Top authors reveal how they're doing things differently this Christmas

Is it time you rang the changes at Christmas? Here, five top authors reveal how they’re doing things very differently this year — starting with one who’s ditched the turkey for a picnic on the beach

  • Five British authors revealed their unconventional plans for this Christmas
  • Jill Dawson, 57, will take a stroll on the beach in Norfolk with her family 
  • They will then enjoy a picnic lunch, steering away from any turkey 
  • Sarfraz Manzoor who is Muslim, is taking his children to church for the first time 
  • The 48-year-old wants them to recognise where Christianity and Islam converge 

SANDWICHES ON THE SANDS

Jill Dawson 

The author of ten novels, her latest, The Language Of Birds, about the nanny murdered in the Lord Lucan household (Sceptre), is out now. Married to architect Meredith Bowles, Jill, 57, has two sons and a foster daughter.

This year I’m getting just what I’ve always wanted for Christmas: a quiet day, just me, my husband and Felix, our 19-year-old son. We’ll have a walk on Brancaster beach in Norfolk, maybe a picnic lunch, but definitely no turkey.

I had my first child at 26, and from then on Christmas was about kids; buying presents, stuffing stockings, wrapping vast amounts of toys.

Top British authors revealed their plans for this Christmas, including Jill Dawson, 57, (pictured) who hopes to take a walk on the beach in Norfolk

As a single mother I felt under pressure to make up for his absent father and probably overcompensated. In my 30s I met and married my husband — a very sociable person — and our Christmas celebrations became loud, raucous, boozy, full-on events, mixing up our families (26 people in total) and trying to fit the ludicrously big turkey into our modest oven.

They were fun occasions and — thank God — never anything other than hilarious and friendly. But they were also exhausting to a person like me, who spends all day by herself writing and is never happier than alone with a book. By the time guests had left, I always felt overstuffed, overspent and with sinking heart at the thought of loading the dishwasher.

Brancaster is a long, flat beach with sweeping skies. It always feels empty and vast and usually is just dotted with one or two dog-walkers or birds. It’s bound to be blustery and wild out there. We will have done all the extended family stuff earlier, with my sisters, their partners, my nieces and nephew and grandchild at a local restaurant. (Genius — none of us has to do the clearing up or hosting.)

Our Christmas Day will involve only small presents: no cooking, no washing-up or socialising. I plan to spend way less than I usually do and take only a simple picnic to the beach. Hot chocolate and sandwiches and we’ll each open a small present there.

Best of all, I’m taking my swimsuit. My son, a strong swimmer, swims in the river near our home and in the lake on his university campus. If I can pluck up courage we plan an icy dash into the sea for a quick dip. That will turn the laziest, slobbiest day of the year into something healthy and exhilarating with no threat of a hangover. Just what I’ve always wanted.

HELP! THE VEGANS ARE COMING

Jeanette Winterson

Best known for Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which won the Whitbread Prize for a First Novel and was turned into a BBC drama, Jeanette, 60, is married to psychotherapist Susie Orbach. Her book Christmas Days: 12 Stories And 12 Feasts For 12 Days (Vintage) is out now.

Last night I put the finishing touches to my outdoor Christmas lights. I live in a couple of workman’s cottages, with a long, low barn, standing on a small Cotswolds country road. The soft, cheerful lights twinkled from the apple tree and hedges and flashed along the fence palings. Pleased with myself, I suddenly had a terrible misgiving: do I look like a Carvery?

Carvery is not a good look when a couple of vegans are coming for Christmas. I am in the kind of panic the late Mrs Winterson found herself in when I brought a black friend home to Accrington.

Jeanette Winterson, 60, (pictured) revealed that her Christmas menu will have new additions as she’s expecting vegan guests

‘What do they eat?’ This was the 1970s, and after a consultation with the missionaries at church, my poor friend got tinned pineapple.

Back then there was no Google and no Nigella. I could live without Google if I had to, but Nigella is essential. She cooked me my 60th birthday lunch in August.

One of the highlights was a hummus made from beetroot. The ruby colour is festive, plus I have beetroot in the garden, so that means zero food miles.

I have sprouts in the garden, too, and I will shred these the Italian way, and cook them crisply with olive oil and garlic. I might do a second set and add in rough strips of free-range Iberico ham for the rest of us.

I refuse to cook with lentils on Christmas Day. I love a dahl, I eat red lentils in various disguises at least once a week, but I have locked them in the larder for the festive season.

