Christmas is the day the four families converge: one grandmother, ten aunts and uncles and twenty cousins in a single place. This year was my families turn to host Christmas meaning we would be cramming 33 people into our home.
Asked to arrive at 1230pm they turn up promptly at 1145am, uncles and aunts with their respective tribes in tow. They all carry enormous bags full of small parcels: Christmas presents to be doled out to the numerous cousins as indiscriminately as bread being tossed to Romans at Circus Maximus.
Now, we are talking about buying gifts for twenty-plus people. So many people, in fact, we still haven’t learned all of one another’s names. So for the sake of convenience and practicality gifts are understandably bought in bulk. This means that if you are a boy you get the same present as the rest of the boys and if you are a girl you get the same as the rest of the girls.
Aside from the subtle sexism, this gender differentiation wouldn’t be much of an issue if the throng of cousins were all a similar age, but we aren’t. The oldest is nearing 28 and the youngest is 11.
Each year it’s anybody’s guess whether the families have decided to buy gifts appropriate for the youngest or the oldest. One year all the boys got Matchbox cars the next we all got cigar cutters. Though, to be fair, the only cigar cutter related incident that occurred that year was when I sliced off a portion of my pinkie finger. Who could blame me? I was only 23.
But I digress.
By 1230pm we are all crammed into the living room. Humans are everywhere. People on chairs, people on the floor, people sitting on the piano, people on the bookshelves. It’s reminiscent of a scene, overstuffed with extras, from Annie or Oliver Twist.
I stand by the door, a strategic position ensuring I’ll be able to block any present hurled in my direction. Because when the four families come together gifts aren’t given they are thrown.
The room is already full of noise when the melee begins. I am alerted to this by one of my younger cousins bawling and rubbing a spot on her head, the culprit, a little blue parcel lies on the couch next to her.
My feelings of sympathy prove dangerously distracting as a projectile wrapped in blue collides with my door/shield. “That’s for you Charlotte,” one of my teenage cousins shouts across the fray pointing at the present on the floor. I go to correct him on my name but another present comes hurtling towards me, hitting me in the arm.
Soon the floor is covered in shredded wrapping paper, unclaimed presents and little cousins scurrying about the ankles of my uncle who strides around carrying his sack of gifts. He plucks them out one by one, tossing them to his left and right. “Rupert! Rupert!” he booms reading the label affixed to the gift he is holding. He looks up at me and lobs it underarm in my direction. I vainly attempt to catch it but miss. “Typical.” he snorts.
I stoop over and pick it up. “It’s from our trip to Bangkok,” my aunt calls across the room. I turn the peculiar little package over in my hands before unwrapping it to reveal a slingshot. “Oh,” I say, not quite knowing what to make of it. How did they get so many of these through customs and why have they given them to a dozen boys, of whom many are testosterone-laden teenagers?
It’s remarkable how resourceful a child’s mind can be when it comes to destruction. Within a minute of receiving their slingshots everything – coins, scrunched up paper, pens, car keys – becomes a missile. Soon presents are no longer being thrown they are being loaded into rubber slings and shot across the room. Most land well wide of their targets, going over the couch, hitting the television screen, clocking unaware cousins, aunties and uncles.
As people go into damage control I courageously take cover behind the door. I pick up my other presents and unwrap the blue parcel; it’s a little bag of marbles. Oh no, that’s not good. I peek out from behind the door, as far as I could tell no marbles were being shot yet. But it won’t be long. Something had to be done.
I scramble on my hands and knees into the skirmish in search of presents wrapped in blue paper. I gather them up as I go, clutching them to my chest. A stray cherry pit shoots past me. I scrabble onwards but as I reach for one of the packages someone yells out, “Hey!”
I look up at my teenage cousin staring down at me, holding his slingshot at his side.
“Hey! Charlotte is stealing all the presents.” He shouts.
I stand with the gifts to my chest and begin correcting him but get cut off.
“What are you doing with everyone’s presents?” My uncle asks.
I look down at my cousin, “I’m not stealing them, Christian.”
“Jack, I’m not stealing them. They are marbles and I didn’t want them to become projectiles.”
Several people groan. “Way to ruin the surprise, Rupert.” Comes a voice.
“And who do you think you are to be parenting my child?”
I want to say that in 2012 marbles would make for a pretty crappy surprise and that clearly nobody was parenting these kids. But before I can somebody says, “Forget it, the fun’s over. Let’s go have lunch everybody. Thanks a lot Rupert.”
I stand there trying to protest as the four families file out past me: one grandma, ten aunties and uncles and twenty cousins, muttering beneath their breath, shaking their heads, and giving me dirty looks. Then it’s just me holding half a dozen presents surrounded by an eerie quiet and the debris of battlefield Christmas.