Thursday 22 March 2018

The holy saviour of family relationships

The tree threatening to topple, tinsel and telly ward off the family row on the big day

For Julia Molony the Christmas Day movie was the ultimate peacekeeper
For Julia Molony the Christmas Day movie was the ultimate peacekeeper
The Christmas Day movie was peace keeper for a young Julia Molony.

Julia Molony

Forget presents and pudding. For me, the best bit of Christmas Day always has been, and always will be, the telly. The tree probably comes in a close second. Back in the late '80s and early '90s, when I was growing up in a pretty averagely disharmonious suburban household, the festive season was, like most gatherings that are family focused, a bit like navigating a minefield.

One false step and the whole carefully constructed, twinkly edifice that we (by which I mean mostly my mother) had put so much effort into constructing, could easily blow up in everyone's face. So at Christmas especially, we learned to tread very carefully.

The tree and the box were two essential tools that helped no end towards the greater goal of keeping the peace. In an otherwise fractious world, they provided, in our house, unexpected and vital areas of easy accord.

We'd start conversations early in December along the "what'll we do with the tree this year" lines. But the answer was always, comfortingly, the same. It would be a blue spruce, with white lights and ornaments of red, silver, green and gold. We'd all decorate it together and it would look, for a few brief moments, perfect. Stylish, simple, the very essence of restrained festive cheer.

And then every year, by mutual agreement, we'd destroy this monument to good taste by spraying the whole thing in a thick layer of claggy, canned faux-snow. We would all stand back and agree this looked smashing. It was the '80s, after all. Bad taste was all the rage.

Once you are past the age of about five, or whatever age it is that you get your best kicks out of tearing up wrapping paper and dancing around in massive big piles of the stuff, a background awareness sets in that at Christmas, harmony and joy are less a spontaneous response to the event than a performance obligation.

Christmas cheer carries with it an almost moral obligation to play along.

When I was a child, the traditional Christmas charade continued long after my sister and I were too old for Santa Claus. To start with, we'd all play along through Christmas morning Mass, despite the fact that there was barely a shred of religious conviction between us.

Over smoked salmon, goose, turkey and ham, we'd play along with the idea of perfect family togetherness. My sister and I would set aside our habitual mode of communication - pinching and Chinese burns - in favour of using actual words. And we'd all set aside whatever lingering rows and simmering resentments against each other we'd been tenderly keeping alive in the preceding weeks, for the sake of the day that was in it.

Ultimately it was worth it. There is, it turns out, quite a lot to be said for gritting your teeth and getting on with the occasion as a demonstration of civility, humility and good will. Sometimes, you even end up accidentally enjoying yourself as an unexpected side-effect.

But it takes work. Which is probably why, back then, and now, my favourite part of Christmas coincides with the start of the Christmas night movie.

Because by the time you get through feigning enthusiasm about presents that are going straight on eBay, feigning interest in Uncle Gerald's latest investment portfolio and pretending not to hear when your mother implies for the seventh time that getting an arts degree was a waste of time and you should retrain as a legal secretary, there comes a point in the day when all you want to do is plonk yourself down in front of the telly with a full bottle of wine and a box of chocolates and submit completely to noisy chewing and quality light entertainment. Those tins of Quality Street that we all buy to eat in front of the telly? They, combined with the Downton Abbey Christmas special, are not a treat - they are a family-safety mechanism. Research has time and again proven that it is much, much harder to finally crack and explode into a row when your face is stuffed with chocolate-coated toffee and Maggie Smith is doing her thing.

Back in the '80s there was always a good Back To The Future or an Eddie Murphy film that could be relied upon to keep the family together, distracted and at peace until heavy bellies and hyperglycaemia finally compelled us to bed.

And then, the effort the whole thing took would be forgotten, and all that would linger would be that cosy feeling of Christmassy togetherness, much promoted in pretty much every festive ad campaign that is rolled out around this time of year. It's not something that comes unearned. It takes a full day of tested patience, followed by the sweet reward of unlimited sugar, a soft chair and something good on the box.

That's what Christmas spirit is really about.

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