Joel Golby | Contributing Writer | Saturday, 20 December 2014

Things You Only Know If You're An Orphan At Christmas

The Debrief: There are good bits - for a starter you can have eggnog on your cereal if you really want to. But you also start to realise why people can get sad at Christmas

I spent my first Christmas sans parents last year, after my mum had died in June. Dad clocked out about 10 years ago, so I was used to that, but suddenly having nowhere particularly to go at Christmas was… odd. And when I say odd, I really mean ‘I did not get as many presents as I used to’.

The worst bit was the stocking. As a maturity-shunning semi-idiot manchild, I have insisted on having a stocking deep into adulthood, a kind of half-jokey Christmas tradition, which was normally just a big sock stuffed with Terry’s Chocolate Oranges.

Last year, my girlfriend had a go at doing it, but despite a full and exhaustive briefing on the contents of the stocking (‘OK, so there are chocolate coins in the toe?’ ‘Yes’ ‘And a magazine props up the ankle?’ ‘You read the magazine while waiting for everyone to wake up. How is this not a thing for you?’ ‘And this is not a joke?’ ‘How many times do I need to insist that this is not a joke?’), she failed. It just… it just wasn’t the same.

All the stuff was there, just in the wrong order. I looked at this big sock of wrong chocolate and thought: well that’s how it is now, huh? Christmas is over. Christmas is ruined.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. As the dictator of your own Christmas, suddenly you’re the one who makes the rules. Oh, you want eggnog on your cereal? Nobody’s going to tell you not to. You want to sleep in until 1pm? Nobody is going to tell you not to. You want to put mint Matchmakers up your nose and pretend to be some sort of Dracula-esque tooth monster? I would advise against that, but nobody is going to tell you not to. There are no rules! It’s a freestyle Christmas!

Christmas without your parents doesn’t need to be a garage forecourt turkey sandwich and a big think about your miserable life: it can actually be fun. Plus, statistically, you’re going to need this guide at least some time in the next 20-odd years. OK, happy Christmas! Here’s how to enjoy it without having any parents around!

Christmas is expensive

The thing you don’t especially appreciate when you are celebrating Christmas at someone else’s house is just how darn expensive it all is. Oh, those mince pies? Yeah, those mince pies are like £2 a box, so go easy on them. The whippy cream you are squirting into your mouth? Whippy cream costs money, you know. It doesn’t just grow on the whippy cream tree. And do not get me started on how much turkeys cost. Get this: they cost a lot.

Making a good roast is bittersweet

Last year, I absolutely knocked the Christmas roasts out of the park. Here’s what we had on Christmas Eve: roast chicken, stuffed with lemons and garlic and such, tenderly rubbed with some fancy salt, and with all the trimmings. Christmas Day? I put on some slow-roast pork before I even went to sleep, woke up to a porky-smelling house, spent the whole day eating the blue ones out of a box of Quality Street and the occasional pig-in-a-blanket, then made a shredded pork/crackling/cheesy mash arrangement about 8pm. Looking back at it now, I’m just marveling at how great I am.

Here’s the thing though: I am great, and I am an adult now who can do a decent roast, but who do I show that off to? Last year the only people who beheld my amazing roast skills was my girlfriend and the two dumb cats we were looking after. And cats can’t eat pork. It was the best of roasts, it was the worst of roasts. Very bittersweet on the whole. 

You make your own traditions

Last year I rose at about 9am, just got absolutely rinsed on Buck’s Fizz between 9am and 11am, then had gins and tonics to tide me over until 1pm, then had a red wine afternoon stretching until about 4pm, then we moved onto port and sherry. When it got really dark and cold, we had a bunch of Bailey’s, and then things get a bit blurry, but I think there was some Drambuie in there as well. I think… I… I think I did some Christmas stuff in between those things, but it’s very hard to tell. On the whole: one of the top ten days of my life.

Your traditions change, they have to. Previous Christmas Eves would see our family order from the fancy Chinese restaurant in town and have crispy duck pancakes, then have a decent lamb roast on the day with maybe a bit of wine in there and a watch of The Royle Family Christmas special. Decent, if unspectacular.

