The best part of Christmas has always been the gifts for me, and by that I literally mean the gifts for me. I’m not one of these weird virtue- signalling saints who claim my favourite part of Christmas is watching people’s faces light up as they open the meticulously selected presents I have
spent months agonising over. Is that the whiff of bullshit I smell? Christmas presents are like orgasms: anyone who claims it’s better to give than to receive is a barefaced liar or has never received a proper one.
My mother is so of the opposing view that she even gets off on giving them out to strangers, the Mother Teresa of Putney spending her Christmas Eve at hospitals and homeless shelters dishing them out to the needy and deserving. Presents, I should clarify, not orgasms. She’s a kind woman but even she has limits to her charity.
‘Please, Hilary, you’re only meant to be giving them soup!’
‘I’m sorry, Muriel, I just thought he’d appreciate it on such a cold evening.’
I can’t believe I just wrote that.
All of her priorities are on a different plane from mine at Christmas. When my father has passed out drunk on the sofa and I am finally let loose under the tree (probably shortly after 11 a.m.), I will rip open presents with all the grace of a randy teenager fumbling at a bra clasp. Opening them with my mum around is a far less enjoyable experience, as for her it’s all about retaining and then smoothing the wrapping paper so she can reuse it, a measure that slightly defeats the purpose of wrapping them up in the first place. The whole point of wrapping them is for the giddy thrill of the rip open and reveal. Much of that excitement is lost when you have your eagle- eyed mother looming over you with a judgemental gaze, ironing board at the ready as you carefully attempt to peel off a piece of Sellotape without taking any of the Santa Claus print with it. It’s like bomb disposal.
The stress of opening them is matched only by the crushingness of the disappointment you feel when you finally get inside and realise that the gift you thought bore the exact dimensions of the new FIFA is actually just another unsold copy of your father’s memoirs (the rent on that warehouse isn’t getting any cheaper). How many Christmases can he get away with giving us all that book? Still, they came into their own during the pandemic toilet roll shortage.
I don’t know why we bother wrapping presents, given my mother’s obsession with recycling the paper. I mean, I think I do know actually: it’s a chance for mothers the world over to have a wrapping paper flex. How are mothers so much better at wrapping up gifts compared to us mere mortals? Her gifts look like something you’d see in a shop window. Mine look like something I’ve just blown my nose into. When I cut a piece of wrapping paper, it looks like I’ve done so with a set of chopsticks. Witnessing my mum cut wrapping paper is balletic; it’s like you’re watching Torvill and Dean’s Boléro.
The grace, the sinuosity, the scissor glide; a manoeuvre only mothers have mastered. You try doing that and you’ll end up with a butchered edge and a severed artery, and a piece of wrapping paper that is always less than half a centimetre too short for the thing you’re wrapping. My mum takes one snip of the blades and she’s off, sliding up that sheet of wrapping paper like a swan across a lake. In the time it takes me to find the end of the Sellotape by scraping my nail around the roll ten times, she’s wrapped, tacked and stacked each gift with an individual bow that she’s hand- ribboned with yet more scissor sorcery. It’s like she’s missed her role in life: she could be performing Caesarean sections – she’d do it in seconds, leave no scars and have all the stitches tied in a bow. What’s the point in me even trying? I might as well just shove my gifts in a plastic carrier bag and write the recipient’s name on it with a Sharpie. Don’t tear your carrier bag, Mummy, we can use it again. That’s your Christmas bag for life. Daddy, your presents are in the Lidl bag. Thought you might enjoy reading your own memoirs again. Who doesn’t love a re-gift?
What makes my mother’s attention to detail when wrapping gifts all the more baffling is the beneficiary of her labours. Many moons ago, it used to be her beloved children that she doted upon and spoiled on Christmas Day, but since we have each in turn grown up and flown the nest, her attention has shifted and we are (to put it in the delicate language she uses) dead to her. Nowadays, my mother is no longer just my mother; she is, first and foremost, a dog mother and the apple of her eye is Filomena. She could not be more obsessed with this creature if she had breastfed it herself (and maybe she did; God knows what’s happened in that house since I left). Mummy’s Christmas is now entirely geared around her canine companion. She is obsessed with Filomena; mainly, as she is at pains to point out to us, because Filomena is the only one of her babies that ‘didn’t desert her’. By ‘desert’ I mean move out of the house when they become a grown adult. Many measures have been taken to ensure everyone is aware of Filomena’s newfound status as favourite child.
My old bedroom has been turned into a shrine to the dog: pictures of Filly on all of the walls, Filly dolls, cushions complete with slightly barbed idioms stitched on to them, like ‘When I needed a hand, I found a paw’. But Christmas is when my mother is at her most crazed, in particular when it comes to the gifting. I don’t know if there are other dog mothers who behave like mine, but my mother not only buys gifts for the dog. She will also buy gifts for herself that she will wrap up and then pretend that the dog has given her! We all have to sit there on Christmas Day watching this ludicrous farce unfold and pretend that these are the actions of a rational human being and not of someone that needs psychiatric help. Watching her with the gifts she bought herself and wrapped herself, shaking them curiously next to her ear, ‘Ooh, I wonder what Filly’s bought Mummy?’
