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January Christmas

Author: Sally Hughes

In this house, we celebrate Christmas in January.

We celebrate it in December too, of course, as do a quarter of the world’s population. We join in with the familiar festivities of tree, food and song; we gather together with family and friends and toast another year survived. But January Christmas is something special, something for the three of us alone.

We stole the idea from my sister, but transposed it from November to that cheerless time when Christmas is over and spring feels furthest away. And though January Christmas means little more than two small presents and a hearty meal, it has always given us a disproportionate amount of joy. It feels indulgent, almost rebellious, to take two days to rest and feast in a month of diets and self-loathing. As though we are honouring what January used to be, the time when we had twelve full days to celebrate Christmas before succumbing to the rush of next next next, more more more.

Normally, we mark it on the closest Saturday to old New Year, January 14th. We have returned to work and school by then, but it is still deepest midwinter; the light dies early and the earth is hard with cold. And so we give ourselves the present of a weekend when we refuse all invitations, stay in our pyjamas, watch films, and eat as much cheese as we like.

But this year it was different. There was no return to work, and no invitations to refuse. Christmas had been quiet, and school was from a laptop on the living room table. After months in which we’d had nothing but time together, it felt strange to plan a quiet, private party when there had been no crowded, boisterous ones. We waited as lockdowns were extended, and did not celebrate it until January was almost over.

It had been a sparkling month of sunshine and ice. When I walked in the mornings, I was dazzled by the blue and green flash of hoarfrost on the thin threads of spider’s webs. Solitary birch trees in glinting fields were crowned with blossoms of silver. Still, there had been no snow. Though we are surrounded by the highest mountains in the country and can see snow most of the year, it rarely falls at sea level. Looking up at the high peaks, covered in spotless white, my son asked repeatedly, 'When will it snow here?' It might not, we told him. All the snow gets dumped on the hills and doesn’t get any lower.

But when my husband got home on January Christmas Eve, bearing bags of meat and cut-price sweets, the sky was heavy with loaded, dove-grey clouds. At bedtime, fat flakes swirled down in the light of the street-lamp. We went to sleep excited, and awoke to snow, real snow. Snow thick enough to carve memories out of; snow deep enough for a children’s story.

It was as if, this year, January Christmas was not just for us.

The taste of breakfast-time chocolate on my tongue, I opened our bedroom curtains to blazing white light and a wren on the garden path. Her fawny feathers looked soft as the snow she hopped across, and her song rose above the shouts of the children already sledging in the park across the road. They had come out with the dawn, bundled up in padded jackets and dragging plastic sledges bright as their red cheeks.

We could not stay in our pyjamas with all that outside. Presents (books, a Dandy annual, monster truck models) were discarded for building a snowman. It was the first we’d been able to make in three years of living here, and so we took our time and did a proper job, giving him buttons of coal and a large smile. When we finished, he was taller than me, topped with a real cowboy hat sent from Texas when my son was born. He gazed out over the ring of mountains and the regiment of snowmen that had assembled in the park.

We walked after lunch, the cold cutting through our layers of wool and fleece. My son threw snowballs at the frozen canal. 'Kaboom!' he cried, when they exploded like white fireworks on the thick ice. The buzzard that we still see every day swooped and kee-d above our heads, the underside of his outstretched wings speckled dusky brown.

Late in the afternoon we had the park to ourselves, apart from the snowmen. The temperature was dropping and they were beginning to freeze hard, guarding the ice fort a family from down the road had built, with turrets and tunnels too small for me to crawl through. After the day’s sledging the gentle hill was a solid slide of ice that my son whizzed down, again and again. When he hit a bump and was jolted out of the sledge, he shouted single verbs, like a character in a cartoon strip: 'Clonk!…Bash!…Boof!'

He was still outside when I lit a stove, chasing his monster truck down the garden path, destroying all traces left by the wren’s feet. The pie was in the oven. My husband chopped carrots and sung along to Iron Maiden. Ben Nevis glowed soft pink against the heron-coloured sky. I stood at the window with a glass of wine, and drank to everything that surrounded me; to all the presents we had been given.