It wouldn’t have been a proper holiday without a frisson of worry about the travel arrangements. My parents arrived on the 23rd, propelled here faster than usual by gale force winds. On the night of their arrival we went for a festively champagne-fuelled meal at Dishoom, an Indian restaurant in Shoreditch. We brought Christmas crackers with us. (Note for American readers: this isn’t food.) We were THAT table–you know, the one playing games and filling the air with loud, merry chatter all through the time you’re trying to have a sophisticated evening out with swanky appetizers and colonial-themed cocktails. Our waiter was a good sport and put on one of the paper crowns. My father had to fit his paper crown on top of the battery-powered Christmas lights already looped around his hat. I tried to offer a spare paper crown to the next table but they weren’t having any of it. Some people just do not have the festive spirit.
When I was growing up, every year we would have an open house on Christmas Eve and invite all the people we knew. Everyone would bring a dish to share, the fireplace would be crackling away, and my mom would play Christmas carols on the piano. People would come and go as they pleased for hours, the party a constant revolving cast of festive characters. Dad often described our Christmas gatherings as Dickensian. This year we got to test the truth of that evocation when we went to the Dickens House Museum for its candlelit Christmas Eve gathering, complete with mince pies and mulled cider. (Luckily they had Bakewell tarts also, for as you already know, gentle reader, I hate mince pies with a passion unequalled by almost any other in this life.) Turns out that the Dickens family too spent their festive season in holly-decked rooms playing games, singing songs and devising impromptu pieces of parlour theatre for one another. Just how Christmas should be. (I’m not sure whether the great man himself had a festive Panama hat with Christmas lights strung around it, but I bet he would have got in the spirit of the thing if such an object had existed at the time. The people at the museum were certainly appreciative of my dad’s.)
On the way back to Wapping from the Dickens abode, Dad’s hat shone with a benevolent twinkling through the lengthening evening shadows in Gray’s Inn Road. As we walked along we spotted an unexpected glimmer coming from an alleyway behind a row of shops, like a sort of light-echo. We paused to investigate and discovered an abandoned Christmas tree in a dumpster! Still lit! On Christmas Eve!
It actually turned out to be a cardboard display stand for wrapping paper in the shape of a Christmas tree that had little blinking lights all over it. A shop had thrown it out–cast it aside mercilessly on the eve of Christmas. We thought it was a shame and a tragedy that a still-lit Christmas tree (however two-dimensional) should be laid to rest before fulfilling its festive destiny, so we pulled it out and stuck it on the street next to the bus stop, then ran away giggling.
There’s a long-running family joke about Christmas trees that eventually culminated in some close friends of ours bringing me a broken artificial Christmas tree every year. They usually found a crumpled fake tree or two lying forlorn among their neighbours’ rubbish at the end of the holidays. This became an annual tradition until the Year of Christmas Revenge: we made one of them a fully-decorated Christmas tree outfit out of cardboard, complete with lights and baubles, and paraded him up and down the sidewalk. Since nothing could ever possibly top that, we assumed the tradition had ended. Yet in the spirit of renewal that every Christmas represents, this cardboard Christmas tree was sent to us like a little winter’s miracle, reminding us of the ghosts of Christmases past and the friendships that we value through the years.