My mother came to Britain from Italy in the late 1950s and still had a large family around Lake Garda in the North. Some years we would go to them. At the end of the intense period of work there would be the added excitement of the journey: who was flying when and where were we going? I loved airports and always hoped that flights would be delayed for as long as possible.
On one occasion my father was flying a little later than the rest of us. We had driven in a white Alfa Romeo across France to Italy, my mother running the red lights in France because she was too short to see them overhead. Sitting on the plane Dad discovered that the man next to him was a distant relative. My Dad’s people came from a small village around Pellegrino near Parma. My grandparents retired there in the 1960s and we used to go and visit. There is a hill above the village that is almost entirely occupied by Brivati. When you walk around it on seemingly endless hot days trying to catch lizards in that arid atmosphere, everyone you meet is a second or third cousin, sometimes removed. The man on the plane was related to people from this hillside. When Dad finally arrived he was full of this story. We had a memorable Christmas day. It was memorable for two reasons. First, we had the most amazing Christmas lunch “prepared” by Auntie Dina in the tiny flat she shared in the centre of Padua with Auntie Laura. Second, my Dad decided we were not allowed to open our presents until after lunch. With nothing to do all morning except wait, we watched Dina and wondered when she was going to start cooking lunch. Periodically, someone would say, “Shouldn’t you start the lunch?” To which Dina replied, “No, its fine”. My mother became a little nervous. I could tell a fight between the sisters was brewing. These fights had by then being going on for forty or fifty years. They were short bloody contests to achieve sibling dominance. We were spared a full-blown encounter because the doorbell rang and the caterers delivered a complete Christmas meal. A delicious roast veal main course. Everyone laughed, we children most of all, because it meant the time for presents was closer.
Most years we would be staying at home. When work finished at lunchtime on Christmas Eve my father would start shopping. As I got older I tried to emulate his style. To an extent I still do. There has never been anything quite like the combination of feelings provoked by the switch from work to the Christmas holidays. One of the reasons I like writing, especially to a tight deadline, is because it comes close to stimulating that adrenaline rush of the bakery morning and the physical reality of accomplishment afterwards. A feeling accentuated at Christmas by the release from work, the million things to be done before Christmas morning and the compression of time in which to do them because the last shift doesn’t end until lunchtime on Christmas Eve. The tiredness mingled with excitement. The feeling of having earned rest all combined to make me love Christmas. Christmas was also the only time of the year that my Dad would join in the usual running of the home. Sometimes on a Saturday morning after work he would cook a fried breakfast. Aside from this he would never do any cooking and he certainly never baked anything at home. The joke, which was also the reality, was that we never had any cakes and the bread was always stale. But at Christmas he would sometimes cook and he would also play a board game with us.