Now, if I do one thing two years in a row, it becomes a locked-in tradition. In a way, I have to be careful not to make it a bad one – what if I slip on ice twice in two years and, both times, shatter my coccyx into dust? What if that becomes my thing? But on the whole, it’s fun to define your own traditions. 

You’ll have fewer arguments

First time I heard the term ‘par-boiled potatoes’ was when my mum shouted it at my sister in the context of the following sentence one Christmas day: ‘NO I’M NOT GOING TO PAR-BOIL THE FUCKING POTATOES, JEMMA, BECAUSE I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS.’

Thirty minutes later she was par-boiling some potatoes, and that was the Christmas we learned that par-boiling potatoes, then shaking them in the pan, then cooking them in goose fat, made for the best roast potatoes. Seminal.

Why do I remember that moment? It is one of my most treasured Christmas memories. And the argument about the potatoes – between my fancy-ways, city-dwelling, half-boiling sister and my I’ve-been-roasting-potatoes-for-30-years-so-I-know-better mother – was a defining moment in my own potato roasting career.

Last Christmas – and this one, with luck – was a much more chilled affair, with way less shouting about root vegetables, but still, a decent argument at Christmas is a tradition in my family, and one we don’t get to indulge in as often anymore.

You have to buy your decorations all over again

You know that box of tinsel and half-broken baubles and some weird decoration you made as a kid that gets trotted out every year, even though it was kind of a horrific papier-mache vision of Santa in the first place and the intervening two decades have not been especially kind? Yeah, that box does not exist at my house because when we were clearing things out it got accidentally flung from a distance into a skip. 

When you clear a house out, there are two things to bear in mind: firstly, that you need to be realistic about what you’re going to put in a van and drive back to London with you, and two, that it is really fun to throw things into the skips at the local dump. So the Christmas box sadly had to be thrown into the skips at the dump because I did not want to drag it back, but I did especially want to throw it in a high arc from a small cliff into a skip.

This means the closest I have to some Christmas decorations this year is a string of battery-powered fairy lights and a Santa hat I think I threw up while wearing at a work party a couple of years ago. That’s it. I’m going to have to hit a Poundland and start my own decoration collection.

Christmas cards are a thing?

I can’t remember the last time I sincerely wrote a Christmas card, but I think I was in my first year of secondary school and I just wrote the exact same card for every kid in my class, writing so deep into the night that my wrist and arm got sore.

Here’s a thing I learned last year though: adults, actual adults who can remember a time before Facebook, they still send Christmas cards. This year, I’m not making the mistake of forgetting to send one back, and buying a box of ten just to send out to whoever wants one. 

You understand why people get sad at Christmas

I get now why people might get sad at Christmas. I don’t – I mean I pretty much always have a Lego set to play with, and at least one tin of Quality Street to work my way through solo, and enough of a buzz going by 11am that you could probably hit me with a hammer and I wouldn’t feel pain – but a lot of the fun of Christmas is getting all fuzzy and nostalgic and remembering years gone by when you were a kid, and those memories are always intrinsically linked with your family, and it can be tough when they are not about.

I remember one year I got a black and white TV set you had to carefully tune with a whittled matchstick, and if I showed it to you now it would be an absolute piece of shit, but I went absolutely crazy for it when my mum and dad surprised me with it when I was eight.

The next year I got a miniature football and immediately punted it into a sort of weird chandelier thing we had in our front room and just got shouted at for, like, an hour. Dad had to go and borrow a stepladder from next door to fish it out.

But that’s not the point: the point is Christmas can be a time of reflection, and either you can watch The Snowman on your own while sobbing in your bedroom with the curtains closed, or you can just leave those memories in the past where they belong and just be glad they happened. Also learn from them. Learn from me. Never kick a miniature football around indoors, because you will get shouted at. 

Follow Joel on Twitter @joelgolby

Picture: Li Hui 

Tags: Christmas