Thursday, February 20, 2014

The art of expectation

I'm not a big fan of Valentine's Day. Not because I have a problem with commercial holidays that have no inherent meaning and exist solely to make profit out of people who are told to feel something they aren't exactly sure how to feel, probably because we cannot confine and reduce the complexities of love and meaning into some crappy sentiment the card companies invent. But more so because the whole thing, like Christmas, feels forced and not spontaneous and heart felt. Which is not to say that I don't enjoy guiltlessly eating a box of heart shaped chocolates. I maintain that if someone else gives them to you and you don't buy them yourself, the calories do not count. But why do we need to be told to go out to dinner or for lunch with someone we love and to tell them we love them by buying them an expensive card or bunch of flowers? We should we doing this anyway and we don't need flowers and cards to do it. But maybe the chocolates, yup, those can stay.

Valentines Day is fraught with expectations and it feels like people are setting themselves up for disappointment either way. I haven't actually gone out on Valentine's Day for many years, because my birthday falls on the 12th of February and early on in our relationship I told my husband I'd much rather we go out on that evening and treat is as a kind of two for one business. For one thing restaurant reservations are infinitely easier to come by on the 12th, even last minute ones, and the long stemmed roses (which never open) aren't as ridiculously priced.

But I also find the row after row of couples with the red rose or carnation and bottle of wine on the table with an air of expectation lying thickly between them uncomfortable to witness and don't particularly want to be a part of the conveyor belt nature of it. Again it just feels synthetic and contrived. And if the couple are not married, there is a good chance she is expecting him to propose because that is what the beautiful full page full colour ads in the magazines by De Beers or Tiffany's say you're supposed to do right? I always feel a bit sorry for men in this situation: What if they've just met, or he isn't ready, or he's not sure, or he doesn't have the money for a ring? Even if he shows her a fantastic evening, the only thing she'll remember is that he didn't ask her.

Then there are the couples that are already married, and there is the expectation that some fantastic proclamation of love or poetry will be made – even if the people concerned are not ordinarily poetically inclined, or that a bit of jewellery might be presented. Same scenario as above – if he doesn't have it, she's going to be pissed. A friend of mine says a handbag is also OK, it doesn't have to be jewellery.

I have the same trepidation when it comes to Christmas. The whole thing feels contrived and not particularly spontaneous and again, there are the expectations. Everyone, the adults especially, have an idea of what Christmas is supposed to be, and how they think they will feel on the day, and if you are the host, somehow it is your responsibility to make this happen. You are set up for failure even before you start. And the Christmas lists that go around make me feel uncomfortable. I don't like asking someone to buy me something – it feels wrong. A bit like giving your husband the grocery list on his way out the door. I enjoy being surprised and the idea that someone saw something and knew I would need or love it is a genuine joy. But let's be honest here, how often does that happen with extended family? And the fact that we have to ask what people want or need serves as a reminder that we don't make enough effort during the year to see them and know them – which again makes Christmas feel like a bit of a sham to me. Why do we need a holiday to bring us together?

One Christmas my husband and I decided to host, and we had an argument. And given we don't argue that much, I took this as a bad omen and further proof that Christmas is a dodgy business. The argument was something stupid over when the Christmas meals are served. Historically in my mother's family a large Christmas lunch is served between 12 and 1pm. My great grandmother who lived into her 90s and presided over all of us with a quiet steely matriarchal gaze, not unlike an ancient eagle, was always the guest of honour and would have eaten at 11am if she had her way, but we managed to negotiate the more sociably and digestably acceptable hour of 12. My mother and grandmother before her would ensure everyone had the experience of what it might be like to be a foie gras duck. There was so much food that indigestion was not only standard it was considered a necessary compliment to the chef.

All of this would be followed by an array of puddings and ice-cream until someone would gesture that they were having a heart attack which turned out to be heartburn. Meal time conversation consisted of a lot of shouting that someone didn't know what the hell they were talking about and ought to do x y or z instead. Individually my family are brilliant, but together they assume pack mentality with everyone being an expert on your life except of course you. Gatherings were extremely anxiety provoking, even as a child. And the thing is most of my family members didn't even drink – this was authentic crazy of the non alcoholic variety.

Then at around three or so coffee, tea and cake was served so that that the tiny bit of food in your stomach you'd just about managed to digest could be replaced with more food, and more indigestion. At this point my grandfather and other men in the family would loosen their belts and set about dozing on the sofa while the women and girls in the family would start the dishes with admonishments on the part of my grandmother about how lazy we girls all were and how we should help my mother around the house more. And then we would all go home around 6ish feeling stuffed and a bit cross. About this time I decided that I was going to be a feminist. I didn't know exactly what it was but I didn't think a feminist would be washing the dishes while being told off for being a bad future housewife while my brother, boy cousins and father and uncles sat by dozing or setting the world to rights.

My husband's family on the other hand do a light lunch with lots of small dishes and then a serious evening dinner. They tend to talk a lot about politics, there is some arguing although all terribly intellectual, and there is wine. Everyone gets stuck in with the cleaning up except the person who prepared it as they deserve a break. After that people tend to sit around chatting or reading the papers and then there is a big dinner in the evening with more wine and intellectualising and everyone sleeps over.

As no one was sleeping over at our house that Christmas, which my husband found inconceivable in and of itself, we settled the argument by agreeing that a big midday lunch with cake and tea mid afternoon was the plan, instead of two meals. It was a nice enough day, no arguments or people yelling, or men loosening their belts, and again everyone chipped in with the clearing up. But I couldn't help worrying that my husband and his family had compromised their traditions (and expectations) and it was my fault. Although of course no one actually made me feel that way, it was all good old fashioned self imposed neurotic guilt that existed no where else but inside of my own head.

More recently my husband and I tend to travel to somewhere sunny with the kids and treat Christmas as another day by the pool with the exception of a nice lunch in a restaurant and some presents for the kids. My son who is three is infinitely easier and happier when he can burn of his energy outdoors and not be confined to being indoors day after cold rainy day. We see family either early in December before we leave for our vacation or in January after we return, but it's in bite sized gatherings and without it having the title of 'Christmas Day' hanging over it in large red ominous letters, these get togethers are somehow a lot more enjoyable and less stressful for me.

I was telling all of this to a good friend of mine who is from Italy but lives in London. She looked on with an expression not unlike horror, and I said: “I imagine it's the same for you too right? Right? Its a stressful business.” And she responded with: “Actually, no, my family and I love Christmas, and we all get together in Italy at my parents' house, and my mother makes pain stakingly delicious recipes that have been in our family for many years and take hours to reproduce. And if someone cannot make Christmas it is only for a very serious reason, and one year my uncle didn't come and that really affected the family deeply. It is a very important holiday for all of us.”

Wow. I would be lying if I said this didn't make me feel guilty (Yup guilt again). There I was moaning and complaining about how stressful I find it and here was someone talking about experiencing Christmas in a magical way – where family comes together thoughtfully and meaningfully, and cherishes their history, their shared blood, their ties with one another. And I thought to myself that maybe I have gotten it all wrong – maybe if I just try a little harder, I can make a Christmas like this too. Maybe it is my own expectations that are getting in the way of achieving this. And what if one day my children don't wish to spend Christmas with their father and me? How would this make me feel?

And then I told this story of my friend and her Italian family and their beautiful Christmas (because I was genuinely moved by it) to another friend of mine who is American but lives in London, and she said: “Yeah, well, that sounds great. My family and I drink too much and fight, which is why I've stopped going back to New York for Christmas.”

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