Nobody asked for this. And yet, here it is: my festive list of happy things for Christmas 2020!
It’s been an age since I’ve written a blog post, but can promise I’ve a good reason: 2020 was the year we welcomed our baby son into the world. And promptly apologised to him and tried to explain that the world isn’t usually this weird. I think he understands. At the moment, he likes cuddles, the tail of his teddy dinosaur, and milk, all of which have been unaffected by the political turmoil of the year. He has so far not ventured any opinion on the pandemic.
Ah, but what a year it has been. I feel that every year since 2016 (when pandora’s box was opened, and out sprang Brexit and Trump), has been declared the Worst Year Ever. All that time, 2020 was waiting in the wings, trying to cover its giggles. This will be a strange Christmas, one of modest celebrations and deflated revelry.
OR WILL IT? I mean, people began flinging their Christmas trees up in November. Dreary lockdown required the bottling up of silliness and carousing, and now ‘tis the season, things will be uncorked. I predict pyramids of presents, breakfast cocktails, and a general breakdown of dignity and restraint as December wears on. Though we may not hug, people will dance. At each other. In their own homes, of their own free will. Such times!
I couldn’t let all this pass by without a festive blog post. (Festive blog posts are my main hobby. If you’re interested, here, here and here are some of my previous posts on how to get through it all with inner sparkle intact. You may notice a recurring theme, which is the heady mix of seasonal exhaustion and the music of Wham!).
Whether you’re the sort that’s already smashed their way through the advent calendar and emptied a few bottles of prosecco, or the type that is facing the prospect of Christmas like it’s the wet carpark of a closed supermarket on a cold day, this list of happy things is for you. I have nice, good things to share with you.
Something to watch
I’ll begin with this vintage oddity, currently available on BBC iPlayer. By now everyone has watched all of Netflix, so here’s something you might not have noticed: the BBC have been clearing out their cupboards and found their absolute lunatic cooking shows from the seventies.
From 1975, ‘Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas’ gives us the true and full sense of a British family Christmas. It’s all there: passive aggressive hospitality, a faint disgust for food, and the numb and final surrender to tedium in the form of a ten-hour pudding recipe. Halfway through the first episode (Christmas Birds) it becomes clear that Fanny despises Christmas. Stabbing a goose all over with a fork, she raises an eyebrow for the camera: ‘just think of someone you hate’. Fanny showcases how to carve a turkey in three minutes: ‘men make such fools of themselves over this’, she says, before sawing grimly through legs and breast, and then whipping out a pair of secateurs to crunch through the bones.
Fanny Cradock’s unconcealed fury over the cooking and serving of dinner finds its fullest expression in her recipes. How to use up old mincemeat? In an omelette! Yes, that’s sweet mincemeat in a savoury omelette, and it’s dusted with icing sugar to ensure nobody could possibly enjoy it. To make a mincemeat swiss roll, she reveals, from under the table, a big slab of sponge – ‘this one is two weeks old, so it shouldn’t crack’ – and manhandles it to show off its durability. All of this is made magical by Fanny Cradock’s personal style, which is somewhere between 1930s good-time gal (pencil thin eyebrows, waved hair) and drag artist (her foundation has been baked on). She wears brilliant costume jewels and batwing sleeves, and twirls around making glancing asides about the housewife’s ‘prison’. The overall effect is a masterclass in character: as if a prosaic cooking show were somehow being conducted by a fading starlet who deeply regretted marrying a respectable man (‘I gave up singing in nightclubs for this?’). If you hate Christmas as much as she does, I heartily recommend watching this programme, even if it serves only to justify your decision to get a takeaway on Christmas day.
