There is far too little written about the tyranny children impose on Christmas. We pretend that adults set the tone, but peer at Santa’s sleigh and it’s children, desperate for excitement and stuff, who are in the driving seat.
So it has always been in our house, with the Christmas routine established almost as soon as our two girls could stand upright. The note up the chimney (or rather wedged on a ledge of the fireplace to compensate for insufficient updraft), the tree dressed with communal effort and ceremony. Lights? Check. Tinsel? Check. Foil-covered chocolates? Check. Manky cat? Got to have the manky stuffed toy cat.
He was given to us during the first recurring visit to the Father Christmas train attraction within the grounds of a great house in Essex. Even then, the cat seemed bedraggled, and so, in truth, did Father Christmas, who looked as if he’d had a liquid lunch and dived into a fist fight. But no matter, the cat, once received, came for life and not for a single Christmas. Worn, increasingly grubby, he got prime position on the tree every year. Check.
These things were laws, not guidelines. Any planned adjustment met not with opposition – for that assumes the intention was taken seriously – rather, there was a sad shrug, a joint dismissal that said: ‘Poor Mum, poor Dad. They’ve gone mad. They think they can change things. Let’s go and watch Mary Poppins again. It’s just not going to happen.”
Then came 2004, the year that it did. We have had a family tragedy, I told them, two weeks before the big day. That’s interesting, they said, looking up from the TV (Mary Poppins again). I have to fly to Jamaica. OK, they said (Mary, Bert and the children were flying over the house). Flights are tricky to get. I might be away for Christmas. Heads turned. Eyes narrowed. From the sofa, two hard stares. “But you’ll be back for Christmas Day, won’t you?”
On the page that looks like a question, but it wasn’t. It was rhetorical, the pronouncement of an expectation. As if they, aged seven and nine, were saying: “This is ridiculous and we don’t approve but we want you to know you have agency, so long as you understand there are parameters.” There was a silence, and I found myself saying that of course, I would be back home in London for Christmas Day. They returned to their agenda (Chim chiminey, Chim chiminey, Chim chim cher-ee!). I went off to find a last-minute pre-Christmas flight.
In the years before any of this, before notes to Santa, manky cats, Mary Poppins and hard stares from children, I had been mildly diverted by a Steve Martin/John Candy screwball comedy called Planes, Trains and Automobiles. In this opposites-repel-and-come-together-at-the-last road movie, Steve Martin is a white-collar strait-laced executive trying against all the odds, with all his might and carrying the dead weight of the blue-collar irritant John Candy, to get home in time for Thanksgiving. They share mishaps, antagonistic episodes and at one stage, a single bed, all in the unbreakable, unshakeable quest to complete an improbable mission, at the end of which there will be turkey.
I laughed at this in a disinterested sort of way, but it wasn’t until my own commitment-pressured attempt to get home, beginning with the drive against the clock to Montego Bay airport, navigating rutted roads, dodging the death-wish taxi vans and lorries that hurtle like waltzer carriages at the funfair, that I understood why Steve’s blood vessels bulged like cartoon water pipes.
It wasn’t until I had sat for a third hour on a plastic seat looking glumly at a flight board that showed no movement – and at a desk attendant whose facial features seemed just as rigid – that I really understood why homesick Steve wanted to kill everyone stopping him from getting there, and John Candy.
My flight might be coming, it might not, she said. It was hard to know. Frankly, who knows anything? She was quite the philosopher. And what of connecting flights – via the US, via another island, via Uranus? No, she said impassively. Everything is fully booked – it’s Christmas. She wasn’t John Candy. She was worse.
Steve Martin never gave up. At one point, I gave up. I wanted to be angry, with her and the situation, with the thought of failure and the disappointment it would cause, but I couldn’t whip up the rage. I don’t do rage on tap – that levitating fury that stops the clocks – and airline lady, all cardboard demeanour and monotone replies – offered no flammable material. No friction, no fire.
But I do learn quite fast. Into the departures lounge came a group of boisterous Canadians who had attended a wedding, were ready to fly home and were totally, unquestionably unwilling to spend Christmas on a plastic chair in transit. They were mad, they were shouty, each an item of combustible material, together, a roaring conflagration. I stood close to them. Soon I was raging, too.
We are a curious species. We yearn for answers. That night, we didn’t really get one. But through the haze of rage and tears, suddenly strange things began to happen. The inscrutable flight person forgot her training, lost her game face and started yelling back – but only for a short time because soon she was replaced by a smiling colleague who said she was terribly sorry and might we like to board a flight that would take us to Kingston? And slightly bewildered, but seeing a flight to somewhere as better than a flight to nowhere, we did.
It rose, soon it descended, and as it halted at Kingston, I was tapped on the shoulder by an official pointing towards another much bigger airplane standing adjacent. A little confused, I grabbed my bag, ran across the tarmac, and boarded. I had travelled the world as a reporter, but changing planes in that way was a first.
Within 10 minutes, we were airborne, and improbably, I was on my way home.
There were things I missed that Christmas. The playing of the brash and jangly Phil Spector Christmas CD as the tree was dressed. The wrapping and labelling of the presents. The retrieval of manky cat from his box. My wife observed the law and did all that.
But I made it. I swept in to hugs and smiles late on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day was as Christmas Day always was. Chim chiminey indeed.