It is the best bit of the holidays. The saggy, comfortable drift between Christmas and New Year when the house is still full of good things but the stress of entertaining has waned. When the TV and the conversation and the drinks run dry, there's only one thing left to fill the time. Games.
Out comes the special table. It's a coffee table, really, but we don't drink coffee and it's too beautiful to soil with cup rings. The top is clear glass so you can see, beneath, the most beautiful arrangement of feathers. It sits, the pride of place before the blazing fire, the flames dancing off its filigreed legs.
First is Boggle. It's an old family favourite, Boggle. The game with which I learned to spell and also with which I learned to lose gracefully. My Mum is an absolute demon with word games and almost always wins. But my Gran and I humour her for a few rounds. The rattling of the cubes in the box presages the excitement of a new puzzle. My teenage vocabulary and patience still aren't up to scratch. I come a happy last every time, knowing that more good things are coming.
The next good thing is a trip to the dining table, to grab a little more cold leftovers to fill up the corners. A refill of glasses: at my age, I'm allowed just a little wine. It helps build the illusion that I'm staying up, doing adult things with the adults. Which I am, after a fashion. Games are useful that way.
Next is the playing cards. There are many decks in our house, but it's a special time of year so the best set comes out. Thick, gilt-edged and linen-finished with a fine portrait of a partridge on the back. In the near future, I will quietly steal that deck and take it when I leave for University. No-one will ever acknowledge the fact that it's gone. In the far future, I will be playing card games with it at Christmas with my own children.
We play a game that we know as Black Maria and which no-one else ever seems to know. At some point, when it gets bundled with every Windows PC, we'll learn that's because everyone else calls it Hearts. But it's one of my very favourites. I love the passing of cards to your neighbour, a delicious and malicious bundle of misery. Hate-drafting remains a vastly underused mechanic.
I do better at Black Maria than I do at Boggle. I like to think it's because I'm a good player. The reality is, of course, that I got some lucky hands. Like most teens, I have a near-complete lack of self-awareness. Sometimes, it's a gift.
The time burns down into the ashes of the fire. We add more logs and clear away the playing cards. Out come more cards, even lovelier cards, the loveliest cards in the house. Vibrant with Asian-style art, inlaid with gold, backed with a glittering gradient of fish scales. These cards are for Mhing.
In play, it's a mix between Mah Jong and Rummy. You take and discard cards, trying to form valuable sets of suits and numbers. We play in a silence broken only by the smack of a satisfying draw and the groan of a bad one. It seems tense, it is tense and yet, we all know what's going to happen. My Mum and I will go for high scores and lose, every time, to my Gran trying to go out quickly.
The repetition of these games, these rituals, is as much a part of Christmas as the food and the fire. A familiar groove, worn smooth by love.
This year, like every year as I pack before driving the 260 miles to visit my family where I grew up, I put some games in the bag. They're not the games I grew up with but new ones: Codenames, Wordsy, Moveable Type. They will come out on the same days, before the same fire, on the same table.
But much is new. There are new players: my Mum taking the place of my long-departed Gran. There are new complaints about the rules of these new-fangled games. And in the heat of the Christmas fire, we will forge new rituals, carve out a new groove in which my own kids can sit, comfortably, in their own time. Games are useful that way.
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