Hopefully a straitjacket.
And the gifts she gets for this dog are ridiculous. It’s so spoilt! The only presents I get from my mother now are passive-aggressive ones: deodorant, a net to catch my beard trimmings in, a babygrow.
‘Mummy, I don’t have a child.’
‘Don’t remind me.’
I don’t know how she thinks the reproductive urge works, like I’ll think, ‘Oh, I seem to have acquired a lot of baby clothes. Maybe I should get a baby to go with them.’
Instead of a babygrow, she’d be better off gifting me a broody woman with low standards.
Yet the gifts Filly is showered with are preposterous. Last year, she got artisan biscuits. My mother opened them up and talked Filly through the selection, like a waiter taking you through a tasting menu at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
She even started asking the dog for feedback.
‘Which biscuit did you prefer, Filly? The parmesan and rosemary or the winter truffle and black pepper?’
I sat there looking at her, thinking, ‘Hilary, how refined a palate do you think Filly has? She didn’t seem that fussy just now when she was outside on the towpath licking another dog’s arsehole.’
Filly is, of course, now included in the family Christmas card as well. My mother puts a little paw print at the bottom of the card, just below the forged signatures of me and my siblings (including the other usurper among us, Winston! Don’t start me on him!). Although I’d have thought the neighbours don’t so much want a card from Filly as a promise for her to stop shitting on their front doorsteps. For Christmas cards are another tradition my mother gets rather fixated on. Daddy would wall in the letter box on 1 December, leave it blocked throughout the festive period and knock it back through once the income tax deadline has passed. I witnessed a tremendous rant one year, when a handmade card came through the door that contained a load of glitter. He opened the envelope and it went off like a rainbow grenade, showering his crotch in sparkles and making him look very briefly like a furiously angry My Little Pony.
From the noises emanating from the hallway, you would have thought he’d opened an envelope of anthrax. I came down to investigate the cause of the commotion to see him kicking the envelope into the front garden with a skid mark of glitter across the door mat behind him. It looked like he’d just murdered a fairy.
My mum, on the other hand, and much to his chagrin, loves a Christmas card. She takes great pride in the Whitehall Family Christmas card list, as if it was some elite group rather than a rogues’ gallery of hangers-on, bores and weirdos.
She’ll often, rather arrogantly, commend newfound friends that have been added to it. Some of these ‘friends’ genuinely look honoured to have made their way onto this illustrious list, and one never quite has the heart to tell them that it is literally one of the least exclusive clubs in existence, given that the criteria to join it are:
1. Have you ever had a conversation of more than a minute with my mother?
If the answer is ‘Yes’ you’re on it. That’s it. There are no other criteria. There are probably Amazon delivery drivers on my mother’s list. There are definitely a couple of traffic wardens. She leaves them their cards under the windscreen wipers. I don’t know how she has the time to write all of these letters. She must be outsourcing some of the work. There’s probably a factory in Sri Lanka somewhere with an army of workers on minimum wage handwriting Christmas cards to the entire South of England Ladies Hockey League and to every attendee of Mummy’s boot camp in Norfolk. She literally sends them to everyone and their dog, and I wish that phrase wasn’t being used so literally: there has genuinely been correspondence from dog to dog. If I were the British Library, I wouldn’t get too excited – I don’t think these are letters that need to be preserved for the nation. My mother, naturally, also loves receiving a card, especially if it contains a round robin. She likes nothing more than tucking into a nice, long, gossipy essay, and the more banal the detail the better. In a world where we have more entertainment at our fingertips than ever before, Mummy would still rather read about how a distant cousin considered taking a summer holiday in France, but ultimately decided ‘this wasn’t the year for it’. She knows everything about her semi- literate former neighbours’ offspring’s very modest annual achievements
(‘Simon has advanced yet further up the management chain at Big Yellow Storage!’) yet she still hasn’t seen The Sopranos.
What is she doing with her life? Sometimes she will go as far as to try to read them out to us, like we would be interested. No one wants to hear these letters; you’d be better off taking them down to the local hospital and seeing if they want to use them as anaesthetic. Thank Christ my father’s normally able to head that one off at the pass. He is what you might call ‘a tough crowd’ for such material. He struggles to feign interest in his own children; what possibly makes her think he’s going to want to listen to a three- page biography of our old cleaning lady’s daughter?!
‘I’m sure Shelia and her family had a very interesting 2020, Hilary, but unless it started with her miraculously turning into Alan Bennett, I don’t want to read about it.’