Ask people what Christmas smells like and most would say roast turkey, mulled wine and cinnamon. Fair enough! Those are all lovely, emotive scents that – sure! – conjure up Christmas. But for me there are far more effective pongs you could waft at me if you wanted to turn my nose on, seasonally. From as long ago as I can remember, Christmas morning has smelled of strong coffee and cheap black bin bags. Whenever I unroll a pack of black sacks, even now – and at any time of year – I’m instantly transported back to a time of cotton PJs and bare feet, 6am awakenings and memories of films on TV the night before. Christmas as a kid usually went something like this:
Before she had kids of her own, my sister (a little older than me) would often stay over, which usually meant – whether lack of space dictated or not – me, her and my younger brother all crammed ourselves into one 3/4 size bed after leaving a cookie and some milk on a saucer for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph. We’d retire early, but watch TV for ages. We’d watch “Wild Cats” (“Yeah, give her back her kids, you worm!”), “Toys” and “Santa Claus The Movie”. At around 11pm (maybe later) our parents would assume we’re asleep and their far-noisier-than-sensible task of transporting our Christmas gifts from the various hiding places to our designated “arm chair” in the living room would begin. We’d hear bangs and crashes, bickering, the rustle of paper and plastic, doors held open and let close. Then one of them, usually my mother, would poke her head around our door and we’d all pretend we’re sound asleep.
Then, contrary to the norm, my dad would wake us up at – usually – about sixish, sevenish. “Quick” he’d say, “let’s see if He’s been!” and he’d lead us downstairs, peek through the door, declare that He hadn’t yet been and send us all back up again for a while. I took this as face value when aged 7; now I realise he was simply stalling for time as my mother got dressed, used the bathroom, etc. Then down we’d go again, by which point my mother was usually sitting on the spare seat of the sofa, the one not groaning under the weight of so many brightly-coloured packages that they were sliding onto the floor, forming a pile next to a heaving, plastic stocking each with our names written on them.
Back to little me and my littler brother, then. We’d stand in awe taking in the sight of all we had to unwrap. My family has never been rich, but we’ve always had more for Christmas than anyone else I’ve ever known. Then, while my dad put the kettle on, we’d crack open the first few gifts. “Open those two at the same time, because they go together,” my mother would say as Stuart and I unwrapped Ren & Stimpy plush toys, “I had to fight the woman at the market for those because she didn’t know what they were and I did and they were the only two there, so I said to her, I said…” – my mother, I think, turned gladiatorial when Christmas shopping. Other gifts we opened we would have to swap with each other, my mother having put them in the wrong piles after wrapping.
By this point my dad would have delivered two steaming mugs of the strongest coffee I’ve ever seen – one for him, one for his wife – with a roll of black sacks under his arm “for the wrapping paper” (this was before recycling was a thing you could get arrested for not doing). Those two things, the smells of them, have stayed with me to this day. They always will. Christmas, as a kid, smelled of coffee and black bags. Later in the day my older brother would arrive from Cardiff or Bristol or wherever and we’d have dinner together, play with all our new stuff, then crash in front of the TV with whatever was on that year. We always had a great day despite the universally-traditional family arguments and inevitable missing batteries. Every year is memorable and treasured.
Of course, when I got older and moved out, I went through a stage where Christmas was a grown-up thing to be experienced as a grown-up! It was about not having to get up early (though I always did), about drinking a beer at 9am (see previous aside) and DOCTOR WHO’S CHRISTMAS SPECIAL! So, so grown-up. When I lived in Cardiff with house mates Jo, the lady of the house, would always go home to her family for Christmas. Rich and I would remain in the house and phone our families like real men(!) – no namby pamby visits for us, oh no! We’d drink and cook and laugh and watch telly and still do quite well, present-wise, despite me being in my early twenties and he in his mid-thirties. Then, drunk and full of burned turkey and undercooked veg, we’d watch Doctor Who and fall asleep on the sofa surrounded by cans, plates and remote control Daleks.
