Life

Nuala McCann: Good friends and precious memories are the true gifts of Christmas

Just when I’ve whined long and hard about commercialism the spirit of Christmas comes up and taps me on the shoulder

THE tinny music is making our ears ring and the toffee pennies are lying lonesome in the Roses box. Nobody wants them.

I have clipped strangers' heels with my shopping trolley and cursed people who spend far too long fumbling at the cash machines. I have raged against queue skippers and maniac car park drivers.

But hey, it's Christmas. Stick on Noddy Holder and throw a few moves in the kitchen dance floor.

By this stage, most of the mad dashing should be over. There's only so much tinsel and tat a body can take. Take a breath. Settle down, take a sip of the true spirit of the season. We've been doing a little of that.

Mum rang last Friday night. “Go round to your sister's house, I've sent you up a baking bowl and you can pick it up,” she said.

It sounded urgent. Knowing my recent success with home-baking, I wasn't keen to pursue the gift of a baking bowl.

“Wonderful, but I can't go, mum,” I told her.

“Why not?” she asked.

“I can't go because I'm drinking gin,” I said.

She laughed. What else could she do?

I'm only in my 50s and still feeling bad confessing my Friday gin to my mother. Call the therapist fast.

At this stage with Christmas, what can possibly go wrong?

There's that home-made tombstone of a concrete cake for a start. I've Christened it 10 times with brandy. In fact, strike a match near it, watch the blue flames dance and we'll be calling the fire brigade pronto.

Next year, kiss Nigella and Mary Berry goodbye, it's the shop-bought cake for the likes of us.

Lots else can go wrong. There was the Christmas Eve I backed the car into a pole... it just jumped out behind me as I was reversing.

There was the year of the burnt black plum pudding. The smell hung about like an uninvited guest til I swept open all the windows at Easter and the wind whisked it away.

And there was the year of the blocked drain... oh, pong and such a hard time of the year to summon a cheap plumber.

Way down the lanes of memory, there was the year my nine-year-old cousin shone his torch into the back of my father's car in the dark of a Christmas Eve night and shattered the Santa Claus secret for my eight-year-old self.

But I'm big enough to forgive him, now I'm almost at pension age. Not that I shall ever, ever forget.

This year, like Ole Blue Eyes, I have to drawl that mistakes – I've made a few.

To you who received the wrong bottle of vodka – you know who you are. Apologies. I know you like the Amsterdam sort, but I grabbed the wrong bottle from the large family of bottles clustered in our front room. We may have to meet up with a few bottle bags and do a clandestine swap.

Ours is a friendly street and there's a lot of doorstep bottle swapping over Christmas tide.

But this year, like every year, just when I've whined long and hard about commercialism and money and giving and receiving true tat, then the spirit of Christmas comes up and taps me on the shoulder.

“I'm right behind you,” he whispers and I turn around and he has a tender smile on his face.

I caught him at the carol service.

Singing is good for your soul as well as your lungs. Carols lift you. Nowhere more so than when you take those carols to the hospice. How beautiful and how precious are those moments, how precious to see what carols bring to those who are very sick and to their families. That was a true gift.

The spirit of Christmas was loitering too in the various cafes and bars where I've met up with friends I love all year round. It's such snatched moments amid the bustle that matter.

Some are heading far far away for Christmas so it was good to hug before they go.

They are the tribes that hold you and protect you through good times and hard times. They're the safe harbour when storms brew.

So tonight, in the quiet moments, I'll be thinking of all those we love and holding precious memories of good times past – dinner in our friends' beautiful garden, nights out with pals on the town, a certain monthly breakfast date with old mates.

That is the true present – guard the memories like the Magi's gold in your heart.

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