It starts, every year, about October time – the pained looks of friends as they ask what we are doing at Christmas and reveal they are not spending it as they would really like to. Either because they will be travelling to places they don’t want to go to, or having people over whom they don’t really want. What would you like to do? I ask. “Stay at home. Just us,” they reply. I know Christmas is a time for sharing and hospitality. But not at my house; at least, not for the event itself. At my house, come Christmas Eve, we pull up the drawbridge and it stays shut until well after Boxing Day. Just the four of us inside: my partner, our two children, and me.
It is a tradition that started when I was a child. My parents are from Italy, and as we had very little family here in the UK, we made do with just us. Also, my parents had their own business running a cafe and, with rare exceptions, they worked 363 days a year, taking only Christmas Day and Boxing Day off. They were exhausted. Why would they want to spend Christmas Day travelling or entertaining even more people? And why would we want to dilute our precious one-on-one time with them? We didn’t.
For 48 wonderful hours it was just the four of us, even though my father was asleep on the sofa for most of that time. We would eat a big Christmas lunch, followed by chocolate chestnut pudding, the chestnuts foraged by our father from the local park. We had our traditions and routine and I found it comforting. The fragile glass baubles that I would ping as the Queen’s Christmas speech came on; the chocolate decorations from the 1960s that were still enshrined in foil, uneaten, no longer mere chocolate now, but legacies. When I look back at those Christmases, I see a joyous stillness, not punctuated by frenetic travelling or entertaining. Just us.
We would, very occasionally, travel from our house in central London by taxi – the one time of the year my parents permitted themselves to take one – to my aunt and uncle’s flat within Clerkenwell Court, where my uncle was a court keeper. There, my sister and I would run around the vast, empty courts, with our cousin, holding our own murder trials. It was fun but, when we returned home, it felt like Christmas was over and we had missed it because it had happened somewhere else. It took time to fill our house again with noise and colour and by the time we had reclaimed it, real life had seeped in once more, and Christmas had gone.
It wasn’t always like this. Before we had children, my partner and I would divide to be with our respective families come Christmas morning, leave our adult selves at the door and step back into childhood traditions.
And then, 11 years ago, we had our first child a few months before Christmas and it felt time for something different. We didn’t want to make a Solomonic decision about who would take the baby (although I would have won, as I was breastfeeding), and it seemed too early in our fragile, sleep-deprived parenting journey to have people over. So we didn’t. We stayed at home, just the three of us. And our own tradition was born, and it was bliss.
Since then, I have instigated a new rule at Christmas: we don’t travel and we don’t have guests. This makes me sound awful doesn’t it? (Before you wonder, my partner is in full agreement, but if anyone asks, it is his hot-headed Italian partner who makes this rule.) But the practical reality is that we are both self-employed, so if we don’t work, we don’t earn and if work comes in we feel we can’t say no. We have no holiday pay, no sick pay and the last time we took off more than three consecutive days, outside of Yuletide, was more than 10 years ago.
But at Christmas, it is different. The whole world shuts down and our phones don’t ring. We don’t have to turn down work, because it is not offered. We can legitimately take one, maybe even nearly two guilt-free weeks off (I do my Family columns in advance). And we go to ground.
Come Christmas Eve, we come home, close the gate behind us (think the Godfather compound), shut the door, stoke the fire, push all the sofas together and lock out the world. We have our own family traditions and they are important to us and to our children. The routine is comforting, stabilising and not transportable.
We eat, we talk, we play games, we do puzzles. We watch what we like, we eat what we want – some days, we spend the whole day in pyjamas. The phone rings, a lot, as I speak to family in Italy and London (I live in the country now), but then the phone gets put down and it is, again, just us. I like that the door won’t buzz, that I won’t have to open it to anyone and be sociable, that nothing will puncture our little Christmas bubble and that I can fold my family in on itself for just a few days.
My parents, fortunately, are not only completely understanding of this, but encouraged this. They think it is important we start our own Christmas tradition with our children, for as long as they will want to have it with us (I spent Christmas with my folks until I was well into my 30s). Because they worked so hard themselves, my parents understand about wanting – needing – to take time out, and they have never made me feel guilty. Anyway, the chances are they would have seen me a few days before Christmas and know they will see me very soon after. I see my family a lot. I speak to my parents every day, out of choice. We run a busy and gregarious household, we entertain, just possibly, more than Martha Stewart. We just don’t do any of this at Christmas. That is what makes it special.
I know people – kinder, nicer people than me – who travel miles, have lots of people over, and spend loads, either packing up on Christmas morning to drive somewhere or opening the door to guests who infiltrate and expect to be waited on. This is, of course, absolutely fine if that’s what people want to do. But some don’t yet feel they should and dread Christmas from late summer onwards. This seems a shame.
The only tiny piece of advice I will give is, if you don’t want to spend your Christmas going to someone’s house or having people over, then say so early so they can plan something else. Don’t leave it until December. Don’t be mean, but don’t martyr yourself either.
No matter how much you like them, if you invite people round for Christmas, you will be waiting on them. Who needs another cup of tea? Is everyone all right? Is it OK for me to undo my waistband yet? And what about the naps? Who can nap when you have guests round? And you will be judged for eating 12 Bendicks Bittermints in a row. And if you go round to someone else’s house, no matter how well you know them, let’s face it, you cannot take over their whole sofa or ask for dinner at 6pm because your blood sugar levels are so screwed up that you are hungry again. You have to behave. At Christmas, I want to press pause and I want to be me in its most selfish, lazy form.
Isn’t the whole point of Christmas (you know, other than Jesus’s birthday) not to work? Plus, there is all this pressure on Christmas Day itself, as if that is the only day you can see friends and family. What about the days around it? There are acres of time before, but especially after. If you pack all the fun stuff into Christmas time, January can seem awfully lean with nothing to look forward to.
Naturally, if any member of the family or a friend were to find themselves alone, or in need, I would welcome them. Perhaps even more genuinely because we have had so long to do our own thing. I know that my children will one day fly, micro-chipped with a homing device, into the outside world and it will be just the two of us again. I’m ready for this. Well, of course, I’m not, but I’ll be generous, just as my parents have been, in letting them make their own traditions and their own Christmas. At least, that’s the theory.
After four or five days of our self-imposed exile, we are thoroughly sick of each other, our bellies distended, our palettes jaded and we are frantically texting the outside world to see who still exists in the Christmas hinterland beyond. But for those few days, let me tell you, it is wonderful. Try it.
This article was first published in the Guardian Family section on 22 December 2014.