For most people, Boxing Day is a slightly downbeat, re-run of the previous days festivities. More Turkey. More Christmas pud. Perhaps a change of venue and/or relatives. That’s certainly how it used to be in my family, but when my wife Kate came along Boxing Day became ‘our’ day. A chance to finally be alone together, to declare Christmas well and truly ‘done’, and to bask in the healing power of the unplanned moment.
I remember our first Boxing Day together. We got up around midday, opened a bottle of champagne, looked at our presents from the day before, roasted chestnuts in the oven, played a silly board game, watched “Ghost Busters” in our bath robes, and stuffed ourselves on posh nibbles. And as the sun gave up its fruitless attempt at breaking through the grey December sky, and the lounge was once again lit by tree lights and candles, I found myself giving Kate a chair to sit on, whilst I went down on one knee.
“Marry me,” I said.
That gives you some idea how good Boxing Day made me feel about life. And there hasn’t been a Boxing Day since that hasn’t given me that same inner glow, that same joy for life. And I can speak with some authority here because in the last seven years I’ve celebrated Boxing Day approximately eighty three times.
* * *
Not that long ago, before the days of conjuring words out of the air and rearranging them into an entertaining order, I worked in banking. Credit Card Banking.
I was a fix it man. An ideas man. Wealthy men would ask me how to make even more money with the tools they had at their disposal, and I would tell them. Though it pains me to admit it the ‘credit crunch’ is partly my fault – not my idea, but I was there, pulling the levers and pressing the buttons that made it happen.
I hated banking. It was about a million miles away from what I’d always hoped I would be.
Other than usual childhood dream of being a fireman or an astronaut, my earliest ambition was the desire to create books. I remember taking as many sheets of paper as I was allowed, folding them in two, and using my grandmother’s stapler to create a spine. I’d then proceed to fill the pages with illustrations and narrative, until I ran out of space, which is when the story would – sometimes quite abruptly – end.
These books were distributed on a strict ‘read and return’ basis. I don’t remember the stories I wrote and I have no idea what happened to the manuscripts but I remember it used to make me happy. I remember that.
But you know how it is. You grow up. Put aside childish things. Get real. And all the dreams you had – becoming James Bond, becoming an actor, working in a job that you enjoy – they all get compromised. Down to nothing.
On my thirty-second birthday, I finally realised that there was a distinct possibility that the last of my ‘dreams’ might also never come to pass.
At the time I hadn’t even realised that it was a dream – I just hadn’t had a proper girlfriend for a while. A long while. A really long while. But I’d always assumed that things ‘would work themselves out’. Eventually. It appears I was the only one who thought so.
Colleagues had long since stopped describing me as an eligible bachelor, and some had even questioned my sexuality, which wasn’t helping the situation.
The thought of being single for the rest of my days was unacceptable.
Something had to be done.
* * *
So in order to avoid a life of bachelorhood, I started to plan. I made lists. I came up with a strategy. I took all the problem solving skills I was developing to make rich men richer, and applied them to my own life.
Around that time there was a TV show on the BBC called ‘Would Like to Meet’ where a team of experts (a flirt coach, an actor, and an image consultant) would take some hapless individual and turn them into a heart-throb or a man-magnet. I’d watch it avidly from week to week hoping to pick up some tips. And quickly came to the conclusion that I too could do with a similar makeover, albeit without the entire viewing nation of theUnited Kingdomlooking on.
So over the next few weeks I ordered a truck load of ‘dating’ books and stacked them by my bedside ready for those evenings when I found myself alone. ie. all of them.
I also tracked down an Image Consultant, picking the one I fancied the most on the grounds that any woman I found attractive would probably dress me in a manner she’d find appealing. Of course, back then Image Consultants really only worked for corporations but I had surprisingly little problem persuading her to broaden the scope of her client base to include one sad and lonely thirty something guy. And once my wardrobe had been completely replaced I went in search of a flirt coach.
At the time Channel 4 regularly hired a lady called Peta Heskell whenever they needed a relationship or ‘flirt’ expert, and as luck would have it Peta ran weekend flirting courses. I sent myself on one, took my place in the front row and when instructed, nervously introduced myself to the stunning blonde sitting next to me.
“I’m Peter,” I said.
“I’m Kate,” said the blonde. Then she smiled. And I was smitten.
The course wasn’t that much of a success, in that it didn’t teach me anything new, not that it mattered. My strategy had worked, albeit somewhat differently but infinitely better than I’d hoped. Kate and I were married exactly a year later.
* * *
Kate was a wonderful person. A true entrepreneur. A real visionary. When we met I had vague notions of settling into a rather typical domestic life-style; putting up with a job that I didn’t care for five days a week, in return for the company of a loving woman in the evenings and at weekends.
Kate had very different ideas.
Life wasn’t about ‘settling’ for things. To her there was a world of possibilities out there. We could go anywhere, do anything, have everything, all we had to do was put our minds to it.
