So That Was Christmas

Christmas was a little tough emotionally this year, and a little quiet overall, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a good time too, and create some magical memories.

It started on Tuesday, when Thomas was completely beside himself with excitement to make mince pies for Father Christmas. I had to make sure – several times – that he understood that Christmas Eve wasn’t until the following day! On Christmas Eve itself, Thomas also helped me to ice the traditional Christmas cake and we whiled away some time mixing up magical reindeer food too. Three, it turns out, is a wonderful age for Christmas, because there is plenty of understanding and anticipation without the excessive, uncontrollable excitement. Once the cake was done, we set out putting out a mince pie and drink by the fireplace, the reindeer food, carrot and bucket of water in the garden and hanging the stocking on the mantelpiece. This was followed by the opening of two gifts from us – one is always pyjamas, the other a book. This is a tradition I wanted to start because I can remember only too clearly the fever-pitch excitement of Christmas Eve bedtime and the thought of having even just a token gift to unwrap would have certainly helped to quell that at least a little. Time will tell with Thomas! He happily settled in to his new pyjamas, and then we settled down to read The Night Before Christmas.

Christmas Eve was certainly a better and more relaxed experience for us this year than last when we were under the threat of flooding, and sent the evening watching water levels rise!

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Thomas slept incredibly well, and even treated us to a lie-in of sorts (by which I mean it was after 6am that he got up!) I don’t think we’ll be this lucky for the next few years, so we certainly tried to appreciate it!

Strangely, he was a little bit anxious about the idea of going downstairs, but once he saw that his stocking was filled, there were presents under the tree, the mince pie and drink were gone and coal had been knocked out of the fireplace… he couldn’t have been a happier kid. He also ran to the back door and exclaimed “The reindeers ate the food! The reindeers ate the food.” The unquestioning acceptance of the magic felt like a special kind of magic all of it’s own. I may have welled up a little at seeing the sheer excitement in his little face.

We didn’t go mad with gifts, as I felt that this year would set the expectations for years to come! But he did get the new trains and the book he asked Father Christmas for, in addition to some more playmobil, a Thomas DVD and some chocolate in his stocking. From us he got the high level expansion pack for his wooden railway and a couple of new games. Present opening was a joy to watch as he seemed so genuinely surprised and grateful for each item, and took the time to explore each thing before moving on. The absolute smash hit gift was a model London Underground train from his stocking that has gone everywhere with him since!

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And of course, Christmas is the only time of year where chocolate coins are an acceptable part of breakfast!

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I’d really wanted Thomas to wake up at home on Christmas morning, and to find and open his stocking there. I think this is partly influenced by the fact that we always woke up at home for Christmas, no matter what the rest of our plans were. After present opening at home, however, we headed to my parents for Christmas lunch. Christmas is so full of tradition, and returning to my childhood home for Christmas lunch cooked by my mum will always feel special, no matter how old I get Despite the distance not being far, we then opted to stay there for a couple of nights giving us both the opportunity to enjoy some drinks, see more family members and play plenty of board games too. Thomas was spoilt with more gifts including a huge marble run and a Thomas the Tank Engine dressing up outfit!

It was pretty quiet and intimate. I didn’t even take many photographs. But we were together as a family enjoying one anothers’ company. No traditions could be more important than that one.

Me and Mine – December 2014

So here we are – the final day of 2014 and the final Me and Mine portrait of the year. My intention, after missing several months last year, was to ensure that I tried my best to participate every month this year. I guess I did try, but I certainly didn’t succeed! Sadly that seems to be a bit of a theme as far as participation in this kind of thing goes. My Living Arrows posts petered out after I got behind and well… excuses, excuses!

To be completely honest, I wasn’t sure about contributing this month. Somehow the only pictures I can find of all three of us over this festive period are some horribly grainy selfies taken to share our family efforts at Christmas jumpers.

The thing is – I’ve said it before – the fact that these pictures are of horrible quality actually matters less than the fact that they exist at all. If I hadn’t seized that opportunity one evening to capture a quick snap, we wouldn’t have any pictures of the three of us as a family from this month.

And continuing that theme, I guess it doesn’t matter that I haven’t managed to take, or sometimes just share, a family picture every single month. At least I have some pictures, and that is always better than none. When I look back at the Me and Mine portraits I have shared this year, they fill me with warm fuzzies. I know that my family may not look exactly how I may have hoped and dreamed, but it’s my family nonetheless and I love my happy, daft, kind, generous and devoted boys more than the words can say.

