I am not a Christian. Christmas means less than nothing to me.
If the story of the Nativity is anything to go by, given that the sheep were in the fields instead of being shut in a barn overnight to prevent them freezing to death it couldn’t have happened at midwinter, anyway, and astronomers feel that the nearest comet sighting to account for the star would have been six years earlier in May, a time when shepherds were more likely to watch sheep in fields.
Nonetheless, my mother, also an unbeliever (but one who “doesn’t know if God knows he doesn’t exist”), thinks that there is something somehow superhuman about the 25th December, which here, of course, is a few days after Summer Solstice. And no matter what demands there are on their lives, and how far away she might be from the median location of family members, we all have to go traipsing off to her horrible mansion for her horrible food.
My mother has a horrible Christmas menu. We all get a plate of the cheapest compound chocolate on the market in the morning. She waits for it all to be eaten, then lunch is the main meal. Cold ham still on the bone, and if you let her slice it, each slice is many centimetres thick. Cold commercially cooked chicken – which I happen to consider a leftover. “Noodlesalat”: boiled spiral pasta cooled down and dressed with vinegar. “Potatosalat” (yes, she mixes her languages) which consists of quartered potatoes boiled in their own weight of salt and a few drops of water, dressed with cheap mayonnaise that tastes of chemicals and sliced pickled gherkins (which I loathe).
And she needles all of her relatives until one of them can’t stand it any more and explodes at her, whereupon she crows triumphantly about how [Name] Ruined Christmas For Everybody. Over the last several years, I have taken it on myself to be the one to explode on minimum provocation just to reduce the needling on everyone else, and it really makes the whole event slightly less stressful for my siblings and siblings-in-law. Of course, daughters and nephews are a different matter: the upcoming generation of kids all caught on to the fact that Christmas at Grandma’s was horrible by the time they were five or six.
Those are our sacred, unbreakable Christmas traditions.
Three years ago, I foolishly conspired with my kid brother’s wife: we both brought eskiis filled with festival-food: avocado, smoked salmon, brie, home-grown salad veggies, prawns, nuts, stone-fruits, all the gorgeous stuff you’d expect to eat on a special day. And I had hens at the time, so I brought about eighteen hard-boiled eggs plus the ingredients including home-grown herbs, and made green-stuffed eggs as well. The food was sensational, and there was plenty of it. Not a single person except Grandma touched her foetid stuff. My nephew Angus, cute and small and tousle-headed at the time, said innocently to his grandma: “Now that Mummy and Auntie Nisaba have shown you what nice food tastes like, you can make it yourself next Christmas.” My mother fell into a thunderous silence.
We are still living it down, and I doubt whether we will ever break the Christmas tradition again. But every so often when we have one of our rare sibling-get-togethers, someone will mention the day that Jane and Nisaba did Christmas Lunch, and we’ll all reminisce …