2011 has now passed. In the parlance of Royal successions, ‘Long live the New Year’! The year had its ups and downs, too many and too boring to repeat, but the finale at Hanover House (www.hanoverhouse.org) was quite a marathon, and although mostly extremely enjoyable, left us exhausted and in dire need of a holiday – notwithstanding that in theory we’d just had one.
There are some major disparities in the way that people view and conduct the ‘festive’ season, which cut right across financial, social and class boundaries. They tend to be geared to the personal circumstances of individuals and families and perhaps hark back partly to the ‘arguments’ about nature or nurture in the raising of individuals and also to the genetic or accidental creation of families. What I mean is that small families, i.e. those with a single child and with few close relatives, may in the short term reap the benefits of less expenditure during the formative and education years, but in the long term will miss out on the benefits of the close-knit extended family that many other societies cherish and which sustain them. On the other hand, there may be relatively speaking multitudes of offspring but because of character clashes or poor parenting, there can be a great deal of rancour, and unhappy relationships which lead to internicene subtle warfare or permanent exclusions and separations, interspersed with semi-compulsory gatherings accentuated by suspicion, tension and sometimes outright hostility. That’s the worst side of large families, but with good nurturing a large, close family can be incredibly beneficial, even though hard work to sustain. But then you never get anything worthwhile without putting effort into it!
This discourse brings me back to Christmas. At Hanover House this year, at its peak we had about 17 in the house including 6 children under the age of 5 – two of them having had their first birthday either side of midnight on Christmas Eve. For a few days, life was chaotic, noisy, disorganised but on the whole, great fun. Preparation, cooking, eating and clearing up seemed to take an inordinate amount of the time, as well as having to keep an eye on Houdini-like grandchildren (disappearing in the blink of an eye), last minute shopping and wholesale wrapping. To share some of the load and prevent inter-marital dispute, Veronica had envisaged a meal preparation scheme whereby couples were redistributed to prepare a major meal in conjunction with another member of the family, and this worked a treat. The food had been bought in by Veronica, who had also prepared an outline menu and the children provided the bulk of the alcohol. Those without a dinner meal to prepare, instead cooked industrial-scale breakfasts of scrambled egg, bacon, tomatoes and toast for the relays of humanity, rising at different times each morning (parents of small children up early cleaning and feeding their progeny, and singles rising slowly and langorously, as is their wont – until they get brats of their own).
As one might imagine, the dishwasher proved its weight in gold, until catastrophically on Boxing Day it gave up the ghost! A mountain of unwashed crockery, cutlery and glassware from the previous night’s feast had inundated the kitchen and so a strategic decision was made for an en-masse invasion of the Waitrose cafe, located conveniently only 200 yards away, while our invaluable handyman Lee, ordered a new dishwasher and arranged to install it that day (and over the Christmas period too!!). Many others clearly had a similar idea but we were fortunate to get in early enough to bag 4 tables which we then managed to cover in all sorts of unsuitable food (sausage and bacon burgers, milk shakes, buns etc,) and debris, but much loved by both parents and children.
Apart from the competition to produce the best-ever meals for the family over the period (scored as plus or minus following the first excellent meal which was deemed to set the standard and therefore score zero), the climax and main event, of course, was Christmas morning, during which once the youngsters had dived into the pile of presents beneath the tree, turned into a maelstrom of torn paper, presents thrust eagerly at seated adults and indiscriminate unwrapping (making some recipient and donor identification somewhat difficult).
Veronica and I had really already had our adult Christmas, with the Advent Service in Bath, the candlelit concert at Exeter College, Messiah at the Sheldonian and afternoon tea at The Old Parsonage in Oxford, and The Lady carol concert in Covent Garden followed by The Nutcracker ballet at The Coliseum, so everything else was geared to the children and grandchildren. Next year though, we think we might structure the family Christmas very slightly differently (mind you, we say that every year), by organising the main Christmas meal and adult present opening on Christmas Eve, followed by the children’s present opening and buffet style meals throughout Christmas Day, which is often an anti-climax anyway.
Once the family had departed, suddenly peace and quiet returned, the dog came out of hiding (actually she quite enjoyed the hubbub, but had to find solitude occasionally) and we had to begin the big clear-up and return the house to its function as a superior B&B. A few nights in front of television and the fire around New Year while we cleared slowly, then this week we reopen and get back to business, with just a lot of good memories to keep us going until next Christmas…