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for Solveig

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My First Christmas at the Age of 31 by Dr Gulara Vincent

As I stood by the door waiting for the train to stop, a large backpack pulled my right shoulder down. I wondered whether my host was already at the train station.

I was invited to spend Christmas with E’s family. She was one of my lecturers when I studied for my Master’s degree, and was now the internal examiner for my PhD thesis. As all public transport stopped operating from the evening of 24 December until 27 December, I was due to stay with her family for three nights.

Anxiety gnawed at me. Never before had I stayed with an English family. Sure, I rented a room in someone’s house with other people, but that was a completely different experience. What was acceptable? How should I behave whilst with them? The stakes were high. This was someone I held in high esteem. Too fearful to get things wrong, I hardly breathed when I got off the train.

Outside, she was waiting for me in a red sports car. I nearly whistled when I saw it. Sleek and fast, the car shone in the gentle winter sun. She gave me a hug and invited to get in the front seat. We sat in the car with the engine running for a couple of minutes talking about the weather, the train journey, her family waiting in the house….

Why is she not driving? I wondered.

‘Do you want to put your seat belt on?’ She said eventually.

I cringed internally. The first five minutes, and I’d already screwed things up. She was waiting for me to buckle my seat belt. Coming from Azerbaijan, where people did not use seat belts, and relying on public transport in England, I’d completely forgotten about this important detail.

We got to her house, and my jaw dropped. It was huge. A dining room, a reception room, a music room, a spacious kitchen with a large dining table, a cosy TV room, another room at the back…. I felt slightly lost trying to take in the ground floor, and from what I could tell there was another floor or two up the wide staircase. Then, there was the family. Three sons, a husband, a dog, a few neighbours dropping by. I just wanted to go and hide in the large bedroom allocated just for me.

I unpacked my backpack, leaving clothes behind and taking my gifts downstairs.

‘Put them under the tree,’ E’s son said.

I stared at a large pile around the freshly cut Christmas tree. They all had name tags attached. I didn’t anticipate meeting so many people so I had two presents which didn’t have anything to identify that they were from me. Reluctantly, I placed them under the tree, and cringed some more.

That night we had a delicious dinner, watched tele, listened to music and went to bed. Father Christmas dropped off a stocking full of odds and ends.

Perhaps I could survive another two nights, I thought, shaking under a thick duvet. I was so scared to get things wrong…. A goofy smile was plastered across my face all the time. I didn’t know what to do, or how to busy myself.

The next day, we had a large breakfast, followed shortly by a proper Christmas lunch. I felt stuffed, almost bloated. The carved turkey, ham, roast potatoes, steamed vegetables, three varieties of pudding…. Luckily we went for a walk after lunch. I was relieved to move in the fresh cold air. My digestive system, which clamped from anxiety, started relaxing a little bit.

Until we got back from the walk and all gifts were brought into the middle of the guest room. Sitting next to the blazing fire in a large fireplace, I sipped lemonade and watched the process with anxiety. They handed a gift to each member of the family in turn. Mum, dad, first son, second son, the youngest one, a daughter-in-law, a girlfriend, then another round, and another one. After a family member took a gift, he or she unwrapped and admired it. Most presents were admirable. Expensive equipment, wetsuit, perfume…. My gifts were nothing in comparison. A surge of anxiety made me sweat when someone picked my parcel and asked who it was for.

‘It’s for E. From me,’ I said in a small voice.

She opened and admired it. To my surprise, my name was called out. I got a gift too. How thoughtful of them. With shaking hands, I opened the present and found a sweet red tea pot.

A little later, they came across another parcel from me.

‘Who is this for?’

‘E,’ I said.

‘We better give this to B,’ her son said, passing the package to E’s husband.

I should have said that. My self-consciousness was agonising. The potentially enjoyable activity of unwrapping tons of presents turned into a torture for me. I wished I’d brought gifts for all the family members, I wished I knew the ritual in advance, I wished I had a lot of money to be generous towards my hosts.

Eventually, we went to have dinner. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. The worst part was over.

In the evening, we played games. We teamed up, and drew pictures that the other team had to guess. I was rubbish at drawing, and even more self-conscious around E’s sons. They laughed at me in a good-natured way, and my drawing deteriorated further.

The Boxing Day was low-key. We had breakfast, some of the family members left after lunch, and I finally understood the meaning of ‘Boxing Day’. It had nothing to do with boxing as in sports…

Departing on the morning of the 27th, I was deeply grateful: grateful to have experienced a ‘proper’ Christmas; grateful to breathe again and let my plastic smile fade away; grateful to go home and collapse. Christmas was hard work!

Somehow, I hadn’t messed it up completely, because to my utter surprise they kept having me back every Christmas until I got married. It was as if I became part of that family during Christmas holidays. Honoured by their affection and semi-adoption, I tried to relax during my visits. I knew the routine, and got everyone presents, though the anxiety of getting it right and matching their generosity had never left me.

Author Bio:
Dr Gulara Vincent is a writer, blogger, and a university law lecturer. She lives in Birmingham, England, with her husband and two young children. You can visit her writer’s blog at http://gularavincent.com/blog or connect with her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/DrGularaVincent) and Twitter (@gulara_vincent).