Why? Call me old-fashioned, but to me, a lentil is not festive. Instead I’m going for roast stuffed pumpkin with gingery tomato sauce. Fresh ginger is what we all need in winter, and this recipe, which includes fragrant basmati rice, as well as cranberries and clementines, will look, taste and smell gorgeous.

Nigella suggests a French pumpkin, which will allow all Leave-voting vegetarians literally to stuff the French.

Christmas is a time for coming together and settling our differences, at least for a while.

The pleasure I am having working on this vegan Christmas lies in trying new things and enjoying the challenge. Christmas food can be so automatic, so predictable. And I am aware (who isn’t?) that many people have very little at Christmas time. Homelessness and poverty are rising in the UK.

The message of Christmas cannot be no room at the inn — or, in my case, the Carvery. So, the free-range happy turkey I order each year from the local farm will go to a single mum in the village.

We can’t do everything, but we can all do something.

Tell you what, though, I’ve got some beautiful unpasteurised Stilton wrapped in a cloth in a cold larder — the more microbes the better for me — and there will be no end to the excellent wine.

I know I’m one of the lucky ones this Christmas. Even if I am eating pumpkin.

FIRST TIME CAROL SINGING IN A CHURCH

Sarfraz Manzoor 

The 48-year-old is best known for his memoir Greetings From Bury Park, which was made into acclaimed film Blinded By The Light this year. Sarfraz lives in London with his wife, Bridget, and their two children.

Sarfraz Manzoor, 48, (pictured with his family at St Mary’s church in Stoke Newington) said he’s taking his children to church on Christmas Eve for the first time

I grew up in a Muslim family and so, as a boy, Christmas Day was the dullest day of the year. I hated it. While all my friends were unwrapping presents, I was feeling bored out of my mind with no presents, no tree and no turkey.

My parents believed Muslims like us had no business enjoying ourselves on Christmas Day and they studiously tried to make it feel like it was any other day.

I continued to ignore Christmas even when I became an adult and moved from Luton to London.

It was only in 2010 when I got married to Bridget, who is Scottish and Christian, and we had our two children Laila and Ezra (now eight and three) that I began to rethink my attitude towards Christmas.

As a boy I never got any presents, but as a father I get a chance to treat my children in a way I never was.

I want Laila and Ezra to feel as excited by Christmas as I was bored. I want them to believe in the notion that in life one gets a reward for being good.

But more than that, I want them to understand the larger meaning of Christmas beyond it being a festival of consumerism. So this year, for the first time, I’ll be going to a church on Christmas Eve where we’ll sing carols.

The prospect of that does feel a little odd — to be singing about the glory of Christ when, technically speaking, he’s not the main man for us Muslims.

But there is another side to carol singing which chimes strongly with me; that is the real sense of community it inspires.

It is a reminder that despite the distractions of social media, we are all part of a living, breathing, larger community, one that encompasses many faiths and traditions.

As a Muslim married to a Christian, I want our children to recognise the places where those faiths converge by focusing on peace, goodwill and harmony. Those are values which feel in short supply and ones I want my children to believe in.

FROM TEN PEOPLE TO JUST TWO

Marion McGilvary 

The Author, 62, lives in Oxford and has four grown-up children.

Last Christmas there were ten of us — my four kids, one wife, one fiancé, my son’s in-laws, a stray friend and me. This was more or less the norm, if a little on the light side as in previous years my parents, sister and husband and her in-laws had joined us.

And because we are a modern family, sometimes even my ex-husband came for a three-day stay, too. We all nested into my big Victorian terrace with its five bedrooms and huge kitchen, with sleeping bags on every sofa. The stuff of holiday films and sitcoms, if you like that sort of thing.

Marion McGilvary, 62, (pictured) from Oxford, is spending Christmas with her eldest daughter, after having a much larger gathering last year

Personally, since my parents died, my marriage ended and my kids grew up and their love could no longer be assured with a Barbie dream-house or a train set, Christmas hasn’t been the same. But this year there’s been another seismic shift.

I’ve downsized. On all fronts.

The big family home in London has been sold and I now live in a modest house with a skinny lounge/diner and a kitchen that’s just big enough to swing a cat in (though please don’t call the RSPCA, we haven’t tested that theory). The inherited oven is so old that all the numbers have rubbed off and cooking results either in burnt offerings or nascent salmonella. I couldn’t trust a pizza to it, let alone a turkey.

