Christmas has come early this year in the Payne house as, after a long eight months of renovations, we have recently moved back home.
As with all these things, we are way over budget and there is still a huge amount to do – light switches here, smoke alarms there, carpet for this room and curtains for that. The knock-on effect is that there won’t be Christmas presents this year, which could cause problems, married, as I am, to someone who still wakes up early on the big day to check that there is an overflowing stocking at the end of the bed. This year she has been told in no uncertain terms there is to be nothing from Jo Malone or The White Company. B&Q is Dasher and Blitzen’s only destination in December.
I’m lucky that recent history has capped her hopes and expectations though. During the endless unpacking over the last few weeks, there were a couple of wasted hours in the attic looking at bundles of photos. While lingering over the images of our first Christmas as a family, the thought occurred to me that noone can take Yuletide festivities quite as seriously as new parents. We had been through a fairly bumpy first eight months following the premature arrival of our daughter, but there was huge enthusiasm for the perfect day as a little team. The build-up had been intense; the shopping began in August, the decorations came out in October and most of December was spent wrapping. Even flicking through those photos in the attic a couple of weeks ago, the half-a-dozen images of our sleeping daughter with her stocking presents at the end of the cot, still generated a warm glow. A precious moment in time, literally.
For there is nothing quite like a teething baby suffering from chronic reflux to shatter the peace and anticipation of ‘the night before Christmas’. Far from ‘not a creature was stirring’, the whole house was up at regular intervals due to the poor child’s screaming. The whisky and mince pies left out for St Nicholas were drained and devoured several times over.
With snow lying all around, Christmas Day was spent with our little cherub sitting forlornly in a cardboard box, tearing up tissue paper and sucking on a cold spoon. And although everyone gathered round and wanted so much for her to enjoy it, it was hard not to feel a little bit like a fire blanket had been thrown over the festive spirit.
Which unfortunately made it the second year in succession that my wife’s Christmas lights had fused on the big day. As I kept flicking through the photos, it was hard not to grimace as I came to the bundle of our first Noel as a married couple. One shot of my wife’s utter disappointment captured the whole holiday.
To be honest, I had panicked on Christmas Eve when I suddenly realised that stockings were now part of the marital contract. With only a couple of hours to go, I had rushed to Homebase as a last resort and had left with two fire extinguishers and an emergency escape ladder to wrap and pop down the chimney that night. Nothing, I thought, could better demonstrate my love for my wife than protecting her in event of a house blaze.
On reflection, I am happy to admit that, as early love tokens go, these were not perhaps of the ‘orthodox’ variety. But it is worth factoring in that her initial despair turned to delight when she realised the strength of the story, and for a week or two it became her opening gambit to every phone conversation.
“Awww, so tell me, how was your first Christmas together?”
“Well, have you heard the version that goes: ‘On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me three health and safety devices?”
And she’d probably still have it as an argument fall-back, were it not for the fact that not four days into the new year she managed to set the kitchen on fire. As the flames leaped from the oven and she screamed in desperation, I was happy to let the house burn in order to savour the moment. It is important to keep cool in an emergency, and I took control of the situation by nonchalantly swinging on my stool and calmly telling her to locate and deploy her Christmas present. I’m not sure what irritated her more in the foam-filled aftermath; the present itself or the fact that she’d actually had to use it.
There is a small dash of irony here, too, in that my earliest Christmas memory centres on a requirement for the emergency services at the Nativity scene in the local church. No older than four or five, and transfixed by an orange with sweets and a candle stuck in it, I managed to set my hair on fire at the Christingle service – the ‘light of the world’ spreading rapidly across my flaming fringe. For a week afterwards I was followed by a burnt odour and to this day I carry that cribside humiliation. Why is there never a risk assessment when you actually need one?
The point is this: young or old, all that Christmas excitement can often go up in smoke. Which brings us to this year. With our girl now four and her brother just turned two, this should be the Christmas when everything clicks. Certainly, there is no doubting the kids’ feverish excitement, the flames of which we’ve fanned since July with the ‘Father Christmas, good behaviour’ bribery game. Despite the lack of traction,it is certainly ramping up their anticipation for 25 December.
And why not? This time I am determined to avoid a Christmas disappointment. I’m up for as much noise and chaos as 24 hours can offer. Give me a 4am start with shrieks and screams of joy, I’ll take mass E numbers for breakfast, lunch and dinner and I want carols, crackers and Quality Street at every turn. This Christmas we are cooking on gas mark nine and creating an explosion of memories for the children.
I am just hoping they will be happy with presents from the floorboard department of B&Q.
For the original feature, and lots more, see the Nov/Dec issue of Baby London. Out now.