Christmas usually finds me in a mess of contradicting emotions. It’s such a strange time. I have always found it to be emotional. I love it and I always have, but it gets me right in the feels, right in the guts. Even when I was a little child I had a real thing about Christmas. I can remember sitting next to the tree and staring at the fairy lights with tears in my eyes, just thinking how beautiful was. I couldn’t really articulate it then, but I was tearful because although I was happy and excited, I also knew none of it could last. That the beautiful tree would have to be taken down, the lights wrapped up and placed in a box, the paper-chains removed. I think I knew then, it’s both a happy and sad time of year. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I guess in this mid-life I now find myself in, I’m in a position where I can look back on Christmases of the past, think about the present and also envision what my future Christmases could look like. So I decided to blog about it. I decided to imagine myself as a ghost, like the ones that visit Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, revisiting sad and happy Christmases of the past, taking stock of the present and imagining the future…
I obviously don’t remember my very first Christmas but I do have photos that document it. I was exactly six months old on Christmas Day 1978. There is a photo of me being picked up by my father’s mother. It was only the other day that my mum told me something about that photo that I never knew. Apparently, my father’s parents decided to visit us that year from Kent and they did not even know that I existed. That’s right, my father had not even told them my mum was pregnant with me, let alone that he had a third daughter. Because they turned up unexpectedly, he was forced to get me from my cot, bring me down and hand me over. ‘Here’s another one,’ was apparently what he said. According to my mum, they were fine about it. The photo shows that my grandmother looks quite delighted. My mum reckons my grandad would have told my dad off later. But there you go. I think it just about sums up my relationship with my father since that day… I don’t know why he didn’t tell them. I don’t know how long he thought he could keep me a secret for, or why he would even want to. I know I was an accident, not planned, so maybe that has something to do with it. But there it is. Fucking weird if you ask me. I’m probably lucky that I don’t remember my first Christmas.
The rest of my childhood Christmases were better. In fact, looking back, they were always pretty magical. I remember thinking that the pile of presents was ginormous and I remember that pit in the belly excitement that just keeps you brimming over all day as the countdown runs on. I remember there being far more food than usual, things we were not usually allowed, like coke and lemonade, lollies and sweets. I remember we always had visitors and that even though I was shy, I loved this. I’d hide from them and stick my head in a book, but I loved it. My dad was always cheerful with a drink or two in him. I remember being surrounded by a sea of wrapping paper. The tin of Quality Street that seemed bottomless. The heavy stocking I could hardly lift up. The big, much wanted toy. A Charmkins house one year, a My Little Pony Parlour another, a beautiful baby girl doll another. I remember never wanting it to end and sitting on the landing after we’d been sent to bed, so I could eavesdrop on the adults downstairs, so that I could make it last longer. It was always a happy time.
There are two Christmases that stick in my head for being sad ones. When I was twelve, my parents crumbling relationship finally ended. It was messy and confusing as my dad continued living at our house some of the time, although they were divorced. Then he chose Christmas day to leave for good, to be with someone else. I think I was twelve or thirteen. I remember I got a Walkman that year and probably spent most of the time with headphones on to avoid the rows. After he left, my mum fell apart and hit the bottle. I tried to stay out of it. I looked after my sister’s dying guinea pig for her, while she looked after our mum. I think I knew then that it marked childhood being over.
The other one marked by tragedy was the Christmas of 2003 when I was pregnant with my second daughter. Just six days before Christmas my sister went into labour and her beautiful baby boy Harry was born asleep. I don’t think I’ve ever heard news as shocking as I did that day. One minute we were all excited that my sister was in labour with her third child and wondering if it would be a boy or a girl and the next… I don’t think I will ever know how she got through that Christmas without her baby boy. But my sister is one of the strongest most stoical people I know. She has looked out for me my entire life, worried about me when she didn’t need to, fought my battles and stood up for me when no one else has. I love her fiercely and the thought I had most during that christmas, was this should just not be happening to her. Not her. Not the nicest, kindest, sweetest person I know. At the funeral, she was stronger than anyone. I was a mess but she took my hand and didn’t let go. There has not been a Christmas since that I have not shed tears for Harry and wondered what he would look like now, what he would be like. We have always been determined never to forget him.