Something to do
One of the many wonderful things about having a baby (alright, alright I won’t go on about it, but my heart has cracked open and I’m loopy with love. But I won’t go on about it) – is that time slows down, and it expands, sumptuously, impossibly. Despite the sleep deprivation, and the worry and the rushing, each day also contains moments that are enormous and unforgettable. Our baby seeing bubbles for the first time – that was one – and the gentle, pleased noise of greeting he made at the Christmas tree when it was finally decked in lights – that was another. As Annie Dillard wrote, ‘how we spend our days is how we spend our lives’, and I cannot imagine a better way to spend mine than to notice each one of these small-and-gigantic moments with my son. Another great thing is that you get to buy amazing children’s books, although I suppose that is something anyone is allowed to do, kids or no. I prefer children’s books for emergency reading anyway – in particular ‘The Red Tree’ by Shaun Tan and ‘The Heart and the Bottle’ by Oliver Jeffers. Both these books can lift you, soaring, out of the bleakest, dullest doldrums. One I have just discovered is ‘On a Magical Do-Nothing Day’ by Beatrice Alemagna.
As the title suggests, this book is about the small and gigantic moments, the secret corners of the world which reveal themselves to be richly alive and teeming with surprises, if you just stop to look. It’s about a girl who is driven by boredom to begin exploring the outdoors on a rainy day and finds all things magical are waiting for her. The artwork is incredibly beautiful, the world of the book cosy and inviting. Obviously, our son has no idea what any of this means and judges books by the taste of their covers, so clearly, I really bought this book for myself. And if you’re feeling stressed, pushed about, exhausted, tired of the news and social media envy, and clouded with Big Huge Worries, then I think you should do the same. Once you’ve read this book, you might want to unmake some plans and embark upon your own magical do-nothing day.
Something to see
Speaking of social media, every December I do a little judicious weeding of the things I regularly look at on the internet. While on the one hand, I think it’s important to keep up with the news and know what’s going on in the world, on the other hand, oh my eyes, they are hurting, it’s all so terrible. As we enter the darkest days of winter, I deliberately ditch anything too serious and real on the internet, and I shamelessly revel in frivolity. I only attend to matters that could be called ‘trifling’. I watch videos of cats having attitude. I search for wholesome memes. When even silliness seems too hectic, I check out pictures of space. I recently started following @thevastreaches on Instagram, to get that fix of awe and wonder on the daily.
I implore you to join me in this. The internet seems like humanity’s greatest mistake if you spend all day on Twitter. Don’t do that. There are nice places on the internet too – there are some very silly places indeed – and that’s where I’d recommend hanging out. As we all know, the cool kids in school never had the most fun anyway; it was the weirdos who had the parties you really wanted to be invited to. Invite yourself now. (No, don’t feel guilty. The news isn’t going to go away. It’ll be right there, screaming for attention, when you’re able for it again).
Something to read
A dear friend gave me The Poetry Pharmacy, an anthology by William Sieghart, which offers poems as remedies and antidotes for whatever ills you. There are poems to help with everything, from heartbreak to news overload, lack of courage to hopelessness. It is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read.
The poem prescription for the problem of unrequited love (Two Cures for Love by Wendy Hope) is particularly brilliant:
1. Don’t see him. Don’t phone or write a letter.
2. The easy way: get to know him better.
One which could have been measured to fit this year, is the poem for stagnation. It’s by Philip Larkin. I always think of him as a poet of sass and irreverence (you know, ‘sexual intercourse began / in nineteen sixty-three) but this poem, The Trees, has the hushed, sacred atmosphere of a simple church interior. I love it.
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Sieghart writes: ‘Our minds are amazing, quick-blooming things. […] Should we resent the trees their ability to bud anew, asks Larkin? No – they die just like we do. We are all heading to the same place. Within our allotted span, growing in us like the rings of a tree, we have lifetime after lifetime. We will always have that chance to be reborn into positivity and change. Grab it. Begin afresh, afresh, afresh’.
When I came across this, it seemed to me the wisest of words for the end of 2020, a year of grief of all kinds, for so many. Let this Christmas be a send-off for this strange year, and then we can get ready to begin afresh.
Remember: we have lifetime after lifetime.