So I’ll leave you with our silly selfie. Yes, my jumper is flashing. If you’re going to do a Christmas jumper, you may as well do it properly!

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dear beautiful

Emotions at Christmas

I like Christmas, just as much as the next person. The festive cheer and the pervading spirit of fun, generosity and love warms me up on the coldest of winter days. Gifts – the giving, surprisingly, more than the receiving – fill me with pleasure. I love the decorations – the sparkle and twinkle greeting me in the darkness at the end of a long day, making everything seem brighter than the time of year should dictate. I love the food – dare I say it, the indulgence. Most of all I love the tradition that is entwined through the season. The memories that cannot help but spring to mind as we navigate the festivities. I love it all.

Yet at the same time, it can be an incredibly difficult time of year. Emotions run high and time is often in short supply, fueling stress and tension. Never has the paradox been more evident for me than during this Christmas season.

This year has been especially magical in so many regards. At just-turned three the magic for Thomas is absolute. His complete belief in Father Christmas was heart warming to watch. He couldn’t wait to make a special mince pie for the man himself. He had absolutely no doubt at all that he would be coming down the chimney, and he was completely convinced that the reindeer themselves were responsible for the mess of reindeer food in our garden, and Father Christmas for the crumbs by the fireplace. At the same time, he had such minimal and simplistic expectations and such carefully marshalled excitement. The anticipation and the magic were almost enough. We didn’t go overboard with gifts, and he was entirely content with what he received. It all seemed so far removed from the tackiness and consumerism that can so easily take over. It was pure fun and a joy to behold.

Yet at the same time, the whole season has been tinged with a feeling a sadness for me. The adherence to tradition has allowed the ghost of Christmas past to sweep in with memories which, whilst not entirely unhappy, have prompted the realisation of yet more things that will not be. Spectres of Christmases future that will not come to pass have hung heavy. I have felt, almost more acutely than at any other moment this year, the absence of another child.

I don’t know what it is about Christmas that seems to heighten feelings of grief, loss and absence. Perhaps it’s because expectations run high and we all seek a bit of perfection, highlighting to ourselves in the process all the dissatisfaction we feel with our lives. Perhaps. But truly I think it’s simpler than that. The focus on family draws attention not only to what is there and the love that we share, but also what is not there. Traditions can feel hollow and cheer can be hard to muster when something is missing.

Taking in Thomas’s wonderment at everything Christmas, I couldn’t help but think back to his very first Christmas, three years ago. Just six weeks old, he had absolutely no clue about any of it, yet he was captivated by the sparkle and lay transfixed by the fairy lights for the longest time, smiling smiles that split his face in half and cracked my heart too. And inevitably I thought of the baby we lost. The baby who would have been a very similar age this Christmas. The baby that Thomas would have lent the smaller of his two stocking to, before helping him or her open a couple of token gifts. I thought too, of what we may have had if things had gone closer to my ideal. We’d have had an eighteen month old toddling around, still not quite “getting it” all, but having plenty of fun nonetheless, old enough to be led in to mischief by their big brother.

Just to type it brings tears to my eyes.

At Christmas, you can’t deny so easily what is missing.

I live with the fact that we won’t have a child every single day now. I suppose slowly, I’m beginning to process it and start the long road to acceptance. To moving on. Christmas, in some ways, has felt like a massive set back in that journey. I’m only too aware of how small our family feels, and how it is shrinking with the generations. I fear for Christmases in the future, when Thomas has no siblings to share them with. No rowdy rabbles of twenty round the dinner table. Tradition means so much to me, yet I can see it all fading before my eyes.

But most of all, I feel incredibly sad for what we so almost had.

Once again, this feels self-indulgent. Self centred. Compared to what others have been through this year, and this festive season, I have so little to complain about.

But I cannot help how I feel.

And how I feel is like the final flicker of a fused fairy light. The last gasp of a punctured inflatable snowman. The crumbs on the mince pie plate.

I feel deflated. Washed out.I feel more than ever as though something is missing.

No matter how selfish it may be, I simply feel grief for the family I will never have.

Room on the Broom at Christmas

Last Christmas, we took Thomas to the theatre for the very first time. We saw a production at The Unicorn Theatre entitled “The Night Before Christmas” which was based around the well-known verse. It was perfectly pitched for his age, and became the first of several theatre trips this year. But sadly, when it came to seeing what the Unicorn had to offer this season, there wasn’t really anything aimed quite at his age group and interest level, which led to us looking elsewhere for a Christmas theatre trip.