One year, when me and Rich were having another Men Behaving Badly Christmas in Cardiff, we got a phone call at around ten in the morning. “Hello? It’s Jim!” said a voice, Irish, against a background of Christmas songs. The only Irishman called Jim we knew ran our local pub. “…from the pub?” he said. Ah, right. “We were wondering, since you’re regulars, if you’d like to pop down this morning and share a drink with the other regulars? Free, of course!” We were coats-on and out in seconds. We knocked the locked pub door and it was opened by a man we knew by sight but had never spoken to. Like Ed and Shaun we’d often made up back-stories for our fellow regulars. This dude was a ex-hit man, in our heads. We went in and were greeted by at least twenty other vaguely familiar faces, all drinking gigantic Irish coffees. We were given a couple of our own (then more, then more, then more – all free, all STRONG in terms of alcohol and coffee) and we had a wonderful morning/afternoon getting to know the strangers we’d seen every night for the two years previously. Then we went home, burned dinner and fell asleep. We still don’t know how Jim found our phone number.
And now, with a fiancée (NOW WIFE! – Ga, 08/12/15) and a house of our own, Christmas is something that moves around. We celebrate at Aimee’s mum’s house in Chichester which tends to be relaxing and boozy. Or we go to my mum and dad’s which tends to be fun and foody, often with excited and excitable kids running around. Or we invite Aimee’s mum here to Wales to celebrate at our house which tends to be a beer and board games affair. Whatever we do, we love. Wherever we do it, we do it together. Because now, what with me being a 28 year old man (Now 29! – Ga, 08/12/15) with real grown-up responsibilities above “not burning the meat”, that’s what Christmas is: having time with my loved ones. I’m not religious, I don’t go to Mass, I couldn’t care less about the nativity. But I do know the value of family. Of friendship. Christmas “smells” of everyone I love these days. Of a million little things I need to do before the shops shut. Of what I’ve got. Which is a lot.
These days I sit down with a beer, play some games, spend real quality time with Aimee, a good night’s sleep, then go to work. Then home, another beer, another game, a movie – It’s A Wonderful Life, whatever – or two. Then we tidy up and think of something to do on New Year’s Eve. We’re very easy to please because we have each other. And that’s Christmas in itself.
Ho, ho, ho!
I have three nephews. One is almost 16 and, right now, wants nothing to do with anyone especially family as that’s just sad, like. The other two are aged 2 (almost 3) and 4. A while back we found a copy of We’re Going On A Bear Hunt: The Bumper Pack, featuring the book, the DVD and a board game based on the story. It’s predictably awful, but the kids love it. They spin the spinner, move the cardboard characters around a track and try to avoid drawing the red cards that mean they miss a go or whatever.
Sensing a captive audience I cracked open Tsuro (a tile-laying game; lots of fun! Look it up) to see if they’d be interested in playing that; I thought the simple mechanics would be manageable for them. They liked the tile laying aspect, but when it came to “flying the dragons around the board” they just wanted to make roaring noises.
So I did some research. I had thought of Carcassonne (for its simplicity of play) when looking for something to play with them but wrote it off as too difficult simply because of the rigid scoring and tactical meeple placement. Luckily, I later found out about My First Carcassonne (previously Kids Of Carcassonne).
The game follows the same basic principles of the original Carcassonne – place a tile, join a road to a road, place a meeple of your colour – but it strips out all that I’d declared too much to take on for a couple of toddlers who had never even played Snakes and Ladders before. Gone is the need to count points, strategically plan your tile placement or judge farmer ratios turns ahead. Instead, you place a tile joining a road to a road (and all tiles have roads on all four sides, so it almost doesn’t matter exactly where you place it; it’ll always fit). Then, when the road is “closed” by ending it with pond or a building, you cover up all the “Kids of Carcassonne” of your colour pictured on the tiles that make up that road with one of your eight meeples. The first player to place all of their meeples on the map is the winner.
Some roads will have more of one colour “kid” than others, but you’ll always give another player a place to put one of their meeples, and this is the only real strategy there is. The longer the road you make the more kids there will be pictured along it (there are kids pictured on all tiles and all tiles can connect to others somehow) and therefore the more of your meeples can be placed.
It seems such an elegant, simple game. Its tiles are twice as large and twice as thick as those in the original Carcassonne game – the meeples are also twice the size and chunkier – so it’s a really tactile game for kids who are too young for the classic gateway game. I’m hoping, since my nephews loved the tile-placement, path-making nature of Tsuro, that they’ll love this too. I can’t wait to play it with them at Christmas. And if they’re okay with this then hopefully we can try them with a couple of more complex games as they get older. Before long I may even have someone who actually wants to play Arkham Horror with me!