I suppose, when your husband of fifteen years walks out on you on Christmas morning, you believe it's going to have a lasting, and devastating, effect. You think, as you watch your children struggle with their tears, in deference to your feelings, that you'll never get over it; never be healed of the pain; never shed the sense of ‘this time last year. . .' As he walks out of the front door for the last time, having been persuaded, the previous evening, at least to sleep off the worst of the drink, it seems impossible to believe that Christmas could ever be the same again.
And it can't! But it can be better.
A year later and I was still awaiting a financial settlement and a decree nisi. The girls' lives had undergone a profound change. Our barn of a house, soon to be sold, was too large for me to afford to heat it properly; we huddled around a calor gas heater; we lived in one room. We'd learned to make a chicken last for five whole days: roast, cold cuts, casserole, ragout and, with the addition of waste scraps of ham from the butcher, soup. Socks were darned; hems were let down; and hair cut at home, as it had been in my childhood.
Armed with those memories, I was determined to make that next Christmas a time to remember for my children. So while their father lived it up with his new family, we searched the bit bag for scraps of fabric, buttons, tassels and lace. Salvaging dried flowers harvested from the garden during the summer, we sewed lavender bags and covered old hangers with padded, ruched scented silks and satins.
Our industry with needle and thread was only surpassed by that in the kitchen. Peppermint creams, Devonshire violet fondants, miniature chocolate macaroons, fudge, toffee and praline were produced in prodigious quantities. Old boxes which had once housed confectionary, watches, jewellery were refurbished with gold-starred paper and adorned with tassels and fancy buttons. Stuffed with an assortment of our home-made sweets, they took on a magical air.
We spent Christmas Day at my parents' home in the company of my sisters and their families. Whilst the usual exchange of expensive gifts went on between them all, we proffered our labours of love. A knitted scarf for my father. A collage of photographs for my Mum. My gifts to the girls were crotched ponchos - the latest fashion must-have, made from brightly coloured scraps of left-over wool, and unravelled, too-small garments. Theirs to me were a shell-adorned wooden box for my earrings, and a lacquered, shell-covered picture frame.
Never before, or since, have we taken such pleasure in the simplicity of that time of austerity. The best Christmas? Ask my girls now that they have their own families, and to this day they will unhesitatingly recall the magic of that year following their father's departure. Somehow, it epitomised the nostalgia of a bygone era: a time when to give really was more blessed than to receive.
Causes Mel Menzies Supports
Tearfund: for their project with babies born HIV+ and children orphaned by AIDS.
Care For The Family: for their work in educating adolescents to the...