Kerry McLean: The old friend who truly understood the magic of Christmas... and how many years later I have finally discovered it too
Many years ago, when I was living in London and when my lovely husband and three kids were still very far off in the future, I agreed to meet up with a friend who asked me to go Christmas shopping with her.
I was at an age where buying presents was a simple task; a small gift for the members of my immediate family, occasionally purchased at the airport as I waited for my flight home, bottles of mulled wine for my mates and a box of biscuits for the binmen was the sum total of my December outgoings.
So, it came as a total shock to see my lovely pal Jo produce a list as long as her arm of people and the presents she had to purchase for them. We were the same age, but she had walked down the aisle at the very tender age of 20 and, by the time of this Christmas outing when we were in our mid-twenties, Jo already had two small children at home.
I had assumed we'd be picking up a couple of pressies for each of her little ones but her list included not only her offspring and her own family but also her husband's entire family, the teachers and lollipop lady at her little ones' school, their Rainbow Leaders, their dance and violin teachers and also her neighbours who lived above, below and on either side of their little flat.
These last few were very important, she explained, as a good Christmas present for her neighbours might mean fewer complaints when her little ones made too much noise.
It stunned me how much responsibility she had on her young shoulders. I'd love to say that I offered to help out more, to babysit or take the kids out to the park to give her and her husband a badly needed break in the run up to Christmas Day, but looking back, I think all I did was help carry her purchases back to her bus stop before I left her to make my way back to my own home.
I probably thought I'd been a great friend, keeping her company and listening to her talk about her kids while silently thankful that I didn't have to be so grown up.
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The truth is that immature me watched how she lived her life with mild horror, noting how she never got to venture out into London's nightlife with the rest of us after we finished a long day at work.
When we took a walk into Covent Garden at lunchtime to see the Christmas lights and window displays, those of us who were single and minus dependants strolled through the designer clothes shops, eyeing up outfits we couldn't afford and taking immense pleasure from the disgust on the shop assistants' faces in those plush boutiques. They knew we couldn't afford their clothes but much to their chagrin there was nothing they could do to stop us browsing.
My pal didn't get to join in this free entertainment (a rare thing in pricey London!) because she would be out, ticking off items on her festive 'to do' list. And yet, she was one of the happiest people I knew. Even that December day as I waved her off, watching her through bus windows that were heavy with condensation, she sat weighed down by presents and parcels, beaming a massive smile.
Now I have my own brood and my very own never-ending list of people to buy for at Christmas. I've become more organised with each year that passes but I'll still be running around like a blue-bottomed fly over the next few days, to make sure that we've everything for the big day and that Santa hasn't forgot to buy any presents that were requested.
It sounds hectic and it is, but, as singer Andy Williams put it, it's also the most wonderful time of the year. I love the excitement on my children's faces, I love visiting the homes of friends and family, delivering presents and cards and collecting hugs and good wishes. And I love reconnecting with good friends like Jo who understood the joy of Christmas and giving much earlier than I did. I'm so glad I caught up.
Merry Christmas to you all!