How does Christmas change as you move from being a kid to being an adult? How does it change again when you have a child? I asked these questions to Adele Bentley, who shares her experiences from life, and motherhood in her twenties, below.
In my childhood home the Christmas presents were always hidden in a small, dusty cupboard high above the linen closet at the far end of the house. I don’t remember how I came to know this. I guess it was just one of those childhood truths, passed down from sibling to sibling, like that the hedgehog lives in the bramble beneath the honeysuckle, or that eels eat your toes—it was just known. It was also known that if our mother took a full basket of laundry across the garden to the clothes line, you had a good three-to-five-minute window to attempt the ascent to this high, secret cupboard and take a peek. A chair would be dragged into place (never tall enough), then another to place atop the first. Precariously and on tip-toes, I remember opening the little door as quietly as possible, carefully pushing aside the air rifle (I know) and then hoisting my chin up over the ledge and blinking into the furthest corner. Despite the darkness and the dust, our forbidden presents were luminous. One quick look was enough, and down I climbed. Chairs back in place. Busy doing something else when Mum returned with the empty laundry basket.
It never mattered that the stories didn’t line up, that the presents shouldn’t be there, really, before the whole Santa thing on Christmas Eve. The logic of it all was truly irrelevant—boring, even. My brother-in-law, who was clearly a more logical child, arrived home from school one day with some rather big questions for his mother about Father Christmas. She explained simply: ‘We believe in magic in this family.’ My family, for the most part, believed in magic too. Through all the other challenges and raw spots of growing up, Christmas in our home was a lovely and yummy constant. We were no March family—to sing, particularly around a piano, would have been uncomfortable for everyone—but in our own wry, dry way it was (forgive me) jolly.
So why the nostalgia? This Christmas I have a child of my own—and, as many a seasoned parent will insist on telling you, ‘Children change everything.’ God I hope so, was our usual smiling reply. Well, I am happy to report that yes, to some extent, and in ways that are ultimately miraculous, they kind of do. For one, we are ‘doing’ Christmas now, and with an abounding of gaieties that would have been delightfully quaint to early-twenties me, and to mid-twenties me unimaginable. This is what I have loved so much about my twenties. It is (for most people, I think) a decade of brilliant highs and devastating and/or comical lows. Change is palpable, and with so few adult years under our belt, each still has its own distinct flavour. Christmas—rhythmical, recurring—draws our attention to those flavours, and to time passing river-like while you watch from the banks or, perhaps, paddle madly against it.
So when Christmas comes around, I find myself thinking about all those other Christmases since leaving home. Like the one when I was 20 and my sole logistical issue was how to transport my retired racing greyhound to the family home; or when I was 21 and bravely integrating the fructuous delights of raw veganism into our traditional British fare. In those early years I still enjoyed that special teen privilege of ‘present piggy-backing’, whereby a thoughtful gift from my mother to any other family member could be transformed into a generous team effort with a simple ‘Mum, do you think that could be from me as well?’ It was a simpler experience altogether, and with a younger sibling still at home, a faint touch of that childhood magic remained (especially when he wore his special red Christmas dressing gown).
Our mid twenties, or at least mine, were a different story. I no longer lived in Wellington. My summers were spent studying, working, and generally trying to maintain an overall aliveness. Oh, and there were lots of rescue animals. I seem to remember the sentence, ‘I can’t come home for Christmas—who will feed the ducklings?’ as being quite a normal thing to say at this point in my life. The only hint of real festivity was a mantelpiece covered in handmade cards and gifts from my beloved piano students and, one year, a small pine tree felled illegally by a man with lumberjack/outlaw aspirations, and left on my doorstep like a dead bird from a cat. They were odd times.
But once I met my partner, things became decidedly more merry, and Christmas gently regained a little of its former sparkle. When a proper tree was beyond our personal ambition, we decorated our tiny long-suffering bonsai (to be clear, with full-sized decorations). I remember gazing at its small drooping branches and thinking, ‘This is either the best or the worst day of your life, isn’t it.’ My returning Christmas spirit, in what could be described as a bold rejection of social norms, began appearing on other less appropriate occasions. Like our anniversary. How else could my love and commitment be expressed in a gift, but with a blue velvet Jesus—who, charmingly, doubled as a rather smart moneybox? I actually stand by that decision. In any case, it remained on various shelves and windowsills for months, silently gathering dust in its weird velvet fur until finally we moved away.
Now, not only do we have an actual Christmas tree, but a very sweet two-year-old to share it with—and the sharing part is key. By our late twenties we’ve lived through enough holiday seasons to know what works for us and what doesn’t. More than ever we recognise and cherish those traditions and feelings that once kind of made our heart sing, and now we get to bring them back and recreate them in our own homes for our own families, even if that family is a circle of friends and/or dogs. For me, having a baby inspired me to think about what used to light up my own childhood imagination at this time of year. What was it that made those hidden presents so luminous? Despite the darkness and the dust and their wrinkly recycled wrapping paper from the year before, they hummed with a shimmering life force undetectable to grown-ups—and yet created by them. How can I pass that magic on to my son now that, well, it’s my turn?
You may be having Christmas at home tomorrow, or simply getting through it on your own in a faraway city. Maybe 2018 is the first time you’re running the show yourself, with in-laws to impress and another whole set of family traditions to honour and include. Like Lucy, I am in the glowy twilight of my twenties, and this sense of sharing and passing on something I myself have treasured is why Christmas seems more worthwhile than ever for me. It’s also quite a nice age to let go of doing things a certain way, and to make room for what your loved ones will want to share with you, whether this means a delicious Bunter Teller from my partner’s German family, or the mystifying/infuriating tradition of decorating our tree to that 1993 yuletide classic, ‘Oh Carolina’ by Shaggy.
Written by Adele Bentley for The Residents. Adele is an artist, editor and mother, living in Dunedin.