WRITING

My perfect Christmas

January 2001

I don't mean to go all Scrooge-like on you, but I'm not convinced that Christmas actually happened this year. It certainly didn't have its usual build up, seasonal joy escalating steadily from Midsummer's night to Christmas Eve. By the middle of December, it seemed that Christmas had been cancelled altogether. By this stage, shops would normally have been festooned in tacky tinsel and piping out compilation versions of Driving Home for Christmas. But London was unseasonably quiet, its shop windows relatively tasteful. Christmas just wasn't in the air. Apparently, it was only happening on the airwaves. One click on the remote, and it was jingle all the way. Down in Ambridge, the panto-style Mikado was packing the village hall and the Archer family was stockpiling mince pies, mulling wine by the vat and carolling carols round the village green. Albert Square offered its own version of the British (or even brutish) Christmas: domestic violence, drunken fumblings and nerves stretched to breaking point by unaccustomed familial proximity. The Royle Family watched us watching them and the Royal Family watched their ratings slide. On every channel, we were presented with varying versions of the Christmas we ought to be enjoying. But once the airwaves were silenced, Christmas went back to where it seems, these days, to belong. In the imagination.

Of course, I might just be suffering cold turkey. Ever since I was thirteen, I've had Christmas laid on for me, courtesy of The Royal Ballet. Some years, it took the form of a skating party, all fur lined muffs and paper lanterns hung on cardboard trees, warm breath making steam trails in cold air and beautiful people outdoing each other with ever more spins on a cloth painted to look like ice. Or, on alternate years, it was the grandest of all house parties, where no one groaned about playing parlour games and stropped into the other room, muttering that they'd rather watch Victoria Wood instead. There were beautifully wrapped gifts with floppy satin bows, and freshly scrubbed boys dressed in knickerbockers and waistcoats – not a shell suit in sight – who didn't complain when their parcel turned out to contain a tin soldier rather than Playstation 2. Little girls, in satin shoes and Laura Ashley frocks, ooh-ed and aah-ed over baby dolls, not disturbing plastic effigies of Britney Spears. A mysterious relative, Herr Drosselmeyer, magicked the tree to gargantuan proportions but, even so, I never once found a single pine needle on the floor. Then, with a wave of his hand, he conjured up an icing sugar sleigh to transport us through a whirling snowstorm to a Kingdom of Sweets. No selection pack in my Christmas stocking, and none of the travel chaos generated over the last few weeks by a few flakes of the white stuff. It snowed every night, (twice on Saturdays) but the sleigh always made it through. Richard Branson could learn a thing or two from Herr Drosselmeyer.

Admittedly, it all came at a price. This perfect Christmas meant ballet class and a double show on Boxing Day, followed, usually, by matinees and evenings for the rest of the week. It meant holding back on the mince pies and refusing the second glass of wine. It meant early to bed and early to rise, especially if you had to catch the first train back from somewhere up north. As every dancer knows, it's hard to tuck into Christmas when you'll be stepping into tutu and tights twenty-four hours later. At the time, I complained like mad that dancers had the same cross to bear as vicars: a so-called holiday season that was more like the busiest time of the year. But at least the seasonal trappings all around me made it feel like Christmas, even if the reverse side of the tree exposed the fraud: Christmas had been constructed out of plywood.

Nowadays, it's all different. I'm too old to be a snowflake and I've given up hoping that one day, I'll turn into the Sugar Plum Fairy. There's nothing left in The Nutcracker for me to dance. I went in to the Opera House just once over the holidays, to present the BBC 2 broadcast of my Royal Ballet colleagues in The Nutcracker, but afterwards I came straight back home. And then, last Saturday afternoon, I turned on the television and watched the show. For two magical hours, I was back in the corps de ballet: exhausted, over worked and only moderately paid, but an integral part of the perfect Christmas. It was over too soon. I've grown out of The Nutcracker and Christmas just doesn't feel like Christmas any more.