A life-altering Christmas: Granny had a parsnip-sized spliff and got high.

Until you have observed a woman wearing an elasticized girdle engage in a discussion about horse racing with a gambler named Lamb Chop, to be honest, I do not believe you have truly celebrated the best family Christmas I have ever had was spent with another family. I mean, my own family was also present – some of them. However, they were not the main attraction.
The highlight was witnessing my 93-year-old grandmother, dressed in tweed from the home counties, enjoying the effects of passive intoxication while conversing with a semi-professional gambler called Lamb Chop. What did these two unlikely tablemates have in common? Well, Lamb Chop had made his livelihood predominantly through horse betting, while my grandfather had been a veterinarian and a horse owner. And so, underneath the strings of Christmas cards, beside a roaring fire, with the melodies of Bob Dylan’s album “Bringing It All Back Home” playing in the background, these two engaged in a continuous conversation for approximately five hours. Discussions on Derby winners, flat racing form, trainers, horse stables, jockey weight, and Grand National hopefuls were exchanged. Until you have observed a woman wearing an elasticized girdle and sporting a blue hairstyle talking about Lester Piggott’s triumphant ride on The Minstrel in the 1977 Epsom Derby with a man smoking a hand-rolled cigarette the size of a parsnip, then honestly, I do not believe you have truly celebrated Christmas.
For years, my Christmases had been spent in a secluded, non-touristy corner of North Shropshire, at my grandmother’s house. We would watch TV, eat using a special hosting trolley, change into our pajamas in front of an electric fireplace, and then continue watching television for good measure. That house is one of only two places in the world that I can mentally walkthrough completely: from the pictures of horses lining the staircase to the pink bathroom containing my grandfather’s old mustache comb, and even a cupboard under the stairs filled with shoe polish, binoculars, and shoehorns. It is as if this house is imprinted in my DNA.
When my grandmother became too old to host, we were fortunate enough to be invited to the home of some friends of my mother’s, who resided in a nearby town. They were as exotic and glamorous as my family was ordinary. They had lived in Kerala, practiced fortune-telling with molten lead, enjoyed whisky, possessed an impressive collection of books, ate pink grapefruit for breakfast, and radiated a certain golden glow even when the weather outside was dreary.
During Christmas, they gathered together a diverse and often chaotic group of guests. In that house, I played Scrabble with a Jewish refugee who arrived in England in the 1930s, engaged in a game of Dream Phone with a grey-haired scholar, ate muesli next to a photographer from Delhi, fixed a broken tent zipper with the help of a paramedic, and listened to tales of shark fishing in Achill, Ireland, courtesy of an interior designer wearing pink trousers.
That initial Christmas, spent around a massive table filled with wine glasses, dictionaries, ashtrays, photographs, miniature elephants, red cabbage, and knitting supplies – all while my chain-smoking grandmother provided a low-pitched commentary on Comedy of Errors’ prospects for the 1973 Cheltenham Champion Hurdle (her voice so deep that people often mistook her for a man on phone calls) – was the first time I truly grasped the essence of Christmas. I started to enjoy it. I actively looked forward to it. That family, who were not blood relatives, showed me what Christmas truly meant. They were the offspring of refugees and participants in traditional hunting events; they attended church services and stayed up until 3am, sipping their drinks. Despite their casual attire and gold rings, they exuded an inviting warmth to all those around them. They continued visiting my grandmother in her nursing home until the day she passed away.
I used to believe that a fulfilling Christmas necessitated a overflowing stocking, a boisterous television, an abundance of food, and a scattering of dog hair on the carpet. However, that Christmas taught me that a couple of glasses of sherry, enveloping clouds of smoke, and a hazy discussion about the latest event at Kempton Park Racecourse can also contribute greatly to the holiday spirit.

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