Monday, December 21, 2009

Pre-Christmas Blues

In the English winter of 1865 novelist and poet Thomas Hardy wrote in his diary: ‘to insects the twelvemonth has been an epoch; to leaves a life; to tweeting birds a generation: to man a year’. I appreciate the sentiment having survived another year’s sun’s turning, as it now swings north again.

Hardy penned his words on New Year’s Eve. Midsummer Day down here in the Southern Hemispehee is a signpost towards the warmer days of summer and the fruitfulness of orchards, full of ripe cherries, apricots, nectarines peaches and plums. It is a day down the decades each year I eagerly awaited. But this December I find myself grumpy. I snap at the cat and growl at Anne, neither of whom deserve such unpleasantness.

At first I blamed the weather – dry blows sapping the garden of vitality, grey sky day after day, and little sunshine. But I realise my malaise is deeper than that, I mourn the ghosts of Christmas Past. Christmas has always been the gate to the lazy, hazy days of summer, school and university vacations, beach holidays, togs and relaxation, travel, new experiences and fresh sights. But it’s a festival in its own right, fine food, family, friends and fellowship – the giving and receiving of presents. It’s a time for stock-taking. Above all, it’s a time for youth.

As a child I put an empty pillow case at the foot of my bed. In the morning it would be full of miraculous surprises – usually a William book and lots of new clothes - Father Christmas had been down the chimney. When I learnt who Father Christmas really was I said to my mother “so you drink the sherry’. Despite there being a war on, my grandparents’ wicker clothesbasket was always full of beautifully wrapped family gifts.

When the currency changed Mum kept some old silver threepence pieces to go in the Christmas pudding. One meal my youngest brother, Bruce – Mum had three further sons by her second marriage - finished his pudding very quickly and accusingly wailed ‘you didn’t give me any threepence'. Mum responded ‘I gave you three.’ In his haste he’d swallowed the lot.

Mum’s death earlier this years means she will not be with Bruce and his wife Margaret this Christmas, the first time for ages she will not be partaking of their meal. I recall visiting Bruce and Margaret on their farm at Te Oka, one of the remote bays between Akaroa Harbour and the Canterbury Plains. Their eldest daughter Janine was just old enough to relish the unwrapping of presents. I watched Mum furtively wipe away a tear as she watched the little girl retrieve her packages from under the tree and gleefully open them. I spoke to Janine, now a mother with her own boy and girl, on the phone yesterday. Mum had also always been part of her Christmas day celebration. The three generations will this year have a barbecue in the Ashburton Domain. A very sensible change. There is something to celebrate, Janine's younger sister Jenny is home from London. My thoughts go with them. Myself, I will miss the annual ritual of ordering flowers to be delivered and ringing Mum up early on Christmas morning.

I’ve lived with Anne for thirty years. We’ve usually celebrated Christmas at home in Wellington, occasionally with her mother and sister in Auckland and once overseas in Italy at Lake Como in a hotel overlooking the lake, a very cherished memory.

For our first few Christmases Anne’s second son Patrick was very much part of the festive occasion. But then he died in an accident in Sydney when he was eighteen years old. The hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life was to tell a mother her son was dead. Certain lights went out in her that never came on again. The Christmas after that was a sad event. We had lunch that year at friend Colin’s place.

After that, Anne, Jonathan her eldest son, and I established our own Christmas rituals. For our tree he found and created decorations to garland it. He bought figures for a crib and constructed a box as a cave to place them in. Each summer we have given that crib pride of place in our living room. It's there today. But since my health collapsed we have not put up a tree.

The actual day was usually spent with friends in an evolving sort of serial meal. Late morning people would arrive with hors d’oeuvres. The ritual shelling of the peas followed for everybody except me. I would be putting on the vegetables, my own garden carrots, bought kumara and parsnips, roasting as usual in olive oil, orange juice and marsala. I’d put the ducks into the oven earlier. In the early days Colin always ordered fresh Jersey Benny potatoes from Oamaru. They're now available in the shops.

[Because in the old days cooking was done on a roasting spit, the word ‘roast’ has settled on meat baked in the oven. We bake a cake, but we roast a duck. To me the roast is still the monarch of meals. On my boyhood farm Sunday midday meal was always a roast, usually lamb but sometimes chicken or pork. At Okuti on the farm for Christmas we had goose. The annual goose kill, a frantic business of flustered wings, hissing beaks and a quick decapitation, had taken place a few days before, Dick my stepfather, dropping the birds off to local people who’d ordered them. Every stop involved a sample of Christmas cake and a cup of tea on the verandah, an annual leisurely event.

For years Anne and I had pork but we eventually settled on duck as our traditional roast. There was little waste from those two ducks. While I did the roasting on the actual day and made the gravy it was a co-operative enterprise. Anne saved the fat and used it for cooking for the rest of the year. [Mashed potato fried in a smidgen of duck fat is delicious. So are left-over roast parsnips]. She also made a terrine, using meat from the boiled-up necks, heart and liver. And the bones and carcass was boiled to make stock.

A fine hot day meant that around two o’clock, after the main course, we’d go out to the back lawn, with rugs and groundsheets for the younger ones dropping in with their partners, deck-chairs for the likes of me. One year there were eighteen people there. The year would be replayed, jokes told, anecdotes repeated, hopes and plans discussed, projects suggested, reputations analysed, and the world set right and alight. I enjoyed those days, not as patriarch or squire but as joint-host – our friends at our place. Hospitality can be one of life's great pleasures. It was great.

Mid-afternoon more friends would arrive with the day’s light dessert, usually something meringuey and creamy, studded with strawberries. We would come inside to watch the Queen’s message, for royalists an important occasion, for others an opportunity for irreverence. Anne meanwhile had put her Christmas pudding on to steam for the final course later in the evening. No threepennies. Just brandy sauce.

As the years went on and my stamina decreased we had to cut back. When my health completely collapsed we had to drastically rethink the day. My cooking days were over and it was a big burden for Anne to carry on her own. We’ve had to downsize. The first time we were here at our new place we had two couples for the main meal and Anne cooked a fillet of beef, which we had with cold salads. [A more appropriate meal for mid-summer]. Five other people came during the rest of the day, one of whom has subsequently died.

Last year we went to faithful friends Bill and Donna’s for the main meal. This year they are coming to us, fillet of beef again. Their fellowship is an important part of our lives and I greatly value and appreciate that but I miss the genial bonhomie of the larger group.

My regrets about past Christmases is a symptom of something larger – the loss of initiative, the inability to do things I once could, the deprivation of that delight from a surprise present, but above all the recognition that that cumulative experience will never be repeated. It is vanished in that vast hole called existence. Living is no longer easy. But I still vividly remember Bruce indignantly claiming he’d not been given his fair share of the silver in the pudding. At the time I was at university – the world lay before me, a glittering place to explore. They were simple days. I mourn their passing.

Having written this I felt much better. Then in the mail today was a package from cousin Sally with material about the history of the Reed family. The mother of my mother and Sally’s mother was a Reed before her marriage to our grandfather, Samuel Barclay. There are lots of nostalgic memories in the photos and accounts of the family’s activities. Sally has taken photos of the Reed graves at Little River cemetary. Her parents, my father, our shared grandparents and their spouses are all buried there. An annual pre-Christmas happening was tidying up the graves. I knew the sites well. Other families would be there engaged in the same task – it was almost a picnic atmosphere. Somehow the material gave a sense of perspective, of continuity, of acceptance, of inevitability, of peace. Which after all is one of the main messages of Christmas.

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