I wake early to a pellucid lavender dawn. The snow never came in the end; it must have veered off to another valley. Instead, there is a thick hoar frost, glittering gently in the light. Stanley the Dog comes and curls himself into a tight little ball under my right elbow. I think fairly serious thoughts about the gravy.
When the entire extended and immediate family announced, one by one, that they were driving off to all points south and west, I had some covert abandonment issues. In seventeen years here, there has never been a Christmas where everyone has gone to in-laws or grandchildren at the same time. Usually, it is staggered. Usually, we are at least twelve round the table.
This year, we are three.
It turns out this is a sort of dream number.
There is no panicked rush or hurry. No huge bird has to go into the oven at 6am since we are having a civilised turkey crown. I may eat my breakfast at leisure and wander down to do the horses. The duchess is in her most Christmassy mood. She takes the carrots that Father Christmas brought her with politely restrained glee, and is so filled with goodwill to all men that she even allows her little Paint friend to share her pile of hay. Lately, she has been so bossy that Autumn the Filly is banished to eat a solitary pile of her own, but not today.
I smash the thick inch of ice on the water trough with one well-aimed crash of my boot and then make up the feeds. I stand with my dear red mare as she eats, looking out over the silver landscape, as Stanley the Dog capers about, sniffing the air for possible pheasants. There is a deep peace, broken only by the occasional caw of the rooks and the slow munch of equine eating. I feel as happy as it is possible to feel.
And then it is on to make the lunch. The Mother is up and dressed in Christmas finery, defying a bout of bad health. The lovely Stepfather is as elegant as a 1960s fashion plate and has set the table with the best silver. There are winter roses and the sun streams in through the wide windows.
I manage only to swear at the high-tech oven twice, and although there is the traditional turkey panic at twenty past one, all comes right in the end. The bread sauce is perfumed with cloves, the stuffing rich with sage, the Brussels sprouts sautéed in butter, the gravy takes half a bottle of sauvignon blanc and a quarter bottle of Madeira. I make peace with the fact that the potatoes are not as crispy as I wanted, and wave goodbye to any perfectionist tendencies.
Both brothers ring, one from Shropshire and one from Bali, where he lives. On the internet, which is a very touching place on Christmas day, positively humming with festivity, old friends and cousins and kind strangers send happy greetings. The good claret is decanted, and the 1967 port.
We eat, speechless with greed. It is really, really good. I say this, blatantly. ‘Even though I cooked it,’ I cry, all out of false modesty. I am exhausted with triumph. Even if there are only three of us, we still have the full Christmas lunch, with all the trimmings.
The Queen appears, reassuring and calm. I love the Queen at 3pm. It is the bedrock of a dear old Blighty Christmas. She looks contented and hopeful. I think that she will be wondering as much as I am what will win the King George tomorrow.
I open some more enchanting presents from friends and relations. The best present of all is Edward Whitaker’s collection of photographs of AP McCoy. I am such a racing geek that a whole book of the Champ is my dream item. Most days, when in doubt, I ask myself: what would AP do? Now I have his flinty look of determination and grit with me always.
I give the Stepfather his traditional Christmas hamper, which I compose over many months, drawing on all his favourite things to eat. I give my mother a soft blanket the colour of earth, and a ridiculous blown-up picture of the red mare. My mum is not very mobile and can’t get to the field, so now she can see the duchess every day, up on the wall.
In the gloaming, I go and check on the horses. The gleaming good mood still persists, and they are happy and still as the evening falls.
And then Stan and I go for the annual Christmas walk. Normally we would do this with the whole family, but today it is just the two of us. Stanley races about, showing off his athletic skills. I look at the trees, with love. A slender crescent moon has risen over the hill, and is lying on her back in the translucent violet sky. It was mere chance that brought me to this place, and I am suddenly shaken by that stroke of luck. I think, strongly and suddenly of my father, and raise a metaphorical glass to him.
And that, my darlings, was my Christmas day. It was really, really lovely. I hope that wherever you are, and whoever you are with, your hearts are full.
The lovely frost:
The elegant Stepfather:
Happy Christmas. xx