During lockdown Grayson Perry and his wife Phillipa fronted a television programme encouraging people to express themselves artistically in whatever way felt right for them. This was so successful that an exhibition of their latest series is currently being shown in the Midlands Art Centre in Birmingham (Dec 2022 until April 2023).
Last week I watched a very moving and heartwarming programme by Grayson about the artists and their exhibits chosen for the show.
Apart from an entire knitted Sandringham estate replete with all the buildings, gardens and plants (surely only in UK?) there was one exhibit which was especially poignant.
This was one older woman’s representation of her family’s Christmas in Liverpool. Her artwork was presented a bit like a Nativity Tableau but instead of Jesus, Mary and Joseph surrounded by the shepherds and angels in a manger, there were figures representing each member of her large family surrounded by all the normal muddle of Christmas Day including opened and unopened presents and traditional food, all crowded into her small front room.
Why had she wanted to encapsulate the chaos and joy of her family Christmas in this way? Because she has been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer and therefore felt that the tableau would become a sort of memory box expressing her enormous love for her large family and encapsulating her happiest time when everyone was celebrating together under one roof.
I wonder what would be in your Family Christmas Tableau if you decided to create one? Given that Christmas Day is my birthday, the one this year will be my 75th, so you may not be surprised to hear that in all that time I have enjoyed some truly blissful Christmases and some that are so painful to recall that the thought of them makes me weep. Christmas this year will be more hedged about by complications than normal, so there will be some challenges to endure or overcome. Let me attempt to explain. I am currently homeless whilst building work is being done to my flat in Wimbledon. I’m therefore living with my daughter Anna’s family and occupying one of her spare bedrooms, meaning that it’s unavailable over the holiday period for either of her divorced in laws, her sister in law or my ex-husband and his wife.
After two Christmases locked down at home in Spain, my ex-husband and his wife will be in London for the festive season this year. My ex refuses to speak to me despite the fact that we divorced 30 years ago, but he will expect to be with our two girls and the grandchildren as much as possible, but this will be complicated by my lodging at Anna’s home. Then we come to Anna’s divorced in-laws who live in different parts of the West Country, so they also need to stay over as does Anna’s unmarried sister-in-law.. The divorced in-laws can just about manage to be civil in company but, let’s put it kindly when I say there is always a certain ‘atmosphere’ which we do our best to ignore by using that wonderful British stiff upper lip whilst drinking lots of alcohol!
Last night I had a ‘Great Christmas Sleepover Challenge’ conversation with Anna (i.e. who spends what time with whom and where does everyone sleep) without coming to any great conclusions. It reminded me that the pain and acrimony of divorce is revisited on the children of that divorce every time there is an occasion like this one. At the moment I am spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with Anna’s family, including the 3 in-laws whilst my ex-husband and wife will be with Suzy. Then on Boxing Day, he and I will pass each other on the road whilst he drives from Suzy’s to Anna’s, and I go from Anna’s to Suzy’s. As my presence is somewhat contentious, I feel that the best approach is to stay very quiet and accept whatever arrangements have been made. Honestly it will all be fine, although at the moment we seem to be at least two beds short and we’re all far too old to sleep on the floor!
On a lighter note I am really pleased with the outfit I have bought to wear over Christmas. As you may know I usually wear trousers for every occasion whether dressed up or down, but this year I have bought a proper frock! In the Black Friday sale in Whistles I spotted a very pretty blue and navy patterned ‘buffet’ dress. So-called apparently because the shape and style allows you to eat freely at the buffet table without an ever-tightening waistband. The very best thing about my dress is that it’s ankle length which means that I can wear knee-high socks and flat ankle boots with it. This ensures total comfort (no tights cutting into my crotch or waist and no uncomfortable footwear needed to set it off).
When I think of that grandmother in Liverpool living with the knowledge that she may be celebrating Christmas with her family for the last time, I feel somewhat chastened. Perhaps you too have your own reasons to feel ambivalent about Christmas this year. Maybe because it is your first without a loved one or because you or a family member are not in good mental or physical shape. Perhaps you are estranged or, like me, divorced from a family member or it’s not ‘your turn’ to be with the people you love most this year.
For a long time now I have dramatically scaled down my expectations of Christmas. I would be entirely unable to create my ‘perfect family Christmas tableau’ because for me there is no such thing. My best hope every year is to spend time with people that I love who also love me, to eat some nice food, preferably cooked by someone else, and to feel that everyone around me is reasonably happy and ok. And this year my best hope also includes having somewhere to sleep which doesn’t make another person feel either very resentful or very cross.
And wherever you will be over the Christmas holiday this year I wish you a very happy time and a nice warm comfortable bed to sleep in!