When I was little, we lived in a pretty nice area of Tauranga, New Zealand (shut up, yes, there is such a thing). Our area was comprised of subdivisions full of snobby middle-class people, all sure to stress the second half of the suburb. “Yes, I am from Cambridge HEIGHTS. HEIGHTS. Oh, we have a decent acre of land, a double garage, a microwave, but it’s really no big deal. Please, please, there is no need to avert your gaze.”
The letterboxes in our street were either white or wooden, adorned with the fancy numbers. You know the sort, the gold or brass ones, the ones you need to screw in, definitely not the stick-on kind. Folks may have had personalities inside their homes, but on the outside? No. The outsides were kept uniform. Tidy. Orderly. Vaguely, um, Germanic, if you catch my drift.
After a few years, a new family moved in down the street, in a house that was set back from the road. Obviously missing the pattern laid down by their double-denim-clad neighbours, they installed a sickly-yellow-green letterbox. Against the white and wooden parade this was garish and ugly, a horrifying pimple on our street’s perfect face. To express our discomfort with the bile-toned box, my family would make vomit noises every time we drove past, punctuating our retching with emphatic hand gestures to show the path that our upchuck would take. Splash on the back of the seat. Slosh out the window. Oops, ha ha, there’s some on Mum’s head.
This was my first taste of tradition, and I loved it.
For years I tried to force traditions to catch on, a practice that makes everyone feel slightly affronted and thus uncooperative. I found that my parents were more agreeable around the holidays, as they were filled with an overwhelming sense of fatigue.
I managed to get a Christmas Eve reading of The Night Before Christmas to stick, my poor mother shuffling up the stairs to my room to sleepily read aloud every year, even though I don’t think anyone actually enjoyed it. I mean, it starts off great, everyone’s pumped for that first verse. I didn’t know what a sugarplum WAS, but it definitely piqued my interest, as did the slumbering mice. But after that it’s all downhill, petering off into an absurd fantasy. I don’t think it helped that Mum’s delivery was tinged with the weariness of knowing she’s going to have to get up at 4am to put stockings out and then let some fictional bearded bastard take all the credit.
When I was a teenager I saw It’s a Wonderful Life, deciding before it had even begun that it would be a perfect Christmas tradition. I felt a strong sense of nostalgia for phrases like “hot dog!”, wind-up telephones and small towns – a strange emotion, given that these were things I’d never really experienced. Looking back, I am almost positive that the nostalgia was actually just a mutation of a strangely intense sexual crush on Jimmy Stewart, an emotion my mother and stepfather did not share, as they would consistently manage to find excuses to avoid the TV. Sitting alone in the lounge weeping at the Baileys singing Auld Lang Syne – it was a tradition, sure, but probably not one I should take pride in.
A few years ago I packed three Christmas movies in my luggage to watch with my Dad & stepmother, figuring that one would catch on. They politely sat through – and promptly fell asleep in – It’s a Wonderful Life, leading me to finally retire it from family viewing. The next night I made what some might consider a slight error in judgement… given that my father’s favourite tradition is to hold hands when giving thanks to Our Lord before dinner, I probably should have reconsidered the recommendation of Bad Santa. Then again, sitting between my parents, watching Billy Bob Thornton have sex with Lorelai Gilmore in a car while she screams “fuck me Santa” – these are memories you can’t pay for.
The next night I redeemed myself with Love Actually, and now every year I get thanked for introducing them to it. If you’ve ever watched this movie with your family your traditions are probably the same as mine – chortle at Hugh Grant dancing, titter at Colin Firth attempting to speak Portuguese, and sit rigidly and unblinking during all of the simulated sex scenes. Seriously, so many nipple shots in that movie. Maybe I’m overthinking (certain people in my life will not be surprised to hear this) but watching Love Actually with your family is to acknowledge that oral sex exists, and this is not something I need on Christmas.
Those who read my Fiji blogs will be unsurprised to hear there is one Christmas tradition I never had to force, and one that stuck immediately. Every year it changes slightly, but it always centres around the same two things. One, sort of media consumption. Two, a competitive eating contest: where the competitors are “myself” and “my pride”. I vividly remember the first year I did this, lying on my bed with a new Babysitter’s Club book and a box of Roses chocolates (first digging out the strawberry ones, ending with a deep stomach-expanding breath and the classic fudge). Later years had me sitting on an inflatable chair, watching the South Park musical and groaning through bowls of salted cashews.
Before Christmas this year I had been focused on two food items: declaring the two-punch combo of ham and scorched almonds to be my Christmas “goal”, to anyone who would listen. I was thrilled when Annie bought me a box of those little chocolate-enveloped-nuts, despite our multiple agreements that we wouldn’t “do” presents this year. I was then delirious with delight when my stepmother needed both hands to lift the ham from the back fridge, as the thick slices of pork had been dancing in my mind since, well… about July.
Sadly, I am not the best at quote unquote self-discipline, and I accidentally ended up overdosing on yellow-bag Doritos and bubbles while watching The Sound of Music. I woke up at 5pm, face stuck to the leather couch, Captain von Trapp’s heart now as full as my distended belly. An hour later dinner was served. I was definitely still full, but managed to fit in two more glasses of bubbles and a plate of turkey and ham and potatoes and mayo-soaked salad.
Sure, I had to arch my back to fit it all in. But I was hardly going to say no to Christmas dinner.