Christmas is a much more complicated and nuanced time than tradition and popular culture allow. It is much more than ho ho ho and deck the halls. It is the conformists’ festival, and I don’t mean that in a sneery way. (I am, in a most un-nuanced manner, filled with good cheer.) What I mean is: it is a difficult time to be other.
In the days when I thought myself madly other, I used to buck it. I once spent it quite alone, once with a hardly known American man on the Keralan coast (no funny business, just two travellers). I once went to a restaurant on Christmas day, in protest against all that feminine slaving over a scalding hob.
But little by little, I gave in. I decided it was partly the thing that was presented: a time for family and food and goodwill and the fine claret.
It has always held a little batsqueak of doubt though, in the back of my mind. I’m prone to get grumpy if forced into jollity. This year, I was up against a deadline, and the weather was mild. There were no Christmassy frosts, and hardly a sight of a holly berry, and even the little robin who visits my back door looked faintly unconvinced. I was disorganised and running late. Then the gales came and the power went out and it all seemed to be going to hell in a handcart. The festive spirit came late, and reluctantly.
But the funny thing was, it turned out to be one of the best. The family was delightful, right down to the smallest great-nephew. The lunch did come off, even though I slightly overcooked the turkey and undercooked the potatoes. (The bread sauce was perfect, and my step-sister made the most delicious stuffing ever.) The presents were in the great tradition of William Morris: both beautiful and useful, chosen with amazing amounts of thought. I got exactly what I wanted – a biography of Henry Cecil by Brough Scott, Jamie Reid’s book about the doping scandal of the 1960s, a lovely blanket for my bed, a scented candle. A lot of generosity and care went into everything I received, so that I felt bathed in the light of affection.
I even got a good life lesson, from my very own red professor.
High expectations are the enemy of happiness, and they never obtain more than at Christmas. I am usually alive to their perils, but this morning I did fall into the elephant trap. The one thing I wanted to do, once I had put in the turkey and started the gravy, was to have a special Christmas ride on my lovely mare. The forecast was good, the gales had torn away to the north, all was set fair. I dreamed of it in my mind. We would mooch out, cowboy style, and look at the view and think of the simple things of this season, the ones you can’t buy with money.
Red, however, had other ideas. She had clearly been up all night in the terrible wind, guarding her little paint filly from the storms, and she was knackered. This way, I said, getting on and pointing her out towards the hills. You have to be joking, she said. She actually turned her head to look back at me in the saddle and rolled her eyes at me. She stood stock still, so I had to flap at her as if she were a riding school pony.
Eventually, with great reluctance, she set off, walking at a snail’s protest pace.
After a bit, she perked up, but she was not finished with her orneriness. We did eventually roll into a canter, but then she did something she has not done for ages, something I think is a memory of her polo days. Half way up the long meadow, at breezing pace, she jinked. It’s a complicated manoeuvre – a sort of swerve, plunge, and half-turn, with a little lemon twist, and a most duchessy toss of the head. It’s quite hard to sit; if you are not careful, you can go shooting out the side door in a most undignified manner.
Bugger, I thought. So much for the perfect harmony between human and equine. So much for my high-born thoroughbred turning into an old cow pony.
I took her back and did some transitions and turns and figures of eight. I told her, kindly but firmly, that I was in charge, and this would not do.
Then we tried the canter again, and this time it was straight and true and I could let out the reins and trust her to run kindly for me.
As we headed back to the paddock, I laughed and laughed and laughed. It was not my dream Christmas ride, but it was better than that, because she had made me work a bit. She had told me I can’t take her for granted, no matter that it is a national holiday. Once she had made her point, she reverted to dopey old donkey, and I got off and walked the last stretch home, with her following behind me like a faithful Labrador.
But here is the extraordinary thing about expectations. I had high ones of that morning ride, but none at all about tea-time, when I left the Christmas lunch table to go and put Red’s rug on and give her some hay and settle her for the night. I was happy and heedless by this stage, touched by all the family goodness.
As I was putting out the hay, I was suddenly whacked by the loss of my dad. It is our second Christmas without him. The irony is that he didn’t like Christmas much, and generally went through the motions, barrelling along on a wave of alcohol. I think he, like all true racing people, slightly regretted the fact it was the one day of the year when there are no fleet horses to watch. For true racing people, Boxing Day is the great festival, as all the stars come out for the King George.
But there, in that muddy field, I missed him so much that I was undone, and, in that happy day, what I call the Railway Children tears came.
I am very strict about not asking animals to heal human troubles. I don’t think it is their job. It is my task to make Red’s life calm and easy, not the other way round. But the thing came so fast, out of a clear blue sky, that I had no time to head it off at the pass. The mare lifted her head, and stood very, very still. Then she hooked her neck over my shoulder, and laid her cheek against mine, and stayed there, unmoving, until the storm had passed.
I don’t know what it was. I don’t want to fall into the pit of sentiment. But it felt like her great present to me, the one that I was not expecting at all.
Once I had finished, and gathered myself, and smiled a twisted smile at my own absurdity, she went back at once to her hay, as if to say: don’t think this is going to turn into some Disney moment. There will be no string section, she said, with a swish of her tail. That made me laugh a lot too. She made me laugh in the morning, and laugh in the evening, for two very different reasons.
And out there in the prairies of the internet, there was some of the simplicity of Christmas too, as strangers and distant relatives and old friends far away sent each other little messages of love. It is not a simple day. For some people, it is fraught with difficulty and loss. But sometimes, sometimes, the spirit of the season does burn bright, in a wonderfully straightforward and fine fashion. Today, I was one of the lucky ones.
I hope that you too, between the turkey and the panic, the early morning start and the not enough sleep, the high expectations and the muddled reality, got what you wanted. Even a glimpse of it can be enough.
This morning, getting ready to ride. Do you see that warning look in her eye?:
You have to forgive the scruffiness. There was a bird in the oven and no time for proper grooming.
At this stage, she really just wanted to hang out with her muddy friend:
Once we finally got rolling, there it was – the finest view in the world, that which comes between a good horse’s ears:
But she’s still giving me a bit of a LOOK:
The snowy hills:
The lovely woods:
The astounding light:
The devastation from the storms, as the top of an old oak tree lies snapped off, as if some giant hand tore it from its moorings:
More crazy Scottish light:
And, having made her point, the red mare follows me home without so much as a hand on the bridle:
Autumn the Filly welcomes us back:
Butter would not melt in somebody’s mouth:
My favourite mountain, yesterday, as the storms were blowing in:
Not the best pictures I ever took, but they give you some idea of the goodness of the day.
And my noble Stan the Man, who did not filch the turkey, and mostly restrained his lurcher instincts, and fulfilled his Christmas remit of making my mum smile and smile: