When I was younger, we knew we could start to get excited about the coming Christmas on the evening the carol singers came to my grandparents’ house in the second week of December. Twenty people would arrive carrying lanterns, sing professional renditions of classic carols and then collect for charity. We would then join in the few that we were allowed to ruin: the Fortes are not known for their singing voices.
Everything about that evening was magical: the enormous, over-the-top Christmas tree, the extravagant manger that Nonna added to every year with her carefully preserved Neapolitan figures, the huge buffets with cotechino, lentils and huge parmesan wheels, the tables throughout the ground floor with their nearest and dearest friends, and what often seemed like most of the Italian community in London.
We would be summoned to tables to be cooed over and reintroduced to distant cousins we hadn’t seen since the last family party. This was an occasion when we were encouraged to show off – sing a carol, recite a poem – and we would be summoned to Nonno’s side so that he could boast about our successes, our A-level results, and to Nonna’s, so she could show off our lovely dresses and immaculate manners.
My father died when I was nine and my sister was six. Christmas was my extended Forte family around an enormous table, with ravioli made by my great-aunt and grandmother, a turkey big enough to feed 50 people, ditto the Christmas pudding, followed by a present frenzy, followed by 4pm Mass.
After my grandparents died and we no longer had the luxury of a house big enough for all of us at once, I think my aunts and uncles were relieved to finally be free to have the intimate Christmas they had always wanted. They could begin to create their own traditions. I, instead, have always wanted to emulate those years to whatever degree I was able.
Since then, I have had to work over the festive period at least 10 times in the last two decades, and I have never minded doing so, even when I was in Hong Kong for three years and so far away from my family. But by far my favourite Christmases have been the ones when I was running Hotel Endsleigh for Mum, and I had the opportunity of making it as fabulous for our guests as it had been made for me. Hospitality is an intrinsic part of Christmas, and the desire to make people happy is one of the main – maybe naïve – reasons I entered the industry.
However stress-free and pleasurable I tried to make it, there were occasions when circumstances got the better of me. On one awful occasion, my husband, Marcus, was driving down to Devon after work on Christmas Eve, hit a fox and only arrived at 4 am on Christmas morning. I was then let down by a member of staff and Marcus spent the next eight hours scrubbing plates at the potwash.
Then there was the time I spent Christmas trapped at an airport in Milan, trying to get home while a storm raged, along with thousands of other people, fighting over the last packets of crisps.
We have had memorable Christmases since we have had children: the two occasions we spent the Christmas break in Munich and Berlin, at a gorgeous Rocco Forte hotel, with the luxury of housekeeping and kitchen and restaurant staff ministering to our every desire, sipping mulled wine in the snow at the Christmas markets, and experiencing a very different tradition of Mass. This year we will again be in wonderful Cornwall, singing our hearts out in our lovely little church and exchanging the Sign of Peace with many dear friends and neighbours.
One tradition that we have kept to in the years since those fabulous Christmases I had as a child in my grandparents’ house is that of inviting those who have no significant family around to spend it with us, to share a meal, companionship, good cheer and a glass or two.
When I was younger I would resent these interlopers, these cuckoos in our nest, because I had no idea that my experiences of life were not common ones.
More than at any other time in the year we cannot ignore our immense and undeserved good fortune if we are blessed with family and friends and a degree of peace in our little corner of the world, particularly as we cannot avert our gaze from the inhumanity man shows man in many other places. This is the time of year when goodwill to all men, love, charity and kindness are more than words: they are a command that we cannot ignore.
I try to count my numerous blessings every day, but on Christmas morning, as I look along the pews and see so many of my most loved ones next to me, my heart will truly be filled with thankfulness.
Alex Polizzi is a television presenter and writer
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