If you’re short on time, here’s all you’re really wanting to know: the food was amazing, and this is a family that truly enjoys spending time with one another.
Back track #1: Christmas was not a time of falalalalah in my family. At some point when I was young, both of my parents realised that if they worked on Christmas day, they wouldn’t have to spend as much time around each other. Of course, they both realised this independently, so both of them would head off to work on December 25th. I spent a lot of time by myself. It was pretty fucking boring. The rule was also that presents couldn’t be opened until we were all together, so sometimes that would be 8pm. In a word: suuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.
After my parents finally divorced, I invited my father to have Christmas with me. Four years in a row. Twice he forgot, twice he got a “better offer” and then forgot to tell me that he wouldn’t be showing up. So I decided to just avoid feeling that shit and I stopped doing the whole Christmas thing. I still did presents, I just stopped doing anything vaguely Christmas-y. On Christmas Eve I get out 5 DVDs for $5 and then I sleep late and get up and eat whatever I fancy and watch movies.
Back track #2: For Christmas 1999 I was seriously sick with Crohn’s disease. This wasn’t particularly unusual, I had aggressive Crohn’s and it was usually triggered or made worse in December – the stress of Christmas (even if you’re not celebrating it, there’s still a low level stress of everyone else’s seasonal madness), along with the rising summer heat. My friends with Crohn’s all got sicker in December too. My then-best friend and I headed up to Taupo for New Year’s, which I spent moving between the couch and the toilet. I was really sick. After we got back home we waited til January 3rd before I headed to the hospital (I didn’t want to be rude and show up there sick on a public holiday). I just wanted some IV fluids and to be off food for a couple of days to help get things under control. By the end of that week I was told I was dying and had urgent surgery to remove my large intestine.
I was physically and emotionally shattered. My surgeon, Mike, told me the day after my surgery that he’d ask another doctor – who also had an ileostomy – if she’d come by to visit and talk with me. The next day Kirsten showed up next to my bed at the end of her work day; even though I was out of my mind on morphine, I still remember her coming up and saying hi and telling me that I was clearly pretty drugged up, so she’d come by again if I wanted to talk.
Kirsten came by every week day for the rest of the time I was in hospital. Which was all of January. We talked. As I was slowly allowed to drink fluids and then eat, she brought me treats – chocolate almond milk, peach jelly, chocolate.
At some point early on, one of the nurses said, after Kirsten left, “Oh, that’s Alison’s daughter, isn’t it!” She said it in such a knowing way, like everyone knew who Alison is. Surely I did too. I didn’t want to seem stupid, so I started checking the name badges of every woman who looked like they might vaguely be old enough to be Kirsten’s mother – doctors, nurses, receptionists, the vampires who woke me every morning to take my blood samples, the tea lady, the newspaper and snack cart ladies, the care assistants. I would try to casually peek at their name badges, which is an impossible thing to do casually. None of them were Alison.
When I was discharged, Kirsten came by to find my worldly goods of flowers and cards and pick-up-sticks and painkillers being packed up. She got out a piece of notepaper and wrote her contact details on there, and told me to phone her, anytime I needed. She left and I looked at the piece of paper. Kirsten Holst.
Kirsten rang me a few days after I got home. I rang her. I went to dinner at Kirsten’s a few times. Even though her daughters were fairly young, it was a household where we could talk about our bowels (and lack thereof) over dinner without it being weird. Sometime around November Kirsten asked if I wanted to join the Holst family for Christmas lunch. It was weird. No one had ever asked if I wanted to join them for Christmas before (as it turned out, my then-best friend’s parents ended up inviting me that Christmas dinner that year too – when it rains, it pours).
I showed up with a chocolate cake. Which seems like a really stupid thing to do, bringing coal to Newcastle or microplastics to the ocean or something. But food is what I do, so chocolate cake I made. Like, this is an amazing chocolate cake, and you wish I’d make it for you, but still…. the Holsts, en masse, don’t need my chocolate cake.
The kitchen was crammed and busy. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I awkwardly settled into a couch and watched Kirsten’s girls playing with Simon’s kids. And I watched as plate after plate after plate of food was carried down to the table (which was actually two or three tables pushed together).
There was this weird family dynamic going on. Everyone liked each other. Everyone liked each other’s company. Even when they were quibbling about the ham, they were doing it with affection. People smiled. People laughed and meant it.
At the start of lunch, I was sat down next to Alison. We’d met briefly a couple of times during the year, but I doubt I ever registered much on her radar. But Kirsten had told me a few months earlier that Alison had asked if, while I was in hospital, I had created a list of foods I wanted to eat when I was allowed to eat again, since Kirsten had done this during her time in hospital post-surgery. So my pathetic little Christmas gift to Alison Holst was to give her the list of foods I’d craved, in the order I’d craved them. She was delighted. Alison gave me some chocolate. Kirsten gave me my very first decent quality knife.
There was swapping of chairs as people got up to take care of food or small children. At one point Kirsten’s youngest daughter, Jen, who was sitting at the far end of the table, announced that she didn’t want to eat any more chicken at all, or any vegetables. The only thing she wanted was her mini Moro bar, since each of us had one at the head of our plate. I remember internally sucking my breath in, wondering how bad this was going to go. Even though Jen was only eight, when I was growing up this would’ve gotten me a slap or sent to my room, at best. I could feel my pulse doing little marathons as I waited for whatever punishment was going to befall her.
“Did you know,” Alison said to Jen, “that in Mexico they serve chicken with a chocolate sauce? They call the sauce a mole. So eating your Moro seems like a perfectly fine idea.”
And then everyone got back to eating and talking, while Jen ate her Moro.
I was very confused by this response. And relieved.
Desserts were brought out. All the kids demolished my chocolate cake. I avoided the fruit cake, because even if Alison Holst has made it, it’s still fruit cake.
Last November I spent a few weeks living with Kirsten. And Jen, now 26. I was fresh out of the psych ward and feeling traumatised and lost and struggling to take care of myself, so they took me in. Late one night Jen and I were in the kitchen, organising snacks and hot drinks. I told her about that Christmas I spent with her and the rest of the Holst family, that one good Christmas that made me realise why it is that maybe people like Christmas. She doesn’t remember it at all. We both got a bit teary. Jen said to me, “I’m so glad that you told me that story. That behaviour sounds so bratty and so atrociously very much like me. And that sounds just like grandma.”
We curled up on the couch together, with hot chocolate (my secret recipe) and good brie and watched Netflix.
First published in The Spinoff (2018)