When my wife wasn’t trying to convince me that we could escape the ‘rat race’ – or at the very least change races – she was reading. I’d lay money that a copy of every self-help book published around the millennium somehow found it’s way onto my wife’s bookshelf, where it would wait in line to be digested, scribbled over, highlighted, deconstructed and eventually incorporated into ‘Kate’s big theory of everything’ – a kind of pseudo social-science technical manual as to how the world works, and the people in it.
During the two and a bit years of our marriage Kate became more than my wife, she was also my teacher.
And when she died in my arms I was heart-broken.
* * *
People rarely ask me how Kate died. It’s just not the sort of question they feel comfortable asking. Most assume she must have had cancer – that we’d have had some warning. We didn’t.
I’ve learnt since that sudden deaths like hers (a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage) are surprisingly common. Kate had a weak part in her brain, probably since birth. It could have happened at any moment. It was almost inevitable.
I learnt too that after the shock comes the guilt. Every cross word, every nasty thought, every lie – they all come back to haunt you. And amongst the demons that were queuing up to torment me was the realisation that I still wasn’t happy, and maybe I never had been.
There had been happy moments, of course. Quite a lot of moments. Most of them in the previous three years, and most of them down to Kate, but they were moments none the less. And I wanted to be happy all the time. Not just occasionally. Not just for a moment.
Something had to be done.
* * *
And so I decided to tackle the problem in the only way I knew how: by making lists, and coming up with a strategy.
One such idea was Boxing Day.
That first Christmas after Kate passed away my mother, concerned for my welfare during the festive season, asked if I’d like to spend Boxing Day with them. It was a generous offer but I decided to spend it just as we always had.
I got up late, I opened a bottle of champagne, I sat in bed and browsed my collection of gifts from the previous day. Then I took the Brie from the fridge, a box of posh crackers (the edible kind) and worked my way through the whole lot whilst I sat in front of the telly and watched “The Santa Clause”. A little later I emailed friends I’d been meaning to catch up with, and followed that with a walk down to Old Leigh. I looked out at the boats resting in the mud, and then I went home, wrote down some thoughts, and did some planning.
By the time I went to bed I felt like I’d had a week’s holiday, and all I’d done was get out of bed and see how the day unfolded. It was such a good day that I caught myself wishing that Boxing Day happened a little more frequently than once a year, at which point I had the following crazy thought: Why can’t it? What was to stop me replicating the same structure – or lack of structure – on any other day of the year?
From that day on I decided to have a ‘Boxing Day’ once a month. Once a month I get up with absolutely no plans whatsoever and see how the day unfolds. And that was almost seven years ago.
* * *
Though the ‘Boxing Day rules’ expressly forbid pre-planning, my Boxing Days definitely have themes.
I’ve made chocolate brownies, treacle tart, many many pizzas (base included), and truck loads of flapjacks.
I’ve ‘dropped in’ on friends, my family, visited junk shops and museums that I’ve always wanted to go inside.
I’ve set off in the car forCambridgeor other far flung places I can get to, and back, in a day.
And I’ve worked – working is a completely valid Boxing Day activity if it’s what you really want to do, and it isn’t pre-planned. I’ve written whole chapters, spent a day blogging, caught up on all my post and emails.
I’ve had plenty of successful Boxing Days (in that I achieved that holiday feeling by the end of the day), but I’ve also had less successful Boxing Days (when I didn’t). What I hadn’t realised at the time was that I was experiencing something that scientists refer to as ‘Hedonistic Habituation’. Regardless of how pleasurable an activity is, much of its pleasure is actually derived from its ‘newness’. So whilst I thought I was relying on activities that had worked on previous Boxing Days, I had, in fact, got myself into a Cambridge-based flapjacky rut. The trick, it seems, is to think of something you enjoy doing – then tweak it enough to make it ‘new’.
* * *
Of all the ‘happiness’ ideas I’ve had over the years, Boxing Day has been without a doubt one of the easiest to implement. It’s also the one that raises the most eyebrows.
“That’s bonkers,” my friends say. “Brilliant, but bonkers. But don’t you ever feel lonely? Or at a loss to know what to do?” And the short answer to both questions is, yes, of course. Though it pains me to admit it, I can’t guarantee that Boxing Day will work each and every time. But I’ve learnt that when this happens it’s best just to shrug, and move on. When it comes to creating happiness whilst Boxing Days are great, they’re not the whole answer.
“So what is?” They ask. “What else is in this… ‘happiness strategy’?”
At this point I usually tell them to get another round in. And then, over the noise of our fellow festive revellers and ‘Now That’s What I Call Christmas’ thumping out of the juke box, I tell them about my ‘Now List’, my ‘Wish List’, how I set myself yearly goals, and how I make sure I actually achieve them.
I tell them how I’ve taken back control of my life, decided how I want it to be, pointed it in that direction, and given it a kick up the backside.
I tell them how I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had. Smiling more than I ever did. How there’s love in my life again. How I think Kate would be proud of me. And that I can finally say, I’m happy.
“Those ideas are too good to be kept to yourself,” they say eventually. “You ought to write those things down.”
And so I did.
Thirty something years later I am finally doing something that I wanted to do. I’m realising a childhood ambition. I’m making books.
And I remember now, how happy this makes me.
Originally written for the Guardian, December 2012