Christmas at Standingstone – the farm I grew up on in Scotland – was largely a dreary affair. Any fun had to be either sought from within myself or beyond its demises. Both of my adopted parents tended towards the solemn anyway; their sadnesses and failures permeated the already dour and damp sandstone house with a cold seriousness. Hardly fertile ground on which the bravado of a healthy boyhood would flourish.
As well as this, Judith and Graham were both unconventionally religious: disciples of
Christian Science. So we enjoyed none of the pagan pleasures in which everyone else was indulging. Nothing of Christmas – trees, mince pies, holly berries, carols or even the dinner itself – encroached on this wintry order of life.
All of this added up to quite a challenge for a small boy in search of some festive sparkle and jollity.
On the basis that every reaction has an equal and opposite, for whatever reason, one of the most precious gifts that has been bestowed on my nature is optimism; irrepressible, bullish, blind-eyed optimism. So every year I would attempt to literally force my family to submit to some form of good cheer. In the run up, I’d wait for a clearing in the cloud of my mother’s resistance to festive thoughts, and drag a pine branch through the front door, festooning it with home-made baubles. But she cold never sustain her enjoyment of life for very long, and soon enough she’d find a reason to be furious with me. Out went boy, branch and baubles.
After Judith’s death, going through her papers, I found a memento of Christmas past. A menu for a Christmas breakfast-in-bed I had prepared them. On the card, the list of items in my infant scrawl: “Chinese tea, boiled egGs and grappe fruits” were surrounded in all the images of a Christmas we didn’t have.
But the greatest moment of the holidays was when we visited Granny (my adopted step-grandmother) in Glasgow. Dorothy couldn’t have been more different. She really knew how to celebrate Christmas. Not a corner of her small flat went without decoration or festive embellishment. Cards, tinsel, buntings, hanging lanterns, and best of all, a tree with lights.
She and I were the same height in those days, and she sensed a Christmas conspirator. Hugging me with delight, I would immediately be dispatched to the kitchen to help her with dinner. Scotch broth, perfectly moist turkey, bread sauce, green brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, and Christmas pudding with custard. It was sheer heaven for a hungry boy.
I suppose I have always carried both of these women with me at Christmas. I usually struggle until resistance is useless and throw myself like a reformed Scrooge into the uproarious pleasure of it all.
Writing this confirms something I have learned about myself. That since childhood, food – the growing, the searching, the offering, the creating, and the cooking – has always been the means by which I find my place in the world.
While my mind was (and probably still is) chaotic and unruly, I am able to create order in my world, by cooking it.