I spent last week on my beloved west coast. Last year, I did not take enough holiday; this year I am determined to do better. We were lucky with the weather, as often happens at this time of year. It is too cold for the midges and it was dry, bright and sunny with the occasional April shower. Cold, too - there were wild hail-storms in the night at the end of the week and a few in the daytime too.
Time was spent outside, as far as possible. Walking the beaches, scouring the high tide line for driftwood and shells; looking out to sea at the distant Cuillins of Skye and then back at the near things - the textures of the ancient rocks and lichens, seaweed patterns, fishing nets lying on the harbour. I absorbed the images like a sponge; my camera is a very useful tool. My well was refilled.
All the time I was there, my focus kept shifting. From a big seascape, with a tiny boat on the horizon, to the shapes of the cracks in the tops of the huge wooden posts which hold up the harbour. From gulls wheeling above us in the bitter breeze, to the shadow shapes formed by a rope lying across a beached dinghy.
It's all there.
The festive season, by which I mean Christmas and New Year, is a season of mixed emotions for me. This year, I have been trying to pin down exactly why I feel the way I do. Mostly, I dread Christmas. The cynical part of me finds it hard work; extra work in cooking and in buying present; writing cards and sending them, choosing a tree and decorating it, making polite conversation with relatives you see only rarely. The less cynical part of me may sometimes enjoy choosing thoughtful gifts, thinking about friends I hardly ever see when writing a card to them, and likes to see the house decorated for the season. I think that part of the general grumpiness may have to do with the fact that my own parents were rather good at Christmas. I mean good at organising it. And there is a lot of organising to be done, as I know any of you who have survived the past few days will agree. They actually seemed to enjoy it. My dad would acquire a ham (a whole leg) from somewhere in Perthshire - Kinross, I think - and boil it in the old clothes boiler we had in the wash-house at the back of our house. It was the only vessel large enough to hold it. I believe he boiled it empty beforehand to clean it. There was a tap at the bottom to empty out the water - except in this case it was wonderful ham stock for soup! And then he would glaze it and bake it and we would have it cold on Christmas morning, thin delicious slices of it, with melon. I now realise I have no idea where this tradition came from. I like to think it was from the one Christmas we spent in Sweden, as a family, when I was two years old, but I suspect that may not be correct.
I still use the recipes mum had from "Lady Edith in the Belfast Newsletter, about year 1!" for plum pudding, and her mother's recipe for Christmas cake, from about 1930. I keep meaning to write them out, or copy them into my recipe book, or type them up, but I never do. They are both written on yellowing paper, in my mum's handwriting and somehow become more precious every year. I never quite manage all the old traditions - we used to be summoned to the kitchen to stir the plum pudding mixture with a large wooden spoon, and to make a wish. The smell of Guinness mixed in with suet and dried fruit brings back those memories every year. And there would be sixpences, wrapped in greaseproof paper and inserted with a knife into the heart of the pudding, before it was set alight on Christmas day, with brandy heated on the stove and a sprig of holly, which we all hoped would catch light, stuck on top. There would be table fireworks, smokey and messy and all the more fun for that very reason. This year we were lucky enough to be given a pack of them by an old friend - fab!
There are a lot of expectations at this time of year; perhaps it is that I feel that our Christmas won't quite be up to scratch. Does it matter if the turkey isn't cooked just quite right, if we forget to chill the bubbly or take the cheese out of the fridge so that it isn't freezing cold and tasteless? No. We are lucky to have food on our table and wine in our glasses. And everyone will be too full to want cheese, anyway. Does it matter if we don't stick to the old traditions, but make up some new ones of our own? I think not. Family is a transient concept; it's who is around at the time - the gathering on Christmas Day may be all older people, or a group of twenty-somethings, or three or more generations all gathered together, with little ones who are entranced by the magic of it all. It might be siblings and their offspring. Perhaps it is the transition which makes me unsettled, or even a bit sad - the fact that I am slowly but surely (actually, there's no "slowly" about it) becoming part of the older generation - there are not many of my parents' peers still around. Every year at this time this process becomes clearer, as I receive another letter which tells me of another passing.
I think I understand these mixed emotions a bit better now. No matter how much we would like it to do so, Christmas cannot stay the same; nor should it. It evolves and changes as we and our families and friends change. We can make it whatever we want it to be.