Fewer gifts, more heart

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Sylvie eating the wrapping on her first Christmas last year.

Christmas is coming, and I’m one of the enthusiastic ones. I love the holidays: the cosy nights, too much food and wine, spending time with loved ones. Cheesy films, mince pies, Bailey’s. I’ve had my tacky jumpers out for a fortnight already.

The history of Christmas goes back millennia, to pagan celebrations of mid-winter. Drinking, feasting and dancing on the solstice was a way to brighten the cold, dark nights of the season, and to mark an end point to the year.

A million words or more have been written about the back-story of Christmas, and the history of how a pagan celebration became a Christian one is fascinating. I would argue that we’re going back that way, that Christmas today is less about the supposed birth of a messiah as it is about coming together, giving us something on the calender to look forward to.

We have a lot of traditions in my family. When I was growing up I was given the gift of loving Christmas by my mum, whose excitement was infectious and undeniable. As an expat we couldn’t spend the day with grandparents or cousins, separated from them by thousands of miles and expensive plane tickets.

Instead, we came together with other expats, my parents’ friends who became closer to us than blood relatives. The responsibility of hosting lunch rotated between them, but everyone did their part. It was one person’s job to cook the turkey, another’s to make the starter. There was always an intricate cream-cheese almond starter, a brandy-soaked pudding, and too much cheese.

Our day started with sherry, then we went running with the Hash. A quick dip in the pool before getting dressed and ready to go out. Lunch was followed by a quiz, most often too difficult, then games and a visit from Santa (in his borrowed, tatty trainers).

Presents, which seemed to be the main focus of the day in friends’ households, were opened in the morning, gotten out of the way. We paid due respect to the thought that had gone in to each tantalisingly wrapped box, but Christmas was never really about them.

Nowadays, it is rare that I can travel back to my parents’ house for Christmas, but I try to keep some of my childhood traditions alive. Most years I’ve forced my husband and his siblings out for a tipsy run around the block, we do Secret Santa.

In the last couple of years we have started copying the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod: on Christmas Eve each person in our household (baby included) gets a new set of pyjamas, a new book, and some chocolate. We settle in next to the fire, spending time together, indulging in things that make us happy.

Most importantly, we make the effort to see as many of our friends and family as possible. Whiling away the hours over sparkling wine with our nearest and dearest is the best part of the season.

So while plenty of people out there are complaining about Christmas songs in November, or Grinching their way through other people’s joy, we refuse to take part. Our tree goes up before the end of this month and there are chocolates and bottles of wine squirrelled away in nooks and crannies throughout my cottage.

Christmas doesn’t have to mean the goddamn John Lewis advert and too much plastic. It doesn’t have to be about the waste or going into debt. It can be kept simple: focus on the time spent with your loved ones, the joy on the faces of children, and perhaps indulging in a mince pie.