So perhaps it’s just as well that this year I have nobody to cook for. One son has gone to his wife’s family in Brazil. My youngest daughter, previously known as the Christmas elf and font of all good cheer and lavishly wrapped gifts, has made a bid for freedom and wants to spend it in her new flat with friends. My elder son is staying in Scotland with his fiancee and my partner is spending it with his mother and kids in his own family home.

That leaves me and my eldest daughter, who left it too late to make other plans when she realised everyone else had bailed.

Ho ho hum. Wake up and smell the cinnamon-spiced coffee, mother — you are no longer the centre of the universe or even the family. In fact, I am suddenly surplus.

I have, nevertheless, decorated with glitter, easy since the whole house is basically one downstairs room. No bauble is left unhung. The door is wreathed, the tree can be seen from space.

There are, however, no stockings on the mantel. Actually, there’s no mantel. And the sprawling mountain of materialism of yesteryear is gone — there are no gifts underneath the tree. Nothing but a sleeping cat.

My eldest and I are going out for lunch, so no last-minute Ocado shop of overindulgence is coming on Christmas Eve.

Instead, I have a case of champagne, many fancy cheeses and a small one-person tin of caviar secreted away. We will play games, watch corny movies and drink copiously. There will be no washing up.

Yes I’m a bit sad that my matriarch days seem to be over. But also the guilty truth is … I actually haven’t been so happy since the year I had flu and got to opt out of the whole thing.

RAISING A TOAST TO DAD’S MEMORY  

Kathryn Flett 

Author and broadcaster Kathryn, 55, republished her memoir The Heart-Shaped Bullet this year to mark its 20th anniversary. She lives in Hastings with her partner and two sons.

Last year, after spending Christmas Day and Boxing Day at home in London, my father had driven himself (I’d offered to collect him; he’d insisted otherwise) down the A21 to spend a few days with me, my partner and sons in Hastings.

Though undeniably frail, he was on excellent form — laughing, reminiscing and enjoying the company of his beloved grandsons.

He ate like a horse, drank modestly, read the papers and had a nap after lunch every day. I was very impressed by how ‘well’ he was doing under the circumstances — at 83, with stage 4 bladder cancer.

Kathryn Flett, 55, from Hastings, has booked a restaurant to raise a glass to her father who died of cancer earlier this year

Shortly after this apparently happy and successful visit, my fiercely self-determining father made the first of his two ‘suicide’ attempts — after which, inevitably, the goalposts moved for us both, in very different directions.

That he wanted ‘out’ on his terms was a stance I could respect and even support, ideologically — but not emotionally or practically. I found his approach nihilistic and he found mine patronising. We agreed, vociferously, to disagree.

My father was a songwriter by trade (his lyrics have been sung by Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Cliff Richard and many more) and a tireless raconteur by inclination.

He was very charming, very funny, very dapper and very tricky. A restless, commitment-phobic soul (he moved houses around 15 times in the last two decades of his life), he never truly ‘settled down’, emotionally or physically; and though sociable, he was fundamentally an ‘only child’. As am I. Dad was also what used to be described half-admiringly, wholly anachronistically, as a ‘ladies’ man’.

My father took up a lot of space in my life. He was careless about his emotional boundaries and, as a result, never fought shy of telling me exactly how he felt about . . . well, everything.

Pictured: A young Kathryn Flett with her father

As he knew the end was encroaching, he explicitly ‘raged against the dying of the light’. His unpredictability and fierce independence became even harder to manage at the time when he really needed care the most.

I loved my father. However, as one of the kindly neighbours who tried to look out for him observed to me, he was ‘impossible to help — and proud of it’.

In the event, when the cancer caught up with him, he died peacefully after a week in a London teaching hospital, looked after superbly by staff who somehow found time to take care of me, too. His funeral, in August, was full of warmth, love and laughter.

It’s too soon to erase the memories of the first half of 2019 — it’s still very raw — yet I also know this isn’t how I will eventually remember Dad.

Meanwhile, the best response to seismic life-shifts is not to simply paper messily over the cracks, but to embrace the change.

So, while I usually love cooking on Christmas Day, for this first one without my father, I have booked a restaurant where we four will raise a glass and toast Dad’s memory without feeling there is an empty seat at the table.

These rituals may be just another small step along mourning’s lengthy winding road, but I know that my father would approve.

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