We considered Pantomine, obviously. And whilst Thomas loves the theatre and I think would have no trouble sitting through a Panto – and even enjoying it – I just felt that we might be better saving this British institution for another year, until he was even better able to get in to it. We also considered the West-End production of “The Snowman” and Thomas was completely obsessed with the television version last year (I think we watched it every day for a month!). It turns out he still loves it this year, but the stage show is incredibly expensive – it would have cost well over £100 for the three of us to go. I don’t mind splashing out for great theatre (and by all accounts the show is good) but I didn’t want to gamble that much money on Thomas completely enjoying it. he can still be unpredictable in what entertains or scares him!

So in the end we settled on “Room on the Broom” – a Julia Donaldson favourite around here. Granted it’s not an especially festive tale, but this was more about having some special family time to look forward to in the run up to Christmas itself than being purely related to the season. The tickets were also raesonably priced and there were both morning and early afternoon times to choose from.

It turned out that we had chosen a day that was to bring beautiful weather to London. Clear, crisp and incredibly bright, with that low winter sun that seems to give everything added sparkle. We headed up a little early and went to see the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, before taking a wander across Leicester Square and up to the Lyric theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue.

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It’s fair to say that the show did not disappoint. I’m always intrigued about how relatively short children’s books will be adapted in to a longer show, and how faithful they will be to the original text. In this case there is some additional scene setting and plenty of singing that does not use verse from the original book, but it is completely recognisable. There is a great amount of repetition for younger viewers too, and Thomas stayed absolutely engaged throughout the just-over-an-hour show.I was slightly concerned that he may find the dragon scary, but I needn’t have worried at all.

This is the first Julia Donaldson inspired stage production that we’ve seen, although I know there are many others out there. I’d definitely recommend it as a great introduction to theatre if you have a Donaldson fan!

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Following the morning show, we walked back across London, enjoying the beautiful weather. Thomas wanted to cross the Hungerford Bridge (is it still even called that?!) to see the trains on their way in to Charing Cross, which made his day. We then made our way over to the Southbank Christmas market and ended up having lunch in Wagamama. (Given how fussy an eater Thomas is, this is an odd one, but Wagamama, along with Pizza Express, is one place that he absolutely guaranteed to love). Our celebrity spot of the day in here was Russel Brand!

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The market itself was very busy, but there was plenty on offer. We didn’t end up spending long as Thomas was pretty tired, and we had already had plenty of Christmas market experience in Brussels.

It was a lovely family day out though, and the tradition of seeing a theatre show in the run up to Christmas is now well and truly cemented!

And Thomas… fell asleep on the train home!

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A Christmas Pudding in the Preschool Nativity

Last Friday was one of those parenting milestone moments for me. It was Thomas’s very first preschool nativity performance.

I don’t care that they’re only three and four years old. I don’t care that it’s not “proper” school and so, according to some “not a proper nativity”. I don’t care that the children didn’t do any acting, and only a couple of them had anything to say. It may just seem to be a glorified sing-along to some, but it was Thomas’s – along with his friends’ – first chance to stand up on a stage and perform something that they’d practiced really hard for in front of their families. And they all sang their hearts out.

There were traditional nativity characters – Mary, Joseph, Kings, shepherds and angels. They stood at the front during a short reading of the Christmas story, and whilst everyone sang carols including “Little Donkey” and “Away in a Manger”.
There were also plenty of other Christmas characters – Father Christmas, reindeer, snowmen and the like, which fitted with the many other songs the children sang. Thomas’s part? The Christmas pudding! I racked up some serious Mummy-points by making his costume myself – it was a very simple tabard style outfit made from felt and had the advantage for the nursery staff of being light and very easy to put on!

Thomas absolutely loved it all. From the moment he spotted us when we arrived, through the part where he ran down the aisle to me where I was seated just after they’d been walked on stage (yes, I was the mum walking my child back up on to the stage – and yes, I had a tear in my eye at his overwhelming enthusiasm) to his actions and dancing on stage and waving to us throughout. All of that is what I will remember forever more. No question at all that this was a special moment.

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Santa Special

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When your son is a complete train obsessive and your local heritage railway run dedicated festive services, there is really only one option of where to go to meet the big man in red. Add the fact that we took Thomas on the local “Santa Special” service last year – and it’s fair to say that he really loved it – so why take the chance of going elsewhere and having an overwhelmed pre-schooler on our hands when we knew this would be a massive hit?

