Unwrap the chaos!

Peter O’toole’s Santa ‘lending library’, last-minute turkey disasters and a tug of war over Granny’s gifts… Sarah Standing on the joy of unpredictable festivities



dmg media (UK)



ast Christmas was a case of ‘Honey, I’ve shrunk the turkey.’ For the past 12 years I’ve pre-ordered a Kelly Bronze organic bird, which arrived without fail on 24 December via Fedex. A plump, plucked fowl that doesn’t dominate my limited fridge space until the very last minute of the pre-festive prep. Ideal. Except last year the turkey didn’t arrive. I was the cook that Santa Claus forgot. At 3pm I suddenly realised it hadn’t appeared. Panic. After calling the suppliers, they informed me there was a problem with Fedex. No turkey was going to appear outside my door that year. This posed a problem: 14 people to lunch and no star turn. I raced to Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and my local butcher but, alas, I’d missed the sleigh. I had no choice but to go off-piste, break with tradition and buy three fat chickens. Christmas lunch turned out to be heavenly. The chickens went in the oven just before the sausages and roast potatoes and were simply fabulous. Crispy-skinned, juicy and no one cared that I’d swapped one bird for another. This is the big misconception about Christmas. We are brainwashed into thinking it must be perfect. Rookie error. Christmas Day should be unpredictable. A bit mad and untethered. Christmas presents, too, are best when they’re bonkers. The year after my father, film director Bryan Forbes, directed Katharine Hepburn in a film called The Madwoman of Chaillot, she turned up with a very special Christmas present for me: her own bicycle that she had been riding around London on while completing another movie. I adored her and treasured that bike. Three decades later Peter O’toole, a friend of my actor husband John Standing and godfather to our daughter Tilly, spent Christmas Day with us. He arrived late, laden with a big bag like Santa Claus. Peter was not a shopper, yet he brought books. His own books. He dispersed a stack to each of our kids. They were ‘on loan’ he explained, as they were his ‘special treasures’. So not given, but carefully chosen and perfectly curated. He had an additional little gift for Tilly. A (thankfully brand new) tub of Carmex lip salve because Peter would endlessly apply it Lto his chapped lips whenever Tilly saw him and it intrigued her. She coveted that little tub he gave her and kept it on her bedside table. Cheap value, zero shopping, yet gifts given with a lot of thought. Every year, meanwhile, my mother would dutifully buy Wolford tights for my sister Emma and me as a present from our elderly grandmother. She’d wrap them beautifully and deposit them on our grandmother’s lap, so she could give them to us. But, suffering from Alzheimer’s, she refused to part with them. Our mother would gently inform her that this was her gift to Emma and myself, while trying to wrestle the parcel from her grasp. My grandmother in turn would hang on to it for dear life. It became a tug of war. Hilarious in retrospect. Now that I’m 64 and a grandmother myself – mercifully not suffering from dementia – I go the bountiful route of granny-giving with my grandchildren aged nine and three. I buy the presents that my grandsons’ parents deem either too big, too plastic or too pointless. I take great delight in gifting the huge Paw Patrol tower that does nothing except take up space and give joy. Or the drone that works once before becoming stuck on our roof, post lunch. I give them fart whistles and whoopee cushions. Felt pens that smell of cinnamon and pine needles. Magic tricks. Silly things that cost very little yet give so much pleasure. Personally, I adore doing wooden jigsaws. The ones with fanciful pieces shaped like birds or musical instruments. My husband buys me one every year from Wentworth Puzzles. The day after Boxing Day I indulge myself. It’s a solitary pleasure. I sit at the kitchen table and stay there until the jigsaw is complete. It’s my downtime, which I cherish. I also love hot-water bottles and every year my kids seek out a special one: a cashmere cover; a hand-knitted design emblazoned with my nickname – Whizz – or just a new one that isn’t on the verge of disintegrating. Presents come and go, but celebrating Christmas Day provides a family timeline. Our first Christmas as a married couple. The one spent in a new house. The gold-plated decade when the children woke up at 5am quivering with excitement that Santa had come and their stockings were full. The year everyone was miserable with flu watching It’s A Wonderful Life together. The sad and poignant first Christmas spent after my father died. The year my eldest daughter told us on Christmas morning we were going to become grandparents. It all matters. That to me is the true spirit of Christmas. It’s the gathering. The chaos. It’s family. It’s friends. It’s making an effort. It’s combining various age groups. It’s a collective hug. It’s an acknowledgment that we are a group of people who care about one another and are prepared to come together and celebrate. We may or may not be religious but we strive to be at one on this day. We actively want to get together and stake out our efforts to go forwards towards another year. My best Christmas, against all odds, was three years ago. I was being treated for cancer. I was withering. Thin, bald, always cold. Chemo-ed. We were in lockdown and depressed. I was looking forward to a Tiny Tim of a Christmas. One spent with just my husband. An isolated day. But four days before Christmas my doorbell rang. I opened the door. Outside were carol singers with candlelit lanterns. I was amazed. Who has carol singers come to the house? In Pimlico? During a period of social distancing? No one. A dog ran into the house and I was confused because it was my son’s dog. I looked out across the gloaming and saw my family. My kids. My friends. They had all come, knowing they couldn’t enter my house due to Covid and the fact I was so immune compromised, but they had turned up and it was the best Christmas present of my life. A community. A collective gathering of pure joy. My family. My friends. They had arranged for a group of carol singers to perform outside my house. It was a true Richard Curtis movie moment and I have never felt happier or more grateful to be alive. Christmas is one day. Embrace it, with all its foibles and twists and turns. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just needs to be a day you don’t forget.