Terry Prone: My mother was never lighthearted about Christmas. It was an enemy

ON the face of it, I’m all set for Christmas. But not really.

Terry Prone: My mother was never lighthearted about Christmas. It was an enemy

Everything looks good on the surface, but, once you look closely, reveals itself to be just slightly off. The Christmas tree, for example, although a fine specimen of its kind, is nonetheless severely canted.

It leans heavily to one side, although I kid myself that you woudn’t know, because I spun it around, so it’s slightly leaning against the wall, which has the advantage that it can’t fall sideways or straight into the room.

All it can do is clutch the wall, and a lot of humans are going to be doing that, this season, so it ill becomes you to sneer at a poor tree. Although, now I think of it, this tree is some drinker. I have it in one of those yokes that inserts a spike up the stump, into which you can pour water and it’s drinking a full kettle a day.

I’ve been thinking of adding a handful of soluble aspirin to each drink I give it, on the basis that if dissolved NSAIDs are good for tulips, they’d be great for trees, but the jury is out on that one.

The tree is just one of the partly-concealed disasters of this Christmas. The crib has half the flex of lights underneath the cotton wool snow, which is going to make the progress of the shepherds problematic: one of the sockets is dodgy, so the flex has wandered, until it finds a more reliable one.

I could, of course, thread it under the cotton wool the Kings have to traverse, but they’re laden down, what with the gold, frankinsense and myrrh containers, whereas the shepherds just have long sticks that will keep them upright when they encounter the under-snow bumps.

The presents under the tree look like distant relatives of Irish dancers, because the only trick I have with ribbons is to pull them across the blade of a knife, so they spring into permanent ringlets.

Other than ringlets and the fact that three of the presents are wrapped in what I now realise, too late, is Hannukah paper, my gifts are visually undistinguished. I’ve never been able to do hospital corners on beds or books, so each has a lumpiness at the ends that is poorly concealed by broad ribbon.

The house is filled with the scent of cinnamon, but that’s from candles, rather than cooking, and the man in my life is giving out stink about it, saying it makes him sneeze and why would we want the house smelling like cough mixture, anyway?

I get an ‘e’ for effort on Christmas, but I’ve given up on aiming for an A. That was earmarked for my mother. In her prime, my mother did Christmas like the Allies did the second world war, combining logistics, supply chains, commands and charisma.

Effortlessly combined Eisenhower and Patton, did my mother, and you didn’t ever consider crossing her, lest you get made persona non grata and banned from helping. You knew, when it came to helping, that you would do it incorrectly, but that was part of the ritual dance that was Christmas.

Every panto needs a villain and a willing fool, and I got the role of willing fool, always hoping to get credit for something, always ending up grateful if she overlooked something I had spilled, bled into (the suet being grated for the pudding) or broken.

Because I was talkative, I would complicate my own life by making suggestions. Maybe, this year, we should put the Christmas tree in the sitting-room window? And, maybe, put balloons on it, like the Quinns down the road?

My mother would fix me with the look of resigned contempt reserved for unsatisfactory changelings and spit out the phrase “Vulgar display.”

If I thought we should be keeping up with the Joneses (or, in this case, the Quinns), it was made clear to me that the real danger the Jones/Quinns posed was that, if my mother didn’t hold true to her mission, they might drag us down to their level.

Not only would we have balloons on a window-located tree, but we might even sink so low as to have a Merry Xmas light-traced sign on the front door, than which, in my mother’s view, nothing could be worse.

Her entire life was devoted to exceeding her own standards. It wasn’t that she was uncompetitive with other people, it was that she regarded Christmas as a duel with an unarmed opponent: nobody in the world knew how to do it the way she did.

She could outdo everybody in everything, including anxiety, when it came to clutching the ladder as my father went up to the trapdoor in the toilet ceiling that led to the attic.

A tutorial on every rung, she gave him, lecturing him, at a distance, once he had disappeared into the rectangular black void, where the random flashes of his torch convinced her he was searching in the wrong places for the stored decorations.

When he would tersely invite her to come up the ladder herself, if she was that unhappy with the way he was doing it, she would do that tiny side-to-side head tremor, indicating to me and my sister how demonstrably unreasonable was my father.

I would collude with this in silence, while my sister would get red in the face at such betrayal and stump off, only to be told ‘get right back here, Miss and take the package your father’s ready to hand down’. Which, of course, he wasn’t.

He would spend ages shuffling up there, occasionally causing a heavy bang that put the heart crossways in my mother, provoking her into giving more back-seat-driver advice about not standing between the beams. “He KNOWS that,” my siser would hiss. “Well, of course he does, because he did it and came through the ceiling in the bedroom four years ago,” my mother would say.

It was like a mad version of those “rounds” songs we had to sing in school: row, row, row your boat, gently up the beam...

Then, out of the dark above, would come a huge light carton my sister would take, scrunching her eyes against the dust it dislodged in its descent. My mother would say “careful,” like this was a critical task being undertaken in a nuclear power station.

When all the packages were on the floor of the room, where it was planned that the tree would occupy a discreet corner, the Christmas-light nightmare would begin.

YOU may believe the internet to be the most significant technological advance of the last half-century, but you are wrong. In terms of familial happiness, the most important is the Christmas-light set, where the dud can go on strike on its own, without bringing all its comrades out with it.

Psychologists talk of the importance of living in ‘the now,’ but, once you pass a certain age — I wasn’t paying attention, so I can’t tell you precisely when that age is — Christmas is like my tree. It lives brightly in the present, but leans contentedly on the past.

I get an ‘e’ for effort on Christmas, but I’ve given up on aiming for an A. That was for my mother

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