who would buy a surprise gift for me? Self pity washed over me as I considered the state of Christmas, for me, and for countless other mothers. The shopping, the wrapping, the cooking, the cleaning. The making sure that everyone else has a good time. The mental load I carry for my family is great, and Christmas adds to it, whether I embrace it willingly or not. It’s so easy, when you serve, both professionally and personally, to lose yourself, to ignore your needs and put yourself at the bottom of the list.
But then, you know, I gave myself another talking to. If I want something in my cracker – and if I want to like it – there is nothing to stop me getting it myself. My daughter and I will have just as much fun making them, no matter who buys the gift. It’s OK.
Christmas is a time for giving, but the price doesn’t have to be your mental health and wellbeing. We all need someone to watch over us, but sometimes, it can be us who does the watching. And that’s OK.
Mind you, if nobody notices that I have tatty holes-in-the-soles slippers, a wonkily fixed handbag and a broken iron I’m not entirely sure what I will do with the (frozen) roast potatoes. Nobody will get any, that’s for sure. They will have to make do with broccolli.