Gardening: Rituals and victuals

Mutinous reindeer, angel factories and tussles over meal times Anna Pavord remembers the spirit of family Christmases past
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The Independent Online

Like an actor stuck in an overlong run of a play, I used to try and vary the lines of the Christmas script. This did not go down well with the rest of the cast. "I thought we might put the angels in the sitting room this year," I said one Christmas as we were unpacking the boxes of decorations from the cupboard (always the same boxes, always the same cupboard. Even the same wrapping paper sheets of the Radio Times circa 1942).

There was a long frozen moment while a "she can't be serious" look passed between the children. "But the angels always go in the kitchen," said the youngest. And that was the end of that. Once more, the angels took up their stations on the kitchen window.

The first angel was made by the middle daughter at school when she was six. It is a silhouette cut out in black paper and filled in with different coloured tissue papers. When the light shines through, it looks like stained glass. She was so pleased with it, she set up an angel factory and produced enough to make a chequerboard over the whole window. The time before the angels, none of them can remember.

I can. It belongs to that strange period when you first get married. Buried under the thin layer of shared experience lies a far thicker layer of the lives you led before you met. At Christmas these earlier lives burst through the new thin wrapping. Two cultures clash. Should the feast be at lunchtime or at night? The presents in the morning or the afternoon? Should there be a fairy or a star at the top of the Christmas tree? At stake is your own identity.

The dichotomy is only resolved when you begin to stage your own joint Christmas productions. This seems not to happen until you have your own children. Until then, you ricochet between other people's Christmases: your parents or his, usually both in rotating order, which means you spend most of your time celebrating on some motorway or other.

The Queen's speech featured largely in my parents-in-law's Christmas, which was quite a shock to my system. In my own home in Wales, I had never heard it. We spent a good deal of Christmas day outdoors "getting up an appetite" as my mother used to say. Quite often there was snow and I would wake to the curious bright light that reflected from it on to the walls of my bedroom, more thrilling even than the weight of the stocking at the end of the bed.

There was snow the first Christmas we spent in our own home though there never has been since. It was the Christmas after the birth of our second daughter. Her arrival changed things. We were no longer two feckless adventurers racketing about with a baby in tow. We were a family. It was time to scramble the old rites, construct our own rituals. After that, we never went away at Christmas.

Despite (actually, because of) the children, the rituals have changed over the years. The changes are the natural ones that you expect as children grow up. When they were small, the feast was at lunchtime, the youngest in the high chair drawn up to the table, with the dog perched just below, ready, like an ever-open wastebin, to catch the droppings. Later, the Christmas meal shifted to the evening.

We used to go to church on Christmas morning where our children beadily compared Christmas presents with the other children in the valley. When the children got older, we started going to Salisbury Cathedral where there is a thunderously magnificent service finishing after midnight on Christmas Eve.

This created a difficulty with the stockings. By the time we got back from Salisbury (more than an hour's drive away) I was swallowing myself with yawns. The children, conversely, were souped up and wanting to party. Protocol dictated that stockings should arrive on door knobs unseen, but I couldn't stay awake that long, so the children just pretended they couldn't see them. It was a ludicrous, but meticulously observed, charade.

Stockings are an unchanging part of the ritual. The advantage of having older children is that they start to give you stockings in return and you also get a later start on Christmas morning. "It's got to be light before you open them," we used to insist when the children were small, but of course it rarely was.

That is when it is good to have grandparents in the house. "Lovely darling," you can say at five in the morning as a three-year-old blows a hooter in your face. "Go and show grandpa."

There has to be an orange, an apple and some nuts in the stocking, not because anyone is panting for them, but because there always was in my stocking at home. I used to crack the nuts by putting them under the leg of the bed and bouncing on the corner.

There was a perfectly good pair of nutcrackers in the dining room. But to get there you had to jump from the bottom stair to the mat in the hall. If your foot touched the wood in between you would be pulled forever into its whorls and seams. That was a nasty prospect to face at half past four in the morning.

The stockings are as important now to the children as they have ever been. "Why?" I asked, when we were talking about it recently. "It's the beginning of the whole thing," said the eldest. "And you wouldn't buy us presents if we didn't have stockings," said the youngest, whose mystical side is rather less developed than the practical.

All of them once believed in Father Christmas. None was traumatised when the Truth About Stockings finally emerged. They all said it added to the specialness of Christmas but somebody, somewhere, must have already written a thesis on the psychological damage inflicted by the Father Christmas figure. "St Nicholas: the New Terrorist" or somesuch.

Polemic is actually a less dangerous threat than the number of houses without chimneys. We have always lived in places well endowed in that line, but how do you field Father Christmas questions in a chimneyless flat? Perhaps new myths are being forged to fit: reindeers on roller blades, emailing Father Christmas.

The Christmas ritual that we settled into still has elements in it from both our families. From mine comes the ritual morning walk. From my husband's family comes the tradition of opening presents (apart from stockings) after lunch. And at his huge family Christmases, everyone did a turn of some kind. They sang or recited, danced or played the trumpet.

I would rather be swallowed up by the cracks between the floorboards than do a turn, so this ritual was adapted to a slightly different purpose. Each Christmas my husband wrote a play which, after the opening of the presents, he and the three children performed for the four grandparents. I was usually narrator and prompt. And baster of the turkey, a critical job.

The plots of my husband's plays often involved mutinous reindeer. Once it was about three Christmas clowns and their encounter with a grolf a starring role for my husband dressed in a goatskin rug. He gave it his all and his all proved too much for Tilly, our youngest.

As he lunged out from behind the sofa for his big scene, the script required that the Christmas clowns stand fast and see him off. But Tilly's nerve cracked and howling, she charged across the room and buried her head in my lap. Like the well-trained troupers they were, the grandparents applauded wildly. There were prizes all round and rave reviews for the writer, but nevertheless, we haven't done a Christmas play since.