Del Hughes’ Blue Christmas: The Gasman Commeth
Look, I love Christmas as much as the next woman, and despite being, at fifty-three, old enough to know better, I still get childishly excited about the annual visit from the Big Man. Of course, I don’t believe, but sometimes, even if just for one night a year, it feels right to suspend the cynicism and simply embrace the magic.
When the neighbour’s fairy lights first flash into life in early November, or when I pass a house festooned with sparkling stalactites, garden filled with swaying snowmen, surrounding a radiant Santa in his Rudolph-drawn sleigh, I still feel that fizz of excitement and delicious anticipation of the festive delights to come.
And, despite the many stresses of the season, I still love loading the tree with old, and new, decorations, draping loose coils of sparkly ribbon and strategically placing strands of lametta, to give it that frosty look.
I love deciding what presents to buy, so I see smiles of genuine pleasure on the grandkids’ faces. . . and on Tim’s, though with him it’s nigh on impossible to gauge his true feelings, masked as they are, by (stereo)typical Yorkshire stolidity, and brevity.
The shops are rammed, everyone’s rushing, but there’s a good-humoured joy about it. People are nicer, more inclined to engage, to chat, to share a smile and resigned shoulder shrug with strangers who are queuing, mostly patiently, at the next till.
A pint of Snowball
I love wrapping presents, though I’m pretty inexpert, a bit slapdash and can never manage those razor-sharp corners my stepdad does. But I love sitting at the kitchen table with my 3-for-2 festive rolls of puddings, robins and polar bears, scissors and sellotape at the ready.
I put on my fave Christmas film, ‘Die Hard’, (and yes, it is a Christmas film) and begin cutting, sticking and labelling before filling the sacks, ready for transportation – by SUV, not sleigh – to the snowy wilds of Yorkshire.
I love Christmas Eve, donning my new pyjamas (‘cause I’ve got to look nice for Santa) and curling up on the sofa with a bag of posh crisps and tray of dips, cosy and content because we’re as ready as we can be, and all that’s left is to crack open the Quality Street and relax with a pint of Snowball. (We don’t do things by halves in this household.)
But this year, I’m just not feeling it and, in Elvis’ immortal lyrics, it’s shaping up to be ‘a blue, blue, blue Christmas.’ Sigh.
See, 2022 has seen a fair amount of relatives pop their clogs, including our beloved dog, Barney, so I suppose it’s understandable I’ve been feeling pretty low. But really, it’s because of Mum.
She died in early November ’21, so last year’s festivities, coming mere weeks after, were a low-key affair. There was no proper tree – my stepdad wanted to use the faux silver birch we’d bought for Mum’s death party – so I bought one too, threw a few baubles on both, didn’t do presents and a quiet time was had by all.
But, for some reason, this year feels way worse. I’m melancholic, got no hwyl and just can’t be bothered to bother.
Seven stages of grief
I looked up the ‘Seven Stages of Grief’ on Google and I think that, last Christmas, I was probably in a combination of Stages 1, 2 & 3: Shock, Denial and Anger. We knew she had Covid, knew that due to her existing heart issues there was a high chance of her dying, but still. . . when it actually happened, it rocked my world.
I’ve been in a daze for months, desperately seeking someone to blame, a simmering rage bubbling up on occasion, causing tears and mood swings, with poor Tim having to pick up the pieces.
But it did lead to Stage 4: Bargaining/Questioning. What if we’d tested her for Covid sooner? What if her booster jab had come a couple of weeks earlier? What if I’d been more careful when I delivered the shopping? What if? What if? Ad infinitum.
I was consumed by these thoughts, whilst also remaining steadfastly in Stage 2 – She wasn’t gone, she was on holiday, in hospital, staying with friends. And she’d be back soon.
Then, during the Autumn, Stage 5 descended, casting a black, depressive cloud over my everyday. And that’s where I am now, or rather, where I was until yesterday morning, because I think that I’ve finally moved on to Stage 6: Acceptance, and Hope.
