Designing Christmas

Every year she visited the West End to see the Christmas windows. It was a tradition that her mother had started when Isabel was 10 years old. They’d go during the day, battling the crowds, then stop to have a meal in a small bistro. But when it was dark and the shoppers had gone, they’d return, taking their time, drinking in the sights. On that one day each year, Isabel was allowed to stay up late and have a lie-in the next day.

Her mother always made Christmas special. They didn’t have a lot of money, but she was artistic and made wonderful decorations from bits and pieces, and other people’s cast offs. She absolutely loved that Isabel had made a career out of designing Christmas for one of the biggest retailers in the country.

The year Fortnum & Mason had windows inspired by Russian fairy tales was Isabel’s favourite – simply magical. She always took pictures and made notes as she travelled the world, not just at Christmas time, but to festivals throughout the year, building up her inspiration portfolio. In her job, money was no object – to a certain degree – but what she learned at her mother’s knee of “make do and mend” was years ahead of the current enthusiasm for recycling. She’d been trying to persuade her retailer to apply a less disposable attitude to Christmas, but it was falling on stony ground. She’d been thinking how she could start her own business and bring some of her mother’s ethos with her.

As a young girl, she remembered her mother saying “this year we’re going to have …” and it would be gingerbread men one year, boiled sweets wrapped in colourful cellophane the next – home-made snowmen, angels, santa, elves, or reindeer featured also. During the year, they’d unravel old jumpers to knit stockings and garlands, and they’d crochet mistletoe and holly clusters. There were trees in the park where they’d collect fallen pine cones, and the old string they’d collected throughout the year would be dyed into festive colours to tie up their gifts. The cards they received were kept in a box – some cut up to make gift tags, some to create a christmas collage, others for ideas and inspiration. They’d been the first in London to make popcorn strings like the Americans, and no old material was ever thrown out – it could be dyed, decorated or made into something new. Friends allowed them to cut holly and greenery from their gardens in return for some of their home-made decorations, so their home was always bursting with freshness and festivity. Plenty of plain white candles, bowls piled high with walnuts, oranges and rosy apples, with mulled fruit juice gently infusing the house with its seasonal smell. Her mother had a special collection of beautiful big glass baubles, and each year she and Isabel would spend ages deciding which one to add to it. Now that her mother was frail and old, that collection was spectacular and their tree was magnificent.

After her father died, Isabel had persuaded her mother to move in with her. She’d fought against the idea for a while, but when Isabel was able to buy a lovely mansion flat in the West End, her mother had given in gracefully. She loved to walk around the shops looking at the window dressing, still making notes and drawings in her sketchbook. When Isabel had met Mark, her mother had insisted on finding somewhere small for herself. But when Isabel lost Mark after just five years of happiness, her mother had agreed to return to her beloved West End.

This was the first year Isabel had walked round the West End windows without her mother. She wasn’t able to walk that far anymore, so she’d wait until late at night and their favourite black cab would take them for a leisurely drive. Jennifer was still too young, so Mrs Grey would stay with her, but she was already asking to join them. It seemed that Christmas was in safe hands for yet another generation.

© Debra Carey, 2018

A New Christmas

Melanie had been worried about her sister. Sue was newly divorced, but that wasn’t the problem. Sue’s life had been much lighter since her husband Malcolm had left – around 180lbs lighter to be precise – and everyone had commented on how different she now looked. Prettier, happier, not so skinny and care-worn.

No, the problem was Sue’s son, Martin who wasn’t spending Christmas at home this year. Having announced that he and his girlfriend were now “serious”, Martin had asked Sue if he could use his grandmother’s ring as an engagement ring when he popped the question on Christmas Eve. Sue had been delighted, but she’d rather assumed he’d meant to do that at her house. Martin being rather too much his father’s son had avoided making it clear to Sue that his plans had always been to spend Christmas with his girlfriend’s family. Well, until it was too late to ask him to make a change, that is.

For Martin preferred being with Patty’s family. There was a huge crowd of them all living in the same village and they tended to have relaxed and somewhat rowdy gatherings, whereas Sue liked everything to be structured and restrained. Oh … and the wrapping paper always had to bloody match whatever colour theme she’d decided on for that year’s tree. Still, it had been mean of him, for it left Sue alone having turned down many invitations, all whilst hinting heavily there’d be something rather special happening at home.

And this year, Melanie and Bob were also going away. The kids being all grown up and travelling round various parts of the globe, they’d decided to have that New York Christmas they’d always talked about. Melanie tried to persuade Sue to come – and she’d nearly succeeded – until Sue saw the cost of flights. She could afford it, truly she could, but …  Melanie reckoned that spending too big a sum of money might make it appear as if she was desperate, and that would never do for Sue. Too proud by half. And always had been.

That left Melanie – on December the 20th – packing for a dream holiday … and worrying. With a sigh, she closed up her suitcase, ready for Bob to carry downstairs. It was time to finish off her carefully planned care package. Pulling a few last items from carrier bags – books and DVDs – Melanie carefully tucked them inside coloured tissue paper before popping them into the huge gift-wrapped box. It had taken for ever to wrap the damn thing but, even if she said so herself, it did look dead classy. Covered tastefully in silver and white paper – to match Sue’s theme for the year – Melanie tied up the big satin ribbon, attached a few silver and white baubles, finally tucked in some silvery-sprayed holly. Stepping back to admire her handiwork, Melanie nodded. Yes, that would meet Sue’s exacting standards, now they just needed to stop at her sister’s home on their way to the airport so Bob could put in under the tree. Sue was out, meeting Martin in London to hand over the ring, so it would be a nice surprise for when she returned later on.

Melanie smiled. Before she’d met Bob she’d had a Christmas alone – the children were spending it with their father for the first time since the divorce. Some kind person had done the same for her – one of her divorced friends. They’d asked for no thanks, simply saying it was something to be ‘paid forward’… and now it was Melanie’s chance to do just that.

It would be different next year. Sue would have the kind of Christmas she liked. She’d scoop up the local waifs and strays, give them a wonderful meal, full of tastes and traditions. Melanie and Bob would be there too, for there’s no doubting Sue was an excellent hostess. Even Martin and his fiancee might get an invite …


© Debra Carey, 2017