It’s Christmas Eve (in the morning) and I was up at 7.30am ironing pillowcases. I’ve also made homemade mincemeat, a (light) Christmas pudding, the Christmas cake and today the big cooking prep begins. Yes, the morphing into my mother is complete.
Here’s why I’m fine with that – because, despite everyone telling us (by which I mean the wealthy West, obv) to do less, to sit back, to rest, stop, take it easy – I LIKE doing.
My mother left school at 14 because there wasn’t enough money for her to have the uniform for the grammar school, at 14 she started work as an apprentice seamstress. Like my father, she worked full-time throughout my childhood, I was the youngest of seven, they had nothing to inherit from anyone, nothing to build their dreams on other than their own work, nothing to fall back on, ever. They needed to work. Both of my parents worked all of their lives, from the age of 14. They were workers, politically and emotionally.
And my mother loved Christmas. It was a few days off work, not to sit around and relax (absurdly, it seemed to me, as a child, as a teenager) but to do. To cook, to bake, to make things look nice. To miss those in another country or those who had died, to remember Christmases past. She probably worked more at Christmas than at any other time of the year. And she didn’t begrudge it. Because Christmas wasn’t about not doing, it was about doing more – doing more for and with family, doing more for the waifs and strays who regularly showed up at our door, doing more for friends who needed it, doing more for their community.
I know whose daughter I am. Like my parents, I work. I like doing. I had cancer for a second time this year and I can’t begin to count how many people asked (kindly) if maybe I was “doing too much”*. But, the thing is, I come from a long line of doers. My sisters, my brother, our parents, our wider family – we’re doers. My wife is a doer. We like doing. We like making. We’re pretty good at it. And I’d be someone else if I wasn’t doing. I make my choices about what I do. That’s the best any of us can do – make choices so that we’re doing what we feel we want to do, not what we feel obliged to do.
(* which is an odd thing to say to someone having cancer for the second time – because, you know, there’s nothing like having cancer for the second time to make us aware of mortality, of how little time there is, how very much still to do!)
This year, my mother-in-law is having her first Christmas with us. Her first ever full-on Christmas. My wife’s family are Indian Jews. They did not assimilate Christmas along with other things they picked up when they came to the UK. My mother-in-law has, of course, had Christmas dinners along the way (the ones without bacon/ham etc), but she’s never done the full, Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, Christmas Day, Boxing Day on and on of it. Her husband died this year, after almost 60 years together, and it doesn’t matter that she has never done Christmas before, she lives in the UK and here, as in much of the West, people go on and on about how “Christmas is for family” – so she’s coming to us.
Which is why we’re having what she wants for Christmas dinner (beef, trifle) and why I was up this morning ironing the pillow cases for her bed. I want her to feel comfortable. I want her to feel wanted.
For me, as for very many people (I’m thinking especially of a couple of amazing friends who work with Crisis every Christmas), ‘special’ isn’t about not doing, it’s about doing more. It’s about making more of an effort, not less. It’s about doing the extra for our loved ones – and for strangers, the world is FULL of strangers who need our care more than ever right now. There’s a heartbreaking and astonishing BBC PM Programme interview here with surgeon David Nott about his work in Syria. It’s not easy listening and I really recommend it.
We don’t do Christmas cards (I’ve written about it here), and we don’t do Midnight Mass (though it was always my most favourite time of the season when I was growing up), and we usually don’t do presents (though we appear to have gone a bit awry on that one this year, well, it is the mother-in-law’s first Christmas!), but what I’m happy to do is the spirit of the thing.
For me, that spirit is not the Jesus-in-a-manger I was brought up believing in, nor is it the faux-‘mindfulness’ that’s going around right now (the one where it’s not really mindfulness at all, it’s just another excuse to do more for oneself and less for others), it’s the spirit of this time of year – solstice, gathering in, coming together, looking forward (especially for those of us, so many, who’ve had a hard year) to a new year and new opportunities to make a difference. For some of us, that might mean doing more. Some of us like doing.
I wish you and yours a brilliant season. And, clichéd though it sounds, I REALLY wish we all remember to welcome in those who need us this season, and this year.