Sounds encouraging, doesn’t it? As if I’ve finally reached the end of the heartache highway. But, by default, with acceptance comes the realisation that she’s really dead. And that’s why this Christmas is the worst ever, because, as it turns out, it was Mum who made it magical.
In Christmases past, just like everyone, we had our traditions. First was the tree, a bushy, fake six-footer that we’d excessively decorate with copious strands of tinsel and migraine-inducing flashing lights.
The ‘How many sleeps?’ countdown, the secret present wrapping, Christmas Eve’s 7am shopping trip to M&S, followed by toast and hot chocolate in The Kardomah. Then home, to spend the morning helping/hindering Mum as she prepped the veg, and Dad sorted bird, beef and gravy.
The afternoon would see me in new pyjamas, waiting to begin faux-yawning once the daylight went, my logic being the sooner I was in bed, the sooner He would come.
But it was the one night each year when my parents would deliberately keep me up late, anything to ensure that they’d manage to get a couple of hours kip before being woken by a shrieking, hefty child, with a pillowcase full of presents and giddy as a kipper.
Once, as I was drinking Mum’s ‘Special Christmas Eve Cocoa’, I found a green jelly bean (?) in the bottom of the mug. Yep, they’d thought it a good idea to try spiking it with one of Dad’s Temazepam (Street name = Green Eggs.) WTF? But the 1970s were a very different time, and these days, I’ve heard that harried parents often resort to Calpol so. . .
After sack came ‘tree presents’. Mum would always make us a cuppa and a bacon sandwich before any unwrapping, so I’d have to sit on my hands to stop myself ripping in. Waiting was an exquisite torture.
Then, I’d curl up with a new book and new favourite toy, Mum would do a quick once over with the hoover and Dad would bundle up the piles of paper.
Then the day unfolded in, what is probably, the usual way for most. Visit family/friends, home for turkey and flaming pudding, Queen’s speech, board games, dozing, picky bits, TV specials and bed. And it was always wonderful.
As time forced some of our traditions to change, Mum was still the one constant that remained. Mum, and her profligate approach to present buying. Because, when it came to Christmas, she pulled out all the stops. Big time!
Her gifts were always thoughtful, invariably extravagant, and frequently useless – she subscribed to the school of thought that presents should be something you wanted but could never justify buying for yourself. And I bloody loved them.
So, at age twenty-four, I didn’t need a sound-activated robot cat, or at twenty-six, a video player and the complete BBC series of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, or a dancing Shaun the Sheep at thirty, or a quarter-life-sized electronic pony at thirty-two, a Nile cruise at forty, or iPads for both Tim and I at forty-five, or the innumerable other silly toys and splendid presents that she’d shower us with.
And no matter my age, I was Mum’s little girl, and her gifts were guaranteed to bring out my inner child – and definitely not mark my middle-age slide into the Bayliss & Harding era, an epoch of bath salts, smellies and slippers. (Of course, I’m always grateful for any gift but, even in Covid times, a girl can have too much Grapefruit & Mandarin Hand Wash. Sigh.)
The weight of adulting
But back to yesterday when everything changed, and bizarrely, it was Hugh the Gas who was the catalyst. He’d dropped in to assess our boiler leak and as he prodded the ‘right manifold’, he happened to mention that he was on his way to watch his daughter’s nativity play. And that’s what did it.
I literally felt something fracture inside me as it suddenly dawned that I was nobody’s child anymore. In fact, I was an orphan. . . and a childless, sibling-less one at that.
And yes, I realise I’m being hugely dramatic, and I know it’s not technically true, but it does give you some sense of where my head was at right then. Plus, who’d come and watch me if I was in a nativity?
I felt alone and adrift, with the full weight of adulting squatting heavily on my shoulders, and I saw a fleeting vision of a future filled with endless responsibility, boiler breakdowns and a bathroom rendered unusable from the sheer weight of Royal Jelly hand cream and soaps in the shape of flowers. Sob.
Thankfully this maudlin phase didn’t last longer than a couple of minutes because, after the thunderbolt of acceptance, came an almost instantaneous lifting of my mood, a strange sensation of release, and my mother’s voice, echoing through the ether, with a heartening, ‘I might be dead but you’re not, so stop moping, Del, start living, get some decorations up. . . and don’t forget the Stork!’
