Like families the world over, I suspect, we have heaved a collective sigh of relief this week as routines re-established themselves, the boys went back to school, and we went back to work. The tree and the lights came down, the decorations were carefully packed away (and carefully stored in the one place we won’t remember to look next year) and we finished all the fattening snacks and drinks in the cupboards and promised ourselves that we would start eating a little more sensibly.
It had been our first Christmas on our own – just the four of us, plus the cats – for many years, and while we would all have liked to be able to spend some time with family, we also were glad to be able to relax and do things at our own pace, barely moving from the sofa if we felt like it on some days. It has, after all, been a busy year.
Most things about Christmas and the New Year were, of course, just as they are anywhere we have lived – we eat too much, the boys get spoiled by their auntie, and the toy they play with incessantly is the one you picked up at the last minute for next to nothing while the big expensive presents get pushed to one side. It was ever thus.
But there are differences, too. I am sure that I remember having a white Christmas or two when growing up, but never on this scale. We didn’t actually have a snowfall on Christmas Day, but there was more than enough of the white stuff lying on the ground to qualify. The boys are actually finding it quite hard to remember what the garden looked like in the summer, but it does set off the lights and decorations very nicely.
It also provided enough ground cover that we were able to go on a proper sleigh ride on Christmas Eve. For all I know, it is commonplace around here, but the sensation of being dragged over the snow behind two enormous horses while singing all the carols we could remember was quite magical. We spent the best part of an afternoon feeling like extras from Dr. Zhivago, gliding along through the forest. It certainly beat last-minute shopping for Christmas Eve excitement. The only things missing from the whole experience were mince pies – I can’t imagine doing something like this in Britain without a huge plate of freshly-baked (or at least freshly-bought) mince pies being on offer at the end.
Mince pies, however, are pretty much unknown here. Of course, maybe I was asking for the wrong thing – mincemeat would likely translate as ground beef, and that was not what I wanted at all, but I suspect that the idea of the humble mince pie somehow never quite made it over the Atlantic. We did find Christmas crackers, although nothing like the selection and variety we had been used to – I was surprised by that, since for some reason I had thought crackers were a universal feature of the Christmas table, but perhaps not.
In recent years, we have been marvelling at the lengths people have been going to in order to decorate their homes for Christmas. Let me tell you that the Brits know nothing about this art. Last Christmas I remember thinking that the whole phenomenon of lighting one’s house had got a little out of hand, but I now see that the English are a model of restraint in this matter. Last year, we had one long string of white lights along the front of the house, and that seemed plenty to me. This year, our house had four separate sets of lights, and we were seriously underdressed.
There were houses where every straight line on the front had lights strung along it, every tree and bush in the garden groaned under the weight of multicoloured lights, and there were motorised or inflatable displays in every other front yard. There is an entire neighbourhood which is renamed ‘Candy Cane Lane’ for the duration of the holidays, and nothing I can say here can do justice to the overwhelming effect of several whole streets where every available surface has been lit up, and you fear that if you stand still for too long, someone will connect you to the mains. It sounds like it would be too much, but it’s actually quite enchanting. The budget for lights for next year may have to be looked at.
Once we had survived Christmas, we studiously avoided Boxing Week. This is no different to the post-Christmas sales in Britain, but seems to be more concentrated, and is clearly developing a name all of its own. We felt, however, that we had spent quite enough on new things during the year, and stayed at home or went sliding. Well, the boys went sliding; we took pictures of them and felt old – certainly too old for hurtling down hills of ice on flimsy pieces of plastic.
We were invited to a New Year party – I tried calling it Hogmanay, but people just gave me odd looks – by friends of friends, and it kind of summed up the whole Canadian experience so far for us; people who barely knew us extending the hand of friendship, and a room full of people we mostly didn’t know, but none of the social awkwardness we might have been used to – we met people, made friends, and the boys saw in their first New Year, albeit an oddly time-delayed one, since the whole of North America appears to watch the party in Times Square, New York, which had happened three hours earlier by our clocks.
And then we could start looking forward to 2007. Whatever else happens, it is unlikely to be a year of as much upheaval as 2006. I hope that it brings you what you wish for.