TERRY PRONE: Christmas rules are embedded in us like an ingrown toenail
Why do we go along with the portrayal of Christmas as the equivalent of General Patton’s march to relieve the siege at Bastogne?, asks Terry Prone.
GETTING Christmas right is actually dead easy. But then, almost everything is easy if you’re not setting out to prove that you are a perfectionist.
The General Patton brigade believe every aspect of Christmas has to be perfect and that if they take their attention off all of the details for even a minute, the entire thing will go to Yule in a hand-basket and people will talk of the shame visited on the family for generations to come.
This view of Christmas is largely female-driven, and always has been. It’s like one of those myths — like wearing gloves to job interviews — that survives for decades before someone goes: “What? No!”
But, whereas everybody seemed to cotton on simultaneously to the glove nonsense, only a minority ever give up on the perfectionist Christmas myth.
Partly driven by adverts showing perfectly tanned turkeys and positively glittering Brussels sprouts, the rest try to live up to the past, which is always a mistake. But, like all family mistakes, we revive and recycle them, generation after generation. Particularly when it comes to Christmas.
Our grandmothers and mothers know all the rules and as we get older, we perpetuate them with complete conviction, based on nothing in particular, other than the rules being embedded in us like an ingrown toenail.
It may be that those rules are part of our identity. Our brand. That they are what distinguish Our Family — which has taste, discretion, generosity, and is on the inside track of Doing Things Right — and Other Families, for whom you’d nearly feel sorry because not only do they do Christmas all wrong, but they’re so benighted that they don’t even know that they’re doing it all wrong.
The rules start with timing. They dictate that you don’t put up your tree before a certain date, that you have your puddings matured like shot grouse until they ripen enough for connoisseur consumption, and that the baby Jesus is kept somewhere safe so that the rest of the nativity dramatis personae end up gazing stupidly at a blank spot on the stable floor.
That’s the sheep, Joseph and Mary only. The three Kings are way out in the distance. They arrive after baby Jesus gets put in place. Not going to waste their royal time on a blank spot, those Kings.
But the timing rules are more than the ones applied to the crib. Opening presents in advance of Christmas is verboten in every decent house. I grew up hearing accounts from school pals of sneaky peeps bring taken at presents ineffectually hidden under beds.
The school pals thought they were the bee’s knees for effrontery, although I couldn’t figure but that their finding out the truth in advance of the big day put them in the position of pretending shock and awe when they did legitimate, authorised present-opening.
Our parents regarded keeping presents unopened and even unacknowledged as a cross between religion and the marshmallow test. If you were a proper Christian, you used Advent to consider the sufferings of Joseph and Mary and you wouldn’t be thinking selfishly of presents yet to come. Good Christianity required that you more or less pretended they weren’t going to happen at all, even though you knew they would unless you had been found guilty of something horrific the week before.
Although none of us knew about the marsh-mallow test at the time — this being the psychological torture inflicted on a bunch of toddlers who were individually left in a room with a marshmallow on the promise that if they didn’t eat it, they’d get two marshmallows a few minutes later — we understood that postponement of gratification was important.
We were, we told ourselves, not the kind of people who would open their presents in advance. And if we did, God would be watching. Or maybe God and Santa. (This was where religion crossed over into psychology. The manipulatively evil elf on the shelf had yet to be invented. We lived in more innocent times.)
One year, God even provided evidence of his capacity to guard presents when three local children ended up in hospital having been struck by a falling wardrobe, consequent upon them seeking to climb up the wardrobe to see the presents stashed on the top. And if you think I’m writing like a Garda report, that’s how I remember neighbouring adults telling each other about the incident. None of the three kids was permanently impaired, but it did leave me with renewed determination not to search for presents before the right time. And also with an obscure gratitude that we had built-in wardrobes that didn’t attack us.
The rules about timing, though, were minor compared with the rules about food. If we’re to be honest, here, cooking a turkey is easy. If your oven is big enough, cooking a turkey is not challenging, like cooking a soufflé. It’s not going to collapse if you open the oven door. You just stick it in there and largely forget it. That’s assuming you have obeyed the stuffing rule, which holds that it is beneath contempt to buy plastic bags of pre-seasoned stuffing in the supermarket. No. You must buy bread and let it go stale. God knows why. Maybe we’re back to hanging the grouse and maturing the pudding.
Or maybe it’s a version of the marshmallows: If you let one white pan go stale, Santa will give you two more.
Anyway, you have to stale up your white pan yourself, then grate it and your knuckles into a bowl, then combine a secrecy of herbs (that’s the collective noun, trust me), melted butter and hand-hewn pepper together only to stick it into the innards of a dead bird.
Once people are fed, all you have to do is make with the compliments, promise to wear the scarf you truly hate, because it won’t kill you, and prevent yourself saying “do you not think you could take it a bit easy?” when someone close to you loads up their wine glass like they’re expecting a drought. Don’t tell children they’re over-tired, either. And if the majority want to watch
Home Alone for the 19th time, don’t push ‘A Christmas Story’ as an alternative, because they’ll hate it. And you.
A simple Happy Christmas to you…