Why I prefer Christmas Eve to Christmas Day

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Image copyright Ian McMillan
Image caption Ian McMillan with his dad

It can sometimes seem as though the whole Christmas season is about a single day. For poet Ian McMillan, though, the most special date in the festive calendar is 24 December.

I like Christmas Eve much more than Christmas Day - I always have. I enjoy the anticipation and the excitement and, because I'm a Yorkshireman, I love the tremblingly beautiful idea of the deferred gratification. With added baubles.

My dad would finish work early on this day. He'd get home in the middle of the afternoon and he'd hang his trilby up and he'd have a cup of tea and one of my mother's mince pies, and then we'd go to the farm in the next village to get the turkey. It was a ritual that felt as simple and beautiful as a piece of origami folded by a child and placed on a mantelpiece. In my memory it was always snowing. In real life, it probably hardly ever was.

On Christmas Eve 1968, when I was 12 and starting to feel that I might just be growing up a little, I didn't go with my dad to get the turkey because I was looking at the moon, standing in the back garden, screwing my eyes up and concentrating as hard as I could.

Image copyright NASA
Image caption The Earth as viewed by Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve, 1968

I was one of those lads who was mad on space flight and, on Christmas Eve that year, Apollo 8 circled the moon over and over again and the astronauts read out the first few chapters of Genesis. For a boy inching towards adolescence, these moments of majesty and resonance felt almost perfect.

And, after that, I never went with my dad to get the turkey again, and now I wish I had. He'd asked me in 1968 and I'd said: "No, thanks," in a breaking voice that ran up and down the long ladder of tones and cracking registers, and a tradition was broken - and once a tradition is broken it can't be fixed.

Image copyright Ian McMillan
Image caption Ian would go and pick up a turkey with his dad on Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve 2001, I'm visiting my dad in hospital and he hasn't got long for this world. I go up to his ward in the vast creaking lift and I'm accompanied by a sad-eyed man in a Santa hat. My dad's time is folding itself up, circling further and further away in space.

I get to his ward and the decorations are poignant and beautiful. A nurse is putting tinsel on a tree, hanging it carefully. I walk in to see my dad and he's sleeping, his breathing laboured, sounding like the tide over a shingle beach. Before he worked in an office in Sheffield, he was in the Royal Navy for decades, often away at Christmas and he once told me how, one Christmas Eve just after the war, he was in the South China Sea gazing at the moon and a single meteor fell through the air towards the horizon where Christmas Day was waiting.

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I have a word with the nurse. I ask her how he is. Her answer is devastatingly straightforward, kind and matter-of-fact at the same time. "If you're asking me if he'll die today, I don't think he will. I think he may well die tomorrow, though."

She reaches over and touches my hand and her Barnsley voice is deep and beautiful. I sit by my dad and hold his hand. Somewhere, almost unbearably, Silent Night is playing - it's his favourite carol and he would often sing it in his warbling tenor as he prepared the sprouts late on Christmas Eve for the next day's feast.

And now it's Christmas Eve 2017 and my three grandchildren will be coming round later on for a party and I'm in charge of laying the table. When my youngest, Noah, arrives, he'll lift his one-year old arms up to me and I'll pick him up and carry him into the room to look at the Christmas tree. He'll catch both our reflections in the mirror and he'll point.

I still love Christmas Eve more than Christmas Day, maybe because my dad didn't make it through to Boxing Day, maybe because I still shudder with excitement when I think of Apollo 8 circling the moon and the heightened language of the astronauts reaching out across space and time, maybe because, for me, the anticipation is still always the best part of anything. And I should have gone for the turkey with him because the moon would still have been there when we got back.

And maybe the old certainties really are the best, folded and placed on the mantelpiece. Come on, Noah - let's go and look at the sky!

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