Politicians at Christmas: John Swinney
John Swinney tells Jenni Davidson about his approach to Christmas
John Swinney and his son wearing Christmas pudding bunnets
What’s your earliest memory of Christmas?
My earliest memory of Christmas, I suspect, will be getting up ludicrously early and asking, ‘Is it OK to get up now?’ and it being 5 o’clock or something like that and being told to go back to my bed and get some more sleep. And, of course, I now see that pattern repeated in my own children’s behaviour.
Which I bet you enjoy the other way round…
Well, I now understand what the problem is!
Are there any that particularly stand out? Was there a year that you got an amazing present?
Probably two occasions. [One] when I would probably be about eight or nine and getting my first ever train set, which was a landmark moment. And then when I was about 15, and I had coveted a new bike. Every bike I’d had had been passed through numerous generations, neighbourhoods, circumstances, and I coveted a new bike, because I wanted to go youth hostelling. I needed a bike I could do long distances on.
Did you actually do the trip afterwards?
Oh yes, for several years.
Are there any family Christmas traditions that you’ve carried on?
My family tradition as a child was that we always had Christmas at home with my grandmother, and so that was a very contained Christmas Day experience. And I suppose when you begin to craft out your own life, you establish your own traditions.
I used to get into the habit on Christmas Eve – I do most of the cooking, so I’d be turning my mind to what was needing to be done – and there would inevitably be the need to buy some oven tray or something like that, something that would require me to go into a household store. And it was the only time in the year I would go into this shop and every time I would go in, the guy would look at me and say, ‘It must be Christmas ‘cos you’re here!’ For me, Christmas Eve is a day of quiet preparation, of just doing pleasant things around the house and getting things sorted out, and then Christmas Day is very much in the house – starting out very early from my son’s appearance.
Do you find the cooking stressful or do you actually enjoy doing it?
I enjoy doing it. I cook a lot, so I enjoy the cooking. What I find stressful is when people appear on the scene saying, ‘Anything I can do to help?’ when you know for a sure and certain fact that it’ll just make things worse. Just get out of my kitchen and let me get on with it is generally my view of the world!
And has there been any year when anything’s gone terribly wrong?
Not under my watch!
Of course not!
But I do remember my dear mother buying a turkey and just not being able, physically, to get it in the oven. I don’t know how on earth this came about, but the turkey was all ready for preparation and I don’t know how she hadn’t noticed that this was not going to go in the oven. I can’t remember what the remedial action was taken to resolve it, but it was a total shambles.
Sawing a raw turkey into pieces?!
Exactly. It was just a shambles.
What’s your favourite bit about Christmas?
I suppose a couple of things. Nowadays, for me, it is about the only bit of the year where there is a lull from life. Which I say every year with a sense of trepidation. It’s the only time of year when things, for a couple of days, pretty much don’t happen. Often what you find in public life is you’ve got great plans to do something with your family and then something happens. And normally, Christmas is a time that you can be pretty certain you can get all the things as you planned. And then the other thing about it is I have my religious beliefs, so I enjoy the peace and the substance of the Christian message at Christmas. It’s very precious to me.
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