It was the Turkish Delight that broke me this year. I had envisioned lovely little squares of sweetness, prettily dusted in icing sugar and corn starch. I’ve had Turkish Delight and it is a wonderful thing. It would make a lovely little gift to hand round to the people I love. Something a little different from the usual round of chocolates and cookies.
After working through all the complicated steps and leaving it to cool overnight, what I ended up with was a pan of oozing gelatinous yuck.
Not suitable for gift-giving. And I broke down and wept.
As Alan helped mop up my tears and poured me a glass of wine and listened to me berate myself for being so bad at this whole Christmas thing, he suggested that other people find their go-to recipe in the middle of a boring summer afternoon, practice it a few times before rolling it out at Christmas. And when they find the thing that works, they make the same thing every year until they die.
“I know,” I said with a sniff. “But it’s Christmas and I just…”
“I know,” he said, topping up my glass.
Christmas has always been problematic for me.
When I was really little, my Mum’s family would come to our house in Detroit to celebrate. Nana and cousins and aunts and uncles. The dining table stretched through two rooms.
When my Aunt Nell arrived, there would be mayhem as she applied her brightest, shiniest red lipstick and chased us all for kisses, leaving bright red lip stains on our cheeks. I lined up for mine, but my brothers and the boy cousins ran away to be chased through the house and tackled. No one escaped her redness.
I must have taken my cue from her the year I was four, chasing my brothers and cousins up the stairs. Not, as far as I remember, for kisses, but just for the thrill of the chase. Halfway up, my cousin Deanie turned around and gave me a shove. I tumbled head over heels to the bottom, giving myself a whopper of a nosebleed in the process. I was borne away to the kitchen, the realm of the women, where I had my first out-of-body experience. From just behind my right shoulder, I could see myself being ministered to while I wondered who was making that awful racket.
“This is what Patty used to do,” my mother fretted, just a few years after my sister Patty died of leukemia.
I wouldn’t remember any of this, if it hadn’t been the last time I saw Deanie alive. Less than two months later, he was hit by a car on his way to school and killed. His funeral was on Valentine’s Day.
The ghosts have been at Christmas since year one: Patty, then Deanie. My Nana. My sister Eileen. Family, friends and this year they’ll be joined by little white dog.
So I’m a bit fragile before the gift-giving even begins and let me tell you something. I really suck at gift-giving. It makes me anxious. Like, check forty-seven thousand times that this idea isn’t total crap anxious. Alan and I finally let each other off the hook several years back and agreed that instead of gifts, we would put all our resources into the food. Celebrate the day and not worry about presents. The first year, I checked forty-seven thousand times that he was enjoying it. And he very patiently assured me that he was.
There is such vulnerability that comes with giving a gift, not just at Christmas. But it’s magnified when we have multiple people to give to. And whether we plump for the sustainable home-made creation as I was attempting with the Turkish Delight or buy something off the shelf, there is so much that we want our little offering to say, that we’re not able to put into words because we’re grown-ups and telling each other how delighted we are to be in each other’s company, how unbelievably lucky we feel to have each other as friends or family, makes us feel awkward and really uncomfortable. So we wrap up a book or a bottle of bubbly and hand it over with the real gift unsaid. And we hope that the other person understands.
And they, in turn, hand over their offering, with perhaps a murmured, “I hope you like it” which really means, “I hope you like me“.
We need to be careful, I think, with how we treat those gifts and those meals and those moments. Understand the fragility that we all bear, especially during the holidays. Because no one gets to be a grown up without collecting their share of ghosts. We are all a little tender in this season of festive good cheer, one pan of failed candy away from losing our shit.
However you spend these dark days of winter, I hope you are surrounded by people who love you and who appreciate all of your gifts.