So last Sunday we set out bright and early for Eridge station to join the train in what could easily become a family Christmas tradition. We enjoyed the lovely log fire in the waiting room, and hot chocolate (or orange juice, in Thomas’s case!) in the buffet car before the train pulled in to take us on our way.

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This year, in contrast to last year’s set up, Father Christmas actually visited each child on the train to have a few words and give them a little gift. (I won’t spoil the surprise in case anyone is going on the same trip, but it’s a decent quality item with plenty of play value.) Father Christmas then posed in his sleigh in the engine sheds at Tunbridge Wells. This actually worked very well as it meant each child got two opportunities to see him (and this would be helpful with a child prone to getting shy, overwhelmed or otherwise potentially distressed) and it also cut down the waiting time in the engine sheds as each family was only posing for photos, rather than also getting their gift and chatting to Father Christmas for a while.

Thomas is at a really perfect age for becoming completely wrapped up in the magic of Christmas. Although he’s normally full of questions about “why” or “how” it hasn’t occurred to him yet to be anything other than completely absorbed by the magic of the season. I know that we won’t have that long until it begins to fade, so I want to clutch it hard whilst it is here. Seeing the look on his face when the big man arrived in our compartment was one of those moments I’ll treasure.

Thomas very sweetly whispered to Father Christmas to remind him what he had written in his letter, and Father Christmas was happy that he’d come on his train ride, given that he wants trains for Christmas!

He also very happily climbed aboard the sleigh for photos, which was something I’d been unsure that he would actually want to do!

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IMG_6631(That is my mum, hiding behind Thomas!)

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IMG_6723(Father Christmas climbing back aboard the train for the return journey)

We then got the train back to Eridge, complete with a visit from a balloon modeller (yes, the same guy again!) Thomas was suitably impressed with his sausage dog that had eaten a single sprout! We also had delicious mince pies, and a train shaped shortbread for Thomas, included in the ticket price.

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Thomas absolutely loved the train ride, quite apart form seeing Father Christmas. He spent a good deal of the time with his face out of the window shouting about the trees, tracks, animals and steam that he could see.

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He wasn’t too happy about leaving the train when we got back to Eridge, but we had a table waiting in a local pub for a delicious lunch… and The Polar Express to watch (again) when we got home!

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We went on The Spa Valley Railway Santa Special Service but paid for our own tickets and all thoughts are our own. I can highly recommend this trip, especially if you have a little train enthusiast, and similar service operate at other heritage railways across the country.

A Bit of Christmas Singing

Despite a jam-packed December schedule, despite a Christmas market trip and my work Christmas party having been and gone, despite Christmas films featuring on a daily basis and multiple Christmas jumpers being in the clothing rotation, and despite having our house festively decked out with paper chains and a Christmas tree, I’ve been struggling to feel all that festive so far this year.

Maybe I’m just too busy. I’ve wondered if I’ve taken on too much “Christmas stuff” on top of the extra stress that occurs at work at Christmas (funny how people will let things slide for months, but suddenly need to get it sorted because Christmas is coming!) and some other balls that I need to keep in the air. I can’t help but worry that I’ve been seduced by Pinterest and social media in to thinking I need to be doing so much in order to make Christmas magical.

I don’t really think that’s it though. I think that I DO feel under pressure to make everything extra specially festive for Thomas, but that’s because I know it’s all a bit of struggle at the moment. It’s hard to feel festive when your heart feels broken and all your wishes have been snatched away.

For Thomas, at least, though it is working. He’s become happily excited about the many things that have been going on. And he told me just today that he really did enjoy Brussels, despite the meltdowns! His main source of excitement, however, is definitely Christmas music. After his music class today, the leader told me she was very impressed with his full run-through of ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’. He’s also incredibly excited by his nursery Christmas show later this week. He’s been cast as Christmas pudding, and has been giving us frequent renditions of the Christmas Pudding song. Yesterday he declared, just as the bath was run, that he needed “to rehearse” and he sat and sang through five songs back to back. Unfortunately I didn’t have a video camera or my hone handy at the time. But when he said he wanted to rehearse again to day, I took the opportunity to capture it.

I love that he holds the words sheet as if he is really reading from it. I love that he pronounces Rudolph as something that sounds more like Gandalf, and the exuberance with which he shouts the word “Glee”!

It’s the one thing out of everything that has made me the most excited for Christmas to come. I need to remember to see it through his eyes, no matter how I’m feeling.