The Christmas dinner, lovingly prepared by my mother-in-law, looked delicious – turkey, sprouts, parsnips, chestnut stuffing and roast potatoes. There was just one thing puzzling me. What the hell was that soggy beige sauce on the side of my plate?
“What is it?” I mouthed at my husband, who was sitting on the other side of the table.
Yes, it was bread sauce. But my mum never served it at Christmas and if its bland taste and congealed texture are anything to go by I don’t intend to either. I’m still astonished that so many people go into rhapsodies about it.
The bread sauce debate is a perfect example of the Christmas minefield – a situation that’s magnified a million times over when you find yourself saddled with your partner’s Christmas traditions, many of which seem puzzling at best and deeply annoying at worst.
When I spent my first Christmas with my in-laws I was stunned to discover that they always watched the Queen’s Speech, ate Christmas dinner in the evening and dressed up to the nines.
My husband was taken aback by the way my parents poured everyone their first glass of champagne at 11am, that my mum played her Christmas carols tape from dawn till dusk (he can’t stand carols) and that the highlight of our day was lighting a chocolate bomb that shot sugared almonds and tiny presents across the table. An outdoor fanatic, he approved of our country stroll after Christmas lunch but hated the fact that we never set off until 3.30pm and usually did most of the walk in the dark. One year we got hopelessly lost somewhere in the depths of the Dorset countryside and didn’t get back until six pm, freezing cold, bedraggled and very sorry for ourselves.
The thing is, no matter how happy you are for the rest of the year the differences are amplified at Christmas. In our house we can’t even agree when and where to open our presents. My husband’s family always put theirs under the Christmas tree, with my father-in-law in charge of distributing everything. In my family we each have our own chair (to be honest, a corner of the sofa), with individual piles of presents. My husband reckons this is downright bizarre.
Then there’s the question of what to do with the Christmas cards. My in-laws hung them on red ribbons or propped them on the mantelpiece but if I cackhandedly try the ribbon thing it looks awful. So, much to my husband’s bewilderment, I opt for my mum’s tried and tested solution. It’s quick, easy and doesn’t involve any creative flair whatsoever. I get a large bowl out of the kitchen cupboard, plonk it in the middle of the table and chuck the cards in. Simple!
We don’t see eye to eye about on when to decorate the Christmas tree either. Or when to take it down. My family always put ours up early and took it down early while my husband’s family believed in waiting till Christmas Eve and then left it up until Twelfth Night. I don’t get quite as fed up with the Christmas tree as my mum though. By Boxing Day she was so bored of the damn thing that she used to dismantle it at dawn, baubles, stars, fairy and all.
But if the rest of us have trouble getting used to our in-laws’ Christmas traditions, spare a thought for people who marry into the royal family.
The royals are even more set in their festive ways than the rest of us. For a start, they open their presents, most of them inexpensive and jokey, on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day starts with a church service, lunch is served by footmen in scarlet livery and everyone watches the Queen’s Christmas broadcast. Then there’s a bracing walk, a film, games or charades and a cold buffet at about 8pm.
Perhaps the best way to keep Christmas happy and harmonious is to ditch the old family customs and set about creating your own traditions.
Mind you, that can prove disastrous too. A few years ago my film buff son announced that our new family tradition should be to watch a film together on Christmas Night. He promptly produced a DVD he’d been given and we all piled on to the sofa together. Oh dear. The film was The Road, the tale of a father and son’s post-apocalyptic journey across a desolate America – an undeniably brilliant movie but the most depressing film I have ever seen in my life. One by one we couldn’t take any more of it, made our apologies and left. The whole family was tucked up in bed by 10pm and our new Christmas tradition hit the dust before it had barely even begun.