banish the ghost of christmas farce

Who will go to whose parents? Whose ex will be in the guest room with whose boyfriend? Christmas can be a minefield - unless you do it your way. Helen Chappell reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
if your idea of a perfect family Christmas is dressing up in drag, sitting up all night playing poker or visiting your local sauna salon mob-handed, then Marilyn and Tony have the celebration for you. Forget snoozing peacefully in front of Des O'Connor or heckling the Queen on television. There is no time for couch potatoes or people whose most energetic pastime is prodding the family hamster with a swizzle stick. When Marilyn Mackley and Tony Barrett throw a yuletide party it stays thrown. Bored to tears by the conventional British Christmas, dazed and confused by the complexity of their own Nineties-style stepfamily, here are parents who have decided to do their own festive thing.

First of all, they refuse to celebrate at all when everyone else is doing it. "If you do everything on Christmas and Boxing Day when you're supposed to, you feel like it's being imposed on you by the media and by everyone who's trying to sell you something," says Tony. "What's nice about moving Christmas around to, say, 28 or 29 December is that we feel it's ours again and what we do is totally up to us." Although Tony, 45, a manager with BT, seems an unlikely rebel, he is adamant about the need for a social revolution in modern celebrations. So is Marilyn. "We decided to opt out of Christmas and Boxing Day completely," she says. "With two ex-spouses and their new families, six teenage children and stepchildren living all over the country to juggle with, an 'ordinary' family Christmas was impossible for us anyway."

In the brave new world of divorce, multiple stepfamilies, single parents and one-person households, she and Tony see a crying need for new answers to problems such as old-fashioned family festivals.

Their cunning plan to subvert the holiday season involves not only ignoring Christmas Day (they send all the children off to their other parents and doss about drinking champagne on their own), but also replacing it a few days later with something much more exciting. "When we started doing this six years ago we asked the children to suggest a name for it and my daughter Lucy came up with Mockmas," says Marilyn, 42. "So that was the first step. Then we decided to have a theme every year and send out invitations telling everyone exactly what we will be doing and when. One year it was an Italian theme and this year it will be the Royal Family. Everyone knows they will have to put on a costume and perform a party piece."

Marilyn's teenage daughter Lucy is enthusiastic about her alternative family knees-up, not least because it lasts for three days with up to 20 revellers including all the (returned) children, in-laws and friends who can be crammed into the family's Ipswich farmhouse. "On Christmas Day when I'm at my Dad's place we go to church and play with our presents and the usual sort of thing," Lucy reports. "But at Mockmas with Mum and Tony there's always something different going on. Last year was the best. Every time you did something good like the washing-up you got a toy roulette chip. Then we all stayed up all night playing poker with them until 2.30am. Me and my stepsister Helen were up against Tony's sister's boyfriend. In the end he won the prize - a set of lottery tickets."

Other Mockmas stunts which have gone down in family history include Tony's drag debut as Mrs Doubtfire for the year when the theme was film titles, the afternoon when everyone female decamped to the local health club sauna and the year when Lucy, 14, and stepsister Helen (Tony's daughter), 16, performed a dazzling magical act involving a cardboard box and the family's pet guinea-pig. "What I like about it is you can do whatever you want, join in or do something you like better," says Helen. "If they're bored with Christmas, everyone ought to try something new."

It's an innocent statement with which arts adminstrator Jill Fuller and her live-in partner Linda Baldwin would warmly agree. As a gay couple, they are more aware than most of the lingering social pressure to celebrate a conventional family Christmas. But they have no intention of bowing to such stale social repression. This year Jill, 33, will be spending a cool yule with publishing executive Linda, 52, and Jill's old college chum Kate. The three of them have rented a clapboard house together for the holiday week, perched on the beach at Whitstable, Kent. "We all felt that it was important to be by the sea," says Jill. "I think it's a muddy, Thames estuary sort of beach, but I'm not sure. Anyway, I doubt we'll plunge in and go bathing on Christmas Day. But we'll certainly have a paddle." Determined to be as laid-back and unfestive as possible, they will have no television, no Christmas tree and no turkey.

"It's better not to have any hard and fast plans for our holiday," says Linda. "The looser it is, the better. We might have a stroll if the weather is nice. There are supposed to be wonderful sunsets down there; we don't get them in Watford. I expect we'll end up lurching from one meal to the next, braced with a lot of red wine." How do their families and friends feel about their great festive escape? "I think Linda's sister-in-law would like to stow away with us in a suitcase," says Jill. "A lot of people tell us they are dying to do the same thing. Why don't they? I think it's because the religious sense of Christmas has gone and it's been replaced by the idea that it has got to be a family affair. You hear it all the time but I don't believe in it." Why shouldn't households without children have fun too? Isn't it a celebration for everyone? "There's a lot of false selflessness around, adults brainwashed into saying that they're only doing it for the kiddies while hiding their own expectations. We don't have children so we don't feel guilty about doing our own thing."

It's not as if Jill is a Scrooge or she and Linda don't get on with their families. But while grown-up offspring may feel relieved to escape ancient social obligations, an alternative Christmas may also prove a happy release for parents and in-laws. Jill's father is in his eighties and has long preferred to spend the holiday with friends of his own age. Jill and Linda have stayed with Linda's brother and family in past years, but everyone now finds it hard going, much as they like each other. "We are luckier than some of our gay friends," says Jill, "who are still being forced to go back into the shadow of 'normality' and pretend to be heterosexual every Christmas, just to please their families. Linda and I are lucky - we have a lot more freedom to have our own style of fun because we are both 'out' and accepted by everyone we know."

It is not just gay adults, of course, who may find themselves reverting to childhood to spend the festive season with their families or aged parents. Contented singles of any sexual persuasion may find themselves playing happy families in a domestic timewarp. Single parents may feel obliged to let their elderly parents celebrate with the grandchildren - especially when they have been employed as unpaid childminders during the rest of the year. Fortunately for single father Stephen Page, his 10-year-old son is now past the baby-sitting stage. "Matthew is incredibly self-reliant," says Stephen. "Maybe too much so, I don't know. But he's great company for me and as much of a friend as a son." Stephen believes he, too, has found a Nineties answer to the problem of yuletide. His brave new family Christmas is adventurous stuff.

"A couple of years ago Matthew and I decided to leave the rest of the country to it. We wanted to escape all the hassle and travel somewhere as dramatic as possible." This Christmas will see them aboard a cruise ship drifting past giant glaciers in the Antarctic. "I want to see the penguins," says Matthew. Stephen is particularly looking forward to seeing Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world.

Matthew is less excited by the prospect of shipboard lectures on the region's ornithology, botany and geology, but can't wait to step on shore to see the penguin rookeries and towering cliffs of ice. It sounds dangerous, but not as dangerous as the trip might be for his father. "Last Christmas we had a cruise down the Nile," he recalls, "and I became a bit of a target for the single ladies on board. There were a lot of elderly and widows and, at 38, I must have seemed a bit of a toyboy." When not fighting off the attentions of blue-rinsed matrons on the dance floor, he found himself accosted in the Jacuzzi or goosed in the casino. "Hopefully things will be a bit cooler this year," he jokes. "At any rate we shall be escaping from the family minefield of who goes to which parent and whose ex-wife stays in the guest bedroom with whose boyfriend. There'll be none of that neurotic build-up, tension and panic. In fact, I think we've definitely cracked it."

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