As the glitter frosted windows of the advent calendar were opened, she spent the days of December assembling the chocolate coins, tubes of sweets, pencils and socks; all those long thin objects that would fit in a Christmas stocking. She helped the children write their letters to Santa, lifted them up to reach the letter box, made sure they didn't find the shiny-wrapped gifts hidden under her bed.
As the big day drew nearer, she went in search of the tree, just the right height and width, non-dropping needles and a tall spike at the top for the fairy. She tested the lights, replaced the fuse-bulbs where necessary, then carefully, one by one, placed the fragile glass baubles and home-made paper lanterns. She searched out the pine cones they'd collected in summer, then tied them with scarlet ribbon to the green garlands draped around the fireplace. Her evenings slipped past in writing cards, shaping and painting marzipan fruits, finishing hand-knitted jumpers.
Almost before she realised, it was Christmas Eve, with its own special schedule. A carol service at church; walking there in the cold with excited children pulling her along. Coming home to baths and hair-washes; there'd be no time for those on Christmas Day. Putting the girls' hair in rags to curl them, keeping an eye on the boys to stop them eating all the chocolates on the tree.
And then it was bedtime. There were no difficulties in getting any of them to bed on Christmas Eve - the sooner they went, the sooner Santa would come. But before they could go up the stairs there was the sherry and mince pie to put out for Father Christmas, the saucer of milk and carrots for the reindeers. Then the song they'd all sing -
Christmas time is here
so we go to bed.
As we climb the stairs
nodding sleepy heads.
Take our stockings off
hang them in a row
then jump quickly into bed
and off to sleep we go...
But then came the years when the Christmas sparkle faded, when they didn't live in the lovely house any more, when the choices had to include decisions about spending the day with Mummy or Daddy. Two sets of presents didn't make up for the things that were missing. Pleasure offset by guilt and regret.
Year after year of not-quite-right Christmases followed.
Last weekend, the not-so-young mother went shopping with her best friend and her youngest daughter. They chose jumpers for the boys, looked at boots and leather jackets, checked out different types of make-up, bought new fairy lights for the tree.
At the bookshop they spent ages looking through the children's section. She found the books she'd loved as a child, Pippi Longstocking and the Chronicles of Narnia. She re-lived the times she'd shared stories with her own children, their laughter over Peepo and Each-Peach-Pear-Plum. She carefully selected the first books she would read to her grandson on his first ever Christmas.
When lunchtime came, they stopped at a new restaurant. They sat on soft leather seats while they waited for their steaming mugs of chocolate. They looked around at the light fittings made of tea-cups, at the velvet patchwork sofas, the cake-stands piled high with dainty treats. She noticed the excited, smiling faces of children and adults alike; she couldn't help but smile back.
It was still early in December, but it felt almost as though they were finding a new tradition.
Maybe a perfect Christmas wasn't quite so far away.