As a child Christmas and Easter were never massive family events. They were loving but never riotous. It's hard to pull crackers in a chain, with four of us round the table.
My Dad's parents had died before I was born and Mum's shortly after. Sometimes mad old Aunts came. They were both funnily enough called Joan. Aunt Joan North was an ex model from Vogue who still believed she was on the catwalk at the ripe old age of 80. She clink her Hermes
bracelets as she waved her ivory cigarette holder in the air. Aunt Joan 2 - a former Doctor was not as glamorous but very smart. She would eat her way through her turkey, brussels and stuffing and then fall asleep during pudding, her head perched on her ample bosom. Only to wake up and thrash us at Scrabble.
My father would sport an obligatory red paper hat and create a fug up the kitchen, smoking a fat cigar as he washed up - holding the cigar with a toothpick so as not to get it wet. We would then settle down to Love Actually all on one sofa.
My husband's French family is huge. Four siblings and many grandchildren. That's without counting the extended family and second cousins.
When my beau's mother was admitted to a hospice about a year ago I felt the strength and power of his big family. Everyone balanced each other out. His spiritual sister, who tapped into her mum's energy and brought a giant crystal lamp into the room to radiate positive vibes.
His elder brother, strong and proud, taking charge of his siblings and the extended family like the King of the Jungle. His sensitive little brother who empathised with every feeling. My beau, a ray of sunshine all smiles and affection for everyone and anyone. And his father, so practical and rational. Lists of medication, an agenda for visitors and a real stiff upper lip that would make any Brit proud.
The hospital room was like Paddington station filled with cousins, old friends and partners in law. It is rare and a pleasure to see a fully functioning traditional family with kids and grandkids and very soon great great children.
I never knew death of a close relative as a child so my Dad's death hit me like a truck. In my beau's family her grandkids were encouraged to visit their frail Mamie. Everyone in fact shared in everything.
We offered just after her passing to host family Christmas at our home - just big enough for the 20+ brood.
I didn't like to mention to my beau that I have a phobia of being in a house with lots of people - sharing bathrooms, with other people's toothpaste and pawprints on the basin. For my beau's family of 6 you had to put up with queuing for the loo or sleeping on blow up mattresses when people came to stay. Their family Xmas literally filled the house.
The Gift situation was also rather different. I was used to having stocking filled with little treats and pillowcase bulging with presents. Then as there was only a few of us we would painstakingly open each present one by one. In their big family the adults drew a name from a hat and bought one present - and received one. One present. That was something the kid in me would have to get used to. Opening presents one by one would take hours so it ended up a bit like a rugby scrum.
As Christmas day drew nearer I was determined to go all out and do a good old fashioned English spread. From scratch, Pudding and all. Beforehand I examined and indeed measured our oven to see if a mammoth turkey would fit - it would just - but I had to wake at 3am to cook
I turned into Santa-zilla. Or a caffeined up Delia Smith. I went into overdrive planning garlands, peacock-like displays, cutting mince pies into holly leaves and renting diamante decorations. I soon realised that when catering for 20 it is more important to serve up food hot enough for all than have have perfectly colour co-ordinated settings. Yet despite the chaos and noise there
was fun and joy - cousins teased each other and then all generations reunited in front of Wii Dance.
Later on in front of the fire Papi handed down stories to his petits enfants and we cackled over childhood snaps - today's parents as chubby bubs or spotty teens.
No one noticed that my sage and onion stuffing was more like breadcrumbs or that the turkey was on the dry side. I was chuffed having created amen's and women's only toilet system to keep my phobias at bay.
In marrying my beau I had gained a big fat French family. One with a big heart. I will never forget his dad at our wedding - the ceremony was at 4pm but his dad was already and dressed in his suit at midday. He wanted to be ready to welcome his children and grandchildren as his dear wife wasn't there he wanted to make double the effort.
This year his father is cooking Gallic Christmas lunch. Oysters, foie gras, the works. His wife passed away a year ago and he wants to carry on the family tradition. As my Dad used to say. May you every year cook your own turkey in your home. My husband and I are lucky enough to
celebrate with my mum and sister's family AND then his dad and all the tribe. Double whammy. an Entente Cordiale of Christmas's.
Nothing beats the unconditional love of family - yes, you can choose your friends but they come and go, like the wind. Family is there for you, should be there for you, through thick and thin.
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