(Top Tip: Mum’s Stork-infused roast potatoes were legends of fluffy, crispy scrumptiousness and honestly knocked Nigella’s out of the park – one year we did a blindfold taste test. So forget goose fat and go with marge.)
Maelstrom of emotions
Wow! In the space of fifteen minutes I’d experienced a maelstrom of emotions, moving from despondency to acceptance, pessimism to hope. And Mum was right – I needed to pick up her Christmas baton and run with it.
I suddenly buzzed with an energy I’d lacked all year and was more than ready to get the party started. Yippee-ki-yay mother– . . . (If you know, you know.)
Within hours, the wreath was on the front door, our silver birch was twinkling in the lounge, the garland was draped over the fireplace, (stockings of past pets hanging jauntily from its branches), and the presents for the grandkids were wrapped and sacked.
When Tim got home from work, I informed him that ‘Tonight’s the night’, seeing his face fall when I added the words, ‘. . . for the Big Shop!’, though much, much less big than previous years. (Don’t get me started on the the cost of living crisis or we’ll be here til next Christmas!)
At 9pm we braved M&S, for a small beef and ham, then popped across the road to Tesco Extra for the rest. We were home, unpacked and on our second Snowball by 11.30pm.
(Side note: Going late is definitely the way forward – especially if you have a decent sized freezer and don’t relish the cut and thrust of battle for the last tray of Brie and cranberry parcels.)
A Christmas miracle?
And now that everything’s done, I’m starting to wonder what lay at the root of my mourning breakthrough. Maybe it had something to do with the ecstatic dancing I tried a few weeks ago which was very freeing, and certainly released some pent-up emotions?
Or, if I’m being very fanciful, I might wonder if Hugh was an angel, sent by my mother, to jolt me out of my brain-fogged fugue? (And at £285 inc. VAT, for several hours labour, a couple of expensive parts and a service, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if he’s got a pair of fluffy wings folded neatly beneath his hoodie.)
Maybe it’s just a good, old-fashioned Christmas miracle? Or maybe it’s just that time truly is a great healer? Who knows? But I’m finally feeling festive and intend to enjoy this Yule as much as possible.
And, with traditions in mind, I’ve decided to instigate a new one this year, in honour of Mum. So let’s hear it for Del’s Cracking Christmas Eggnog! It’s very rich, very sweet and a tad eggy (but in a good way) and is seriously worth trying if you’ve got a dusty bottle of Captain Morgan knocking about in a cupboard.
So, for now, I’m mostly at peace with the world. Tim said he’d pay good money to see me in a nativity (as did friends, family, my stepdad and Jen). Hugh’s fixed the boiler so, when we can afford to turn it on, it’ll be more energy efficient and will actually work. And I’m snug in my pyjamas, raising an Eggnog to Mum, but also to those of us who, for whatever reason, might find this festive season a struggle.
I can’t promise things will get easier but, as tonight happens to be the Winter Solstice, I can definitely promise that the dark will stop rising and there’ll be brighter times ahead! And here’s hoping that 2023 brings happiness, cheaper bills and is kinder to us all.
Iechyd da to the return of the light!
If I’ve given you a hankering for Eggnog, here’s a link to my secret recipe –
Okay I lied, but whoever wrote the recipe and called it ‘amazingly good’ didn’t.
For a nostalgic Christmas Snowball, take a 1/2 pint tumbler, add 2 measures of Advocaat and fill to the top with full fat lemonade. Stir well. Add a tiny splash of lime juice (optional). Add at least three maraschino cherries and allow to sink to the bottom. Finish with a long straw. This is very moreish drink, and not too alcoholic. And the cherries add a slight almondy flavour which is extra yummy.
If you have gas issues (that aren’t due to Christmas over-indulgence), Hugh the Gas of Hendre Gas Services is your man. He’s a marvel.
And finally, if you’re struggling this festive season, for whatever reason, here’s an excellent website which you might find helpful. As well as tips and advice, it contains contact details for numerous charities and agencies who will be able to help you.
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