With Love at Christmas

By: Carole Matthews

Chapter One

You can tell that Christmas is just around the corner. Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ is belting out of the speakers, filling the busy supermarket aisles with festive cheer. That’s a pension-fund song if ever there was one, and it never fails to get me humming along. I ask you: what would Christmas be without the dulcet tones of Noddy Holder?

I love this time of year. Even something as mundane as the weekly food shop is transformed into a magical experience. I’m at the bread counter in Tesco, squeezing the loaves to check their freshness. Cheery Santas hang above my head. Silver tinsel and colour-coordinated balls spiral down from the ceiling. I wish it could look as jolly all year round. Someone at head office has put a lot of effort into planning this. Perhaps I could borrow their theme and refresh my decorations this year. My husband, Rick, would have a fit. He’s considerably more ‘bah humbug’ than I am when it comes to Christmas – the original Scrooge. Every year the expense of it all nearly gives him a heart attack. Every year I vow to cut back. And every year, I don’t. Maybe, for the sake of marital harmony, I’d better get out the ‘old faithfuls’ one more time.

I’m happy to say for the record that I’m the complete opposite of my husband. My name is Juliet Joyce. I’m a forty-five-year-old woman with one gorgeous grandchild, two troublesome, supposedly grown-up children, an annoying mother, a gay father, a very grumbly husband and a rather stinky dog. I am also a shameless Christmas addict. And I’m not the slightest bit interested in a twelve-step plan to cure me of it.

Slade slides seamlessly into Wizzard and ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’. Heartily agree with that! We all need a bit of escapism from the daily grind of life, don’t we? Jesus picked a lovely time of year to be born into the world, as it really cheers up the long winter months. It just wouldn’t be the same if he’d been born, say, in July.

Skipping down the ‘seasonal produce’ aisle, I slip a Christmas pudding into my trolley, rapidly followed by some mince pies and a panettone, which has somehow become a must-have. None of the family is that keen on it really, but, like Brussels sprouts, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without it. I put in an extra box of mince pies – just in case. You can never have too many mince pies, can you? I don’t like to be caught out without some nibbles in case people drop in. I’d better get some Eat Me dates, too, and some assorted nuts.

I’d like to tell you that I make my own pudding, Christmas cake and all that – but I don’t. I’m working full-time now in the office of a busy estate agent, and with that and the demands of the family, I hardly get time to breathe, let alone anything else. I aspire to producing a completely home-made Christmas, but every year it seems to slip further beyond my reach. I love the thought of creating a decadent Nigella-style celebration, with a bit of Kirstie Allsopp thrown in for good measure but, at this rate, that will have to wait – possibly until I retire. Even for a modest Tesco-based affair like my own, you have to start early. That’s the key. I was very organised and bought my Christmas cards in the January sales. What’s the point in paying full price when you don’t have to? I picked up a couple of great presents at craft fairs in the summer. It’s nice to find the perfect gift, isn’t it? And, of course, you never do when you’re looking too hard. Like middle age, perfect presents just sneak up on you. The special napkins were safely secured in August, as were the crackers for the table. The only thing I have to do now is find the ‘safe place’ where I can put them all. It will mean a trip into the loft for Rick, which he’ll be cross about.

Since the first week of September I’ve been putting a few seasonal bits and bobs of food in the back of the cupboard but now, at the beginning of December, the Christmas food-shopping must start in earnest. I’ve got a few things in here for Dad and his partner, Samuel, too, just to help out, as I know how busy they are. Queuing at the checkout, I close my eyes and listen to the sounds of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’. In front of me, a harassed-looking woman is berating her child, who’s whining for sweets.

‘I’ve no money for naffing sweets, Beyoncé,’ she shrieks as she shakes her little girl by the arm more roughly than is right. ‘If you don’t start bloody behaving right now, Santa won’t come to visit. He’ll throw your Wii out of the sleigh and it will break into a million pieces. Then what will you do?’

The child screams. I think I would too. I should step in and remind them both about the true message of Christmas but, before I can, she’s through the till and out, dragging the sweetless and still screaming Beyoncé behind her.