When I was a child, it was a given that we would spend Christmas with either one or other set of grandparents, or more likely both. Sometimes they came to us, but more often than not, we went to stay with them. This was easier said than done, as my parents had moved away from the area where they were born and lived in New Zealand’s North Island, while their parents all lived in the South Island. We would all pile into the car – my mother, my father, my brother and sister and I – and start driving southwards.
When I was small, Mum would pack the footwells in the back of the car and then put a cot mattress on top. This was in the days before car seats, so my siblings and I had harness seatbelts that let us move around, and this meant we could lie down and have a sleep if we wanted or needed to. We usually left before daylight to drive two hours to Wellington where we waited in line to drive onto the ferry and start the three hour sail across Cook Strait.
It must have been hard on my parents, keeping us entertained for both the trip and the wait in the queue. I remember one particular year when I was probably in my early teens. I had borrowed a book of Goon Show scripts from the library and brought it with me. I distinctly remember my father sitting in the driver’s seat with his sleeves rolled up and the window rolled down, the sun shining outside (remember, Christmas is in summer in New Zealand), while he read one of the scripts and did all the silly voices. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler (of Bexhill-on-Sea) as a result.
It was about a twelve hour trip all up as I recall and we would arrive at my grandparents’ house all tired and cranky and quite possibly woken up from sleep. But we were children; we recovered quickly and soon got on with the serious business of the summer holiday.
Christmas Day itself was shared between both sets of grandparents. We would spend Christmas Eve at my mother’s parents, open presents there in the morning and have a full-on Christmas Dinner at lunchtime. This was a full English Christmas Dinner, which makes less sense that you might think when you remember it was the middle of summer. After lunch we all climbed back into the car and drove about an hour and a half to my father’s parents. We would have leftovers and salad for tea and often shared it with our cousins.
On into the next generation, it never occurred to me that things would be any different. Sure, my husband and I live about 600km from our parents (although at least they live in the same town, which my grandparents didn’t) but at Christmas we load ourselves and Marcus into the car and, just as my family did a generation ago, head south. We have a meal with both families (and happily, summery meals like barbeques are much more common these days) and catch up with our siblings and their spouses, while Marcus gets to play with his cousin. Like when I was a child, this is just the way it is.
But our family had a big shock this year. In October, my sister-in-law was in a serious car accident. She was driving home from another town when a car going in the other direction lost control on the wet road and ploughed into her. She was air-lifted to hospital and it was touch and go for the first day or two. Seven weeks later, she is mending slowly, but is still in hospital and likely to be there for a while yet. She has a lot of rehabilitation and readjustment to go through in her future.
But she is still here with us. And that is an enormous blessing.
We have no idea at this point where we will be for Christmas Day, but it won’t be the routine we’re used to. My in-laws have been fantastic and are willing to fit in with my side of the family’s needs and plans – once we know what they are. And we will be together at Christmas, with my husband’s family and – thank God – with my family too. There might be an empty seat at the table, but that will mean we’ll be taking some Christmas dinner up to the hospital, not that my brother has lost his wife and my niece her mother.
So if you get together with your family this Christmas, no matter if there are squabbles, or frustrations, or embarrassments (all of which happen in the best of families) take a moment to be grateful that you’re all there to share the holiday together. I can assure you that my family will be doing exactly that.
My Christmas wishes to you and your family. May you have a wonderful day, together or apart, and remember what a blessing family is.
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