It all began with a Christmas cake – or, rather, the promise of a Christmas cake. Three weeks ago, my husband blustered into the kitchen, trumpeting, “Be prepared to fall in love with me all over again, for I have ordered our Christmas cake! It’s a bit unusual, but I think you’ll like it – it’s got Caribbean spices in it and it’s the booziest thing I’ve ever seen.”
I responded to this news as anyone would – by shrieking the word “Noooooo”, falling to the floor and hammering my fists upon it.
Why did I react this way? Am I a Christmas-cake traditionalist? Was I mortally offended by the Caribbean spices? No, it was because – as I explained through a faceful of snotty tears – “I was supposed to do the Christmas cake!”
Reader, let me explain.
Christmas creeps up on me like a sneaky cat every year. I’m not what you’d call organised. While I would give my right arm to be the sort of person who has had Christmas in her pocket from the time of the January sales, I’m actually the sort of person who dreamily entertains the notion of giving homemade sloe gin in Mason jars – before someone points out that a) I don’t know how to make sloe gin, b) I don’t have any Mason jars and c) it’s December 23. Then I have to Amazon Prime all my gifts in a massive, expensive panic.
The difference is this year I have to be Mrs Christmas, because I am our family’s sole remaining matriarch. We are down two mums.
My own mother was a Type A matriarch with an iron grip on the festive season. Every aspect of Christmas was by her decree – the meat (goose or turkey), the colour scheme (mauve and gold), and the order of events (stockings; church; lunch; presents; a festive woodland constitutional everyone complained about; and then Monopoly, which she always won). In among all this, it was my job to flounder around ineffectually, sipping sherry and eating liqueur chocolates at every opportunity, which I did lustily from the first of December.
I’m the sort of person who dreamily entertains the notion of giving homemade sloe gin in Mason jars – before someone points out that a) I don’t know how to make sloe gin, b) I don’t have any Mason jars and c) it’s December 23
However, the Type A Christmas matriarch I have deferred to for the last few years is my mother-in-law. Her speciality was Numerous Incredibly Thoughtful Gifts For Everyone, acquired through discreet but persistent questioning, then squirrelled away throughout the year, so that, on Christmas morning, everyone had giant piles of things they had forgotten they needed, all beautifully gift-wrapped. My mother-in-law laboured endlessly to choreograph Christmas to the millisecond. All the rest of us had to do was stand around, like saplings in a strong wind, waiting for her to hand us each a tray of mince pies and tell us where we needed to be.
Without getting on too much of a downer, my own mother is now terminally ill and too far gone with dementia to even know it’s Christmas, and my mother-in-law passed away earlier this year. The grief is raw and we are still firmly in its grip. This first Christmas without her was never going to be an easy one. And what doesn’t help matters is that it’s me – the sort of person who gets flustered if she has to make more than three cups of tea at a time – that, as the oldest mum in the family, has to step into her shoes and make Christmas.
And, reader, I tried. I tried to subtly enquire about presents; gauge family opinion on where we should spend Christmas Day; and shop around for turkeys, even though I’ve only cooked three roasts in my life and have no idea whether a turkey twice the size of my newborn is enough to feed seven people. At every step, I was thwarted – by unconscious stonewalling, my own forgetfulness or just the stresses of working while parenting two babies. And, each time it happened, I despaired of my Type-A predecessors and what a rotten fist I was making of this whole business.
Oh, and of course I wanted to make the Christmas cake.
“You do realise,” my husband told me gently, as he helped me up off the floor. “That you’re really supposed to make the Christmas cake in November. It’s December now – that’s why I ordered it.”
I’m sad to say this precipitated a fresh bout of tears.
“I’m not cut out for this,” I sobbed.
“What?” asked my husband.
“This,” I screeched, wagging my arms about to indicate the emotional labour of the festive season. “I have no life skills, you have five million taciturn relatives and I don’t know shit about turkeys. There is absolutely no way I can turn Christmas around on my own – I don’t know how to run people’s lives. I’m not a natural matriarch.”
This caused my husband to laugh until he cried. “Now, wait a fucking minute,” he said. “If anyone’s the fucking matriarch around here, it’s me.”
And, oh God, it’s true. We don’t have the same household dynamic as my husband’s parents – or mine, for that matter; our division of labour and income is roughly equal and, if anything, my husband’s the more domestic one. He whips up family meals in times of duress. He’s the one who remembers important dates (I forgot our anniversary this year; he did not) and he’s the one on first-name terms with our local butcher. If the baton of Mrs Christmas was to pass from his mum to anyone, it would of course be him.
And, as though fate were smiling on this allocation of duties, my husband’s the one who unearthed his mum’s recipe for Christmas pudding (instructions: “mix ingredients, then cook”). This year, my husband’s 60 per cent in charge of Christmas and the rest is divided among the family.
I’m still going to plunder the January sales, though. Maybe I can be matriarch next year.