This weekend, we picked out a Christmas tree. Its branches stick out like a snowman’s wonky arms outstretched, waiting for a hug. Our tree is draped in gold paper stars and soft hanging decorations made from warm felt, friendly bears and bespectacled mice and a tiny kitten or two, decorations we’ve been slowly collecting to keep small children’s fingers safe over the last four years. We started with just one shoe box’s worth of decorations but now we have two (I plan to cap it at that but I confess, I’m partial to keeping the lollipop-stick snowflakes the boys made in nursery last year). Our tree is not exactly simple but it is cheery. We like it.
We had intended only to bring home a short, chubby one, wary of what our youngest curious toddler might do with it. We had planned to set it up out of his reach, high atop the built-in sideboard in our living room. But in the end, all those sensible plans got tossed aside like popcorn in a pan and we settled on one just a hair shorter than me (this is not all that impressive; I am but five foot three). As it happens, our youngest’s curiosity stems as far as cautiously touching the prickles with his palm, stepping back befuddled each time they tickle him. One or two decorations may have been tossed here and there already.
Still, I had hoped for something smaller. Last year we ended up with a tree far too big for our modest space and by Boxing Day, I was already itching to shake it out. But this tree was my husband’s choice and my boys’ choice and so how could I say no?
I like hearing my husband’s stories about his childhood Christmas. He tells our boys how his father would wait until the last minute to buy a Christmas tree every single year, and how one year he came home with a tree so tall, it didn’t even fit through the front door. On Christmas Eve, they hung pillowcases at the end of their beds (far roomier than a stocking, I’m told) waiting for them to be stuffed with all manner of treats come morning.
My memories of Christmas are not quite the same. It is by no means unusual for Muslim families not to have a Christmas tree (and the same is true for our many Jewish neighbours on the street where we live now) but in the neighbourhood where I grew up, and in the school I went to, it was a little of an anomaly (it is worth noting here that four years ago, I decorated our first ever family Christmas tree - my first ever Christmas tree - with all the enthusiasm of a small child). Meanwhile, back then, on our road, everyone, even the Indian families who lived opposite, did full-on, plugged-in Christmas with lit-up trees. I loved walking by, gazing in on those glowing scenes from outside. Ours was the only house without a tree lighting up our front windows from afar.
But this is not to say we ignored the spirit of the season. While we didn’t write Christmas lists or ever expect any presents from our family, we brought cards and gifts for all of our neighbours and school friends instead. We sang in the school choir at the carol service and lit candles in church. On Christmas Eve, we’d run to the end of the driveway and wave at the charity Santa sleigh doing its rounds (a memory which reminds me of my age, for my mother tells me they stopped doing this a long time ago), dropping pound coins lightly into the carol singers’ collection tin. In the first week of school holidays, I’d spend days baking mince pies topped with pastry stars, dusting them with icing sugar, listening to Christmas songs.
Come Christmas day, my parents cooked a traditional Christmas dinner with aplomb and a little more spice, often inviting all their friends - the grown-ups we called Uncle and Aunty even though they were in no way related to us - and their kids around. We’d stay up late, waiting for the Christmas movies to begin, eating and eating and eating. It was like Eid, only somehow, a little more relaxed. And so, I imagine, this was how my parents’ generation worked out a funny little way for us to both join in with everyone else and embrace the idea of a family holiday but also not quite join in too. There were, I suppose, invisible lines they drew - putting up a Christmas tree and surrounding it with presents was unnecessary.
Over the weekend, my boys video-called my mother who is presently in Pakistan and delighted in showing her our tree. She in turn expressed her own delight, but I’m not quite sure what she makes of it all, of the fact that I am indulging in some of the things she deliberately chose not to do, so we would learn a distinction between what did and what didn’t belong to us.
I suspect she doesn’t mind at all. I suspect that, now, it’s not so much of a big deal as it was when I was growing up. After all, there’s more in common between my childhood Christmas and my husband’s childhood Christmas than perhaps my parents would have thought, twenty years ago. I like to think she might see that we’re finding our own balance in the way we do things.
Meanwhile, I’m excited! I am excited for the slow time in our home doing what we need to do to rest and recuperate from all the running around of daily life. I’ve been excited for a long time to pick out presents for the people we love, most of all the littlest people who have my heart. I am grateful for an excuse to bring a little joy into these cold, long, dark months with the glow of golden fairy lights and good food. I understand now why my husband has been gently insisting, since we’ve had our boys, that we stay in our own home on Christmas day, so that they have the chance to enjoy what he had growing up, but so that we can also be just us.
For this, I realise, is what childhood memories shall be made of: the taste of snowman-shaped pancakes and muddy walks in the wood and three sets of matching pyjamas hidden under their pillows on Christmas Eve.
I realise, now, that this is it; memories in the making.
It matters to me that just as on Eid, when we donate generously to charity and those who need our help the most, we do the same at Christmas too. This year, we are donating to the London Basket Brigade, a charity which delivers baskets of food to families in need who would otherwise struggle to put food on their table. A £14 donation feeds a family of four. You can make a donation here.
A creative Christmas gift for yourself or someone you love who is a writer at heart.
If you are a writer in your heart, or perhaps you know someone who is longing for the space to write but doesn't know how to start, then perhaps you could consider my course, The Quiet Words, as a Christmas gift.
The Quiet Words is something that I put together with so much care and it is one of the things I am most proud of having achieved this year. When I wrote the course, it mattered immensely to me that it was more than just words on a page, more than just an online course with homework and reading. Of course, there is homework, there is reading - but there is also something mindful and meaningful and magical to it too. It is, I believe, something that you will carry within you long after has finished.
The Quiet Words: The Craft of Writing Creatively starts again in February. You can read all about the curriculum and what writing creatively means here and you can book your place - or a place for someone else as a very special gift - here. If you want to send a hint to someone, then by all means, ask them to bookmark this page!
Meanwhile, here's what one of my participants had to say about her experience on The Quiet Words:
"The Quiet Words really was magical. Huma has a wondrous way of writing such calm and thoughtful content that the course did far, far more than just instruct me in the art of writing. It caused me to pause; to really delve into why I want to write, and to contemplate what creativity means to me and how I might add some brush strokes to the canvas of words, narratives and stories out there, that we all live by. I feel like it's given me calm but also courage."