Christmas belonged to my grandmother. It was as if she invented it. On Christmas Eve, my mother would drive my sister and me from Hackney in east London to Hertfordshire. We’d arrive to an electric fire-heated house that smelled of toasted bread and radiated electric blankets. Grandma greeting us at the door, the Christmas lights blinking on the tree, Coco, her long-haired sausage dog wagging her tail at our shins. Barbara Antrobus was the quintessential English grandmother. The motherly widowed wife of a minister, still active in her community and well loved locally. Wearing floral cardigans, Coco on a short leash.
At bedtime we were tucked into our sheets with Christmas stockings at the foot of our beds. Every year those stockings got thicker, until we approached our teenage years and instead of stockings she had large white plastic bags with a snowman printed on them. Christmas grew with us in Grandma’s house; it took our measurements and was always prepared to fit whatever renewed expectations came with maturity.
I was always a child inside my grandmother’s Christmases: a tad too excited to settle. Sleep would be the blinking of the Christmas lights and then I’d snap awake, and the Christmas stockings would be bulging. Breakfast was cornflakes with full-fat milk, plain yoghurt sprinkled with white sugar. The TV on in the living room, the radio on in the kitchen where the turkey was stuffed, vegetables chopped, gravy stirred, pigs-in-blankets lying in their tray waiting for the oven.
This meal took four hours of preparation. We’d eat by 2pm. Thin paper Christmas crowns on our heads, red Christmas crackers, cranberry sauce, silver cutlery, everything was on the table except our elbows. Grandma sat at the head of the table and said a prayer: “We give thanks for what we are about to receive …”
Food eaten and crackers pulled, we’d move to the living room to watch the Queen’s speech. Grandma sat in the armchair, close to the picture of her lost husband, who glared out of the frame on the mantelpiece next to her. He had a lean body and white hair, soft features and a trimmed moustache; holding a black Bible in his hand, his lips slightly parted, he looked prepared to speak. Grandma rested her hands on her lap, silently facing forward as if she was back in the pews of her husband’s hushed church.
Afterwards, we opened presents. Most years I played Santa, sliding the gifts under the feet of the recipients. My older sister snuggled on the couch, my mother nursing her cup of tea, grandma in her armchair, clasping her hands, Coco asleep at her feet.
There was pleasure in this giving. Even if I wasn’t the one who bought the gift, I enjoyed this small service. Every year I’d be surprised by how much it made me glow inside.
My last Christmas with my grandmother was in 2014. She was 99 years old. Every Christmas since losing her has taken place under a different roof, with friends in Cape Town or in-laws in New Orleans, at my cousin’s London flat or back at my mother’s house, where little pieces of my grandmother’s rituals loosely wove themselves into the tapestry of Christmas Day. Only half-listening to the Queen’s speech, or only improvising Christmas meals with dry nut roast instead of stuffing, or attending a Christmas service only half-hearing the sermon and the nativity plays.
I grieve my grandmother’s Christmases, as they seem to have died alongside her. There was something about those Christmases that supplied a strong comforting (and non-material) experience that felt unique, spiritual even, something very different from every other area of my upbringing. I grew up living between my father’s council flat and my mother’s house. My father’s flat always smelled of cigarettes and kitchen grease, my mother’s of markets and mothballs.
I wouldn’t describe either space as particularly homely. Both environments lacked the necessary predictability and routine (dullness, even) that goes into stable home-making. My mother actively fought against this kind of commodity and middle-class conformity, while my father (a temperamental gambler and alcoholic) didn’t have the financial or emotional stability that it required. I’m not complaining – overall, I was privileged; my mother took me on her work trips around Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, where she bought materials for her custom-made jewellery, which she sold at festivals and at Camden Market. Most of my peers growing up hadn’t left their borough, let alone their country. I was worldly for a child. Even if it came at an expense, overall the perspective it gave me was worth it.
It’s just that with Grandma, in the quiet English suburbs, everything flattened and simplified into a comfort that still feels foundational.
This year I became a father. I hope to restore some of this homely Christmas tradition for my son. Perhaps have him stretched out in some thick red pyjamas and a jingly Christmas hat, perhaps I’ll cradle him on the sofa next to the radiator, his own grandmother pinching his cheeks and counting his toes.
I want it to be a soulful, festive family congregation like the Christmases my grandmother made for me. A time and place to land in a life that is so easily uprooted. His mother’s family are from New Orleans; it’ll probably be easier for him to land there, having both his southern grandparents. However, that land has its own upheavals, unpredictability and insecurities; as I write this they are repairing the roof on their house, months after Hurricane Ida tore it off. My son’s English Christmases may become a requirement, and his small remaining British family may need to revive my grandmother’s traditions, listening back to her cues of grace and prayer.
Raymond Antrobus’s All the Names Given (Picador) is shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize for poetry