But this year has been different.
With school breaking up the Friday before Christmas and me still working until the following Wednesday, She and Missy had plenty of time to raise the festivity level of our little household several notches.
She decorated the front door with a wreath, the garden fences with ribbon-trimmed fir swags and the living room with floral displays, all using the foliage of a large conifer we’d just had cut down in the back garden, while Missy made colourful paper ornaments for our modest little tree (small enough that it could stand on the coffee table, the only available space) and I helped make paper chains and an origami star.
So when I finally finished work on Christmas eve, (with fantastic generosity, given the lack of any kind of Christmas bonus, they let us go at lunchtime) it really was just a case of checking the list, checking it twice and then, with everything suitably organised, going to the pub.
Even that was a low-key affair. The three of us strolled around a local village, where I picked up one last little gift for Her, a porcelain heart with the words “Happy Ever After Begins Today” painted on it, then we went for a quick drink and a game of pool before returning to our small but cosy and festive flat for the rest of the evening.
She made up some “reindeer food” (dry oats mixed with glitter) and, along with a couple of carrots, this was ceremoniously placed on the decking in the garden by an excitable six year old wearing red felt antlers.
Homemade ginger cookies were left out for Santa and a sneakily-purchased stocking was surreptitiously filled, after Missy had finally yawned her way to bed, solemnly saying that she’d “…go back to sleep if I hear sleigh bells at nighttime.”
As I was expecting to be woken at some highly uncivilized hour, it was a pleasant surprise to hear MIssy’s whisper of barely-contained excitement at 9a.m. telling us that Santa had left loads of gifts and asking if it was time for her to start opening them.
And so it began.
The bulging stocking was dismembered first, accompanied by wide-eyed exclamations of delight that Santa had unfailingly supplied all the must-haves of the moment, followed by a cooked breakfast and a Skype call to my mum, my sister and her kids, (MIssy’s two “new cousins” who she was so keen to meet in person) after which I took a trip in the car to pick up my old friend Chris.
Chris, (one of the people who had so generously helped us with the cost of visas) was just beginning to recover from his latest round of chemotherapy treatment and was now feeling up to spending Christmas with us, although not yet able to drive.
I had already arranged to pick him up, but had neglected to buy any petrol the day before, so I took a gamble and drove the forty minutes or so into the middle of Exmoor, sincerely hoping that his car would have enough fuel to make the return journey. The plan was that I’d take a can of petrol with us when I dropped him back on Boxing Day, refill my car and drive home.
Despite various warning lights urgently flashing at me from the dashboard for the last half of the drive, I just made it to Chris’s place and we made our way back home in bright, unseasonably warm winter sunshine and started celebrating in earnest.
More Skype connections were made with Her and MIssy’s friends back in the States, accompanied by glasses of Buck’s Fizz and the ongoing present-opening ceremony.
Missy presented me with a collage picture of Santa that she’d made and a whole box of Brazil nuts with a homemade dark chocolate and chili coating. A pair of traditional Christmas socks (emblazoned with the legend “Bah Humbug”) did nothing to detract from the happiness I felt as I watched the people I love getting to know each other and enjoy the simple pleasures of a quiet Christmas at home together.
Chris, unable to eat much more than a mouthful of solid food for the last few months, even joined us for dinner, very obviously enjoying the orange and rosemary-roasted ham and bacon-fried sprouts that She prepared for us, making my Christmas even happier.
Seeing my friend in such good spirits and such good company, after the tough year he’d had, that in itself was enough to lift my mood, Christmas or not.
Missy took to Chris immediately, practicing tricks from her new magic set on him and chattering away about how she wanted to go to his dad’s farm and pet the horses that were stabled there, something we arranged to do in the days to come.
We chatted, we ate, we drank and we laughed.
What more did we need?
The weather on Boxing Day morning wasn’t quite as promising as Christmas and we postponed the tentatively-planned horse petting visit until later in the week, choosing instead to laze around in the warm until it was time to drive Chris home, (after a quick stop at the garage, to allow me to buy a can and liberally spray myself with unleaded whilst filling it up) this time making the journey in horizontal rain, fog and high winds.
She had packed Chris off with a big tub of hearty and nourishing home-cooked potato and bacon soup, one of her specialties, making sure he also took a chunk of Her wonderful ginger cake too, already touchingly concerned about his weight loss and evidently considering it Her mission to feed him up.
Successfully negotiating the gales and flooding roads and returning Chris to his dad’s beautiful 16th century farmhouse, I said my goodbyes, refuelled my empty car and drove home to spend the remainder of the day nibbling on festive left-overs and watching TV.
Missy declared it “The best Christmas ever!” and I really couldn’t ask for a better testimonial than that.