What does a “normal family Christmas” look like to you? Digital writer Hollie Richardson explains why it’s so important to remember that, actually, there’s no such thing.
Buried deep inside a box somewhere in my mum’s house, there is a home video that plays my third Christmas in black-and-white silent motion. I haven’t watched it in years, but I’ve mentally recorded the scenes. They show me racing between the rooms of my first family home, filled with excited cousins, chatty aunts and exhausted uncles gorging on the buffet spread.
I pull a face at my dad, I show off my toys, I tug at my pretty party dress. Everyone looks festive, happy and a jolly level of drunk (apart from the kids, who are instead high on selection-box sugar).
For a very long time, I considered this to be what a “normal Christmas” looks like. Bring the clips to life again in technicolour, add some witty dialogue and a soundtrack of festive tunes – it could almost pass as a working-class version of a Richard Curtis Christmas film.
But our Christmases today tell a different story.
Since my parents’ separation when I was five, I have spent Christmas in 13 different houses. We’ve lost contact with many relatives. Money has been very tight. I’m sure that other grownup children of divorce out there will know exactly what I mean when I say that the financial and emotional strains of a single-parent Christmas are forever palpable.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always enjoyed a wonderful Christmas, thanks to a great mum who still insists that Santa is real (if we would just choose to believe!). But there were things I thought I missed about those first few festivities – even if my only memories of them were taken from an old showreel.
That’s because they resembled the perfect Christmases that are sold to us in films, books, music videos and TV specials. The family home full of happy people, slightly inebriated relatives on the doorstep with bags of gifts in tow, brisk Christmas morning walks, shareable feasts and jokes cracked over Advokaat snowballs. These are the things that normal families do at Christmas, right? I mean, just look at Taylor Swift’s Christmas Tree Farm music video for confirmation of this.
So it’s little wonder that, if your family doesn’t tick all these boxes and look like a Christmas card drawing, it can feel like you’re “not doing Christmas right”.
And that’s how I used to feel, especially as a teenager. We couldn’t have been a normal family because we were a dad down. The fact that we replaced family get-togethers with barricading ourselves in with Quality Street, Baileys and Harry Potter marathons must have meant we were a bit weird and reclusive. And why did I need to spend Christmas at a different rented house every other year, when all my friends went home to the houses they spent all their childhood Christmases in?
I’d be lying if I said I don’t still often feel a pang of jealousy when friends talk about their big family traditions that are straight out of a Hallmark film or Charles Dickens novel. Like my flatmate who reads a Christmas poem to her family before they all head out for a walk on the nearby beach with the dog. And my best pal who visits her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in Wales for a three-day homemade feast and outings along the coast. I even have a pal whose family splits into teams to decorate moose heads in a bid to win the Moose Christmas Cup (don’t ask).
But what I’ve finally learned is this: there is no such thing as a normal family Christmas. I’ve stopped wondering what Christmas would be like if my parents were still together. And if we all still lived in my childhood home. Or if all my aunts, uncles and cousins still kept in contact.
Instead, I embrace the small, weird and often non-descript things that make our Christmases ours.
I sit back and watch all the soaps, still wearing my Christmas cracker hat and annoying everyone with questions like: “Has Max Branning always been strangely hot?”.
I marvel at my mum’s ability to include foods of literally every shade of beige in her very 70s-inspired Boxing Day buffet (think mini quiches, sausage rolls and vol-au-vents).
I play Doctor Who quizzes with my nerd brother despite knowing nothing about Doctor Who, because he can’t exactly play them on his own.
I watch Only Fools and Horses Christmas special episodes with my other brother who, last year, received the Del Boy dressing gown he asked for.
I scroll on Instagram and scoff at the engagement announcements, while my younger, much less bitter sister rolls her eyes at me.
And the one aunt who does stay in touch might visit for a few hours with her dog (and a few bottles of wine, of course).
I might attempt Park Run (which I unexpectedly did one year), but I’ll feel equally triumphant if I just stay in my PJs until it’s time for bed again.
This year will be our 14th Christmas in a different rented house. We’ll all chip in the cash to make sure there’s enough festive food in the fridge. And there will no doubt be arguments. But – at a time when food banks are bracing for a record high demand this Christmas, and homelessness is at crisis point – I now know how lucky we are to simply be together under a roof. I’ve finally learned that that’s what home means.
It might not sound like the stuff that sugarplum fairy dreams are made of, complete with carolling around a piano, gorging on Waitrose Magazine-worthy feasts and unique traditions.
But it’s our Christmas, and the only real festive film I want to be a part of.