Stephen Hill: Anatomy of a Christmas

The wood, coal and firelighters required to make a glowing fire on a frost-bitten winter’s evening costs roughly €22.50.

The smell of pine from the tree, the twinkling fairy lights and the crackle of the firewood almost totally overwhelm the idle reflection on how long it will take to heave all of the decorations back into the attic in January. As a Christmas carol begins to play lovingly in the last act of ‘Home Alone’ and Macaulay Culkin waves innocently and childishly at the camera, it’s hard not to think of where he is now…

Still, I may never be able to convincingly convey into words the sense of world-enveloping joy I felt on the Christmas of 1995. I woke to discover Santa Claus had left me… brace yourself… a Super Nintendo. The sitting-room curtains were still pulled, making the room not as dark as night, but not as light as day. It was a golden glow, the Christmas twilight, that rare in-between. The way the carpet feels and the slightly stale but intoxicating smell of ash in the fireplace, they feed into my memory as well. The notion of family was a simple one, and back then, I never broke them down into individuals I happened to be related to.

All I knew in that moment was that I must have been pretty damn good that year. Everyone was smiling at how happy I was. My brother was getting excited, totally without restraint, and didn’t know whether we should play The Legend of Zelda or Mario Kart first.
The only problem I had, in my entire life at that point, was school. School was two whole weeks away, which may as well have been a year. I essentially had a lifetime before me to save pixelated princesses in Hyrule and drop banana skins in front of go-karts on Rainbow Road.

A similar event with minor differences occurs, nineteen years later.

The walk from my bedroom to the sitting room isn’t cold, but neither is it as warm as the bed I was in a moment ago. I smile warmly at my mother on the stairs, who asks excitedly if I can believe that it’s finally Christmas. I glance into the kitchen on my way down the stairs, thinking briefly of the smell of Christmas dinner that’ll soon fill the house (and whether we remembered to steep the peas the night before).

We stroll into the living room, my dad commenting “Hmmphf, lot of frost there” as he enters the room. The curtains are wide open and it takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the light streaming in from the bay windows. I find myself thinking of the traditional kinder surprise we get every year. I briefly consider cheekily eating it before breakfast, as we always did, but decided I should probably pace myself… probably.
I never used to pace myself.

Over the years, I slowly became aware that every gift was a little ceremony, each opened in full view of the family so everyone could see the reaction, as opposed to just tearing away the paper and mentally assessing my newfound material goods.
This year, a chunky square box dominated the couch, traditionally my spot.

“Are you serious?!”  I cried with genuine disbelief, tearing the paper off the latest Nintendo console. I’d made a point of suggesting a game, maybe some movies, or even new clothes would be nice to have on Christmas morning. I’d planned on getting the Wii U, but I was going to wait until the January sales, when I figured it might be cheaper. It cost at least three hundred euro at this stage.
“Jesus… you really didn’t have to do this!”

Defensively, my sister and I start pulling out gifts from the tree to pass on, a symbolic expression of gratitude. I found myself thinking of my niece and nephew (four and three years old respectively), and how excited I hope they’ll be after I give them their gifts later that evening. As my parents open the gifts we got them, I sit there watching, mentally prepared. My parents have never, ever been ungrateful. Not once. Not even the year my Mum got that horrible foot massager. Yet I can still gauge their levels of surprise and excitement. I’m hoping for a good ‘wow!’ this year.

While this is happening, I hear a loud rumble from my phone upstairs, one of many well-wishers whose messages I will return throughout the day. Again, I notice that barely present chill in the air.

Later, as the sausages and eggs fry in the pan, I decide to put on some traditional Christmas music: Dustin the Turkey’s rendition of ‘Christmas Tree’.
Dragging me right back to my childhood, I feel goose bumps rising on my arms. I loved that song as a kid. I put it on repeat, to see how long it will take my parents to notice.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see my sister staring at her kinder surprise, turning it over thoughtfully. I glance over at her and I can see she is having the same childish thoughts I had in the living room. We always had a small piece of chocolate before breakfast, even just a small piece. A tiny pebble suddenly makes its presence known, sticking into the sole of my foot inside my slipper. Not uncomfortable, but certainly present.
My sister looks at me as I stand on one leg, digging it out to the sounds of Dustin’s North Dublin twang. I can feel her willing me to slip and fall over as the smell of crisp sausages tickles my nostrils.

Upstairs, my phone lights up as I receive another text message:
“Merry Christmas!!! Have a great day xx”
I get around to reading it about nine hours later. We’re all in the waiting room of the hospital, where my brother is being kept.
We nearly skidded off the road ourselves, driving all the way out here.

*

Biography

Stephen Hill is a writer living in Dublin. He writes and edits articles online for web-site Bone-idle, contributes to underground zine The Runt and occasionally writes a barbed comment on the Twitter. He aims to get published someday, with his own line of Young Adult horror novellas (a la  Goosebumps).

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