As a new parent, Christmas started to change. It had meaning again, I guess. We had our home, our little growing family. Those first few years I suppose we were finding our own way, picking traditions we’d enjoyed from our own childhood’s and creating new ones for our own family. Looking back, we tried too hard to please everyone and as a result there were a lot of years back then when I was glad when it was all over. It never felt quite right. It got too stressful, probably because I was asking too much of myself. Something had to change.
I would say though, that the last few Christmases have been exactly as I’ve wanted them. I would even go so far as to say perfect. The Christmas I was pregnant with my fourth child (2013) pissed me off and I spent a long time afterwards working out why. Since then, I’ve made changes and the last five or six have been very close to perfect. What did I change? I just decided what I wanted to do that Christmas and stuck to it. That means they have all been different, depending on how I feel. It might sound selfish but I needed to be. I’m the one that ‘does’ Christmas. My husband doesn’t really get into it. He enjoys the day but he doesn’t do any of the work or preparation it takes to get there. I don’t mind this. I love Christmas and I love planning it all year, starting present buying in January and spreading it out over the year. I love adding new little traditions all the time, such as Christmas Eve boxes about seven or eight years ago, and Secret Santa within our family about five years ago, then celebrating Winter Solstice about three years ago. The kids get so excited and it’s one special day where they can get spoiled. They don’t get a lot the rest of the year so I do go a bit crazy at Christmas. But it’s me that buys all the presents, plans the stockings and Christmas eve boxes, plans the menus and buys the food, cooks the food, puts up the tree and other decorations. Everything. I do the whole thing so I now feel like if it’s me that’s done all the hard work, I should have the day how I want it. Last year, that meant inviting various relatives to dinner and cooking for nine people. This year it means seeing relatives on Christmas Eve and having Christmas Day just for us. Next year I might feel differently. I think you have to be careful not to fall into a rut where people expect you to do the same thing every year. That gets tedious and it allows resentment to grow. So my advice for a happy christmas would be; do whatever the hell makes you happy. See who you want to see, avoid who you don’t. Eat what you want to eat. Cook and bake if it makes you happy. Buy it all frozen or packaged if it doesn’t. Just do what makes you happy, especially if you are the one doing all the hard work!
A few weeks ago I was walking with my twelve year old son and talking about Christmas and I said to him; ‘do you know, one day I will wake up on Christmas Day and none of you will be there.’
I think it was the first time it had really hit me. They are all growing up so fast. 17, 15, 12 and 5. In another ten years my youngest will a teenager and the others may well have left home… It just hit me that one day Christmas morning will be very, very different. Now, it’s relatively similar to past years. They all still wake up ridiculously early and sneak into each other’s rooms to kill a bit more time and poke at their full stockings until they know it’s okay to come into us. We open stockings on our bed then traipse down to eat breakfast. No one is allowed into the lounge until breakfast is done and the animals are all fed. And then, the chaos commences and I love every minute of it.
Thinking about future Christmases got me feeling a bit teary for a moment or two but then as I talked it out with my son, I realised that it is what it is and everything has this natural cycle to it. It will go back to how it was before we had children. After our own childhood’s ended, we didn’t believe in Father Christmas anymore and we didn’t wake up at the crack of dawn to open stockings, and we didn’t hang about with our parents either. But we still had fun. When we left home, in that gap between moving out and starting our own family, we still put up a tree and decorated the house and cooked a dinner and it was great. I’m going to look forward to that when it comes around. I want my kids and their kids to know that our door is always open and that they may turn up at any unexpected moment and will get fed and welcomed and looked after, but if they don’t, we will be just fine. We will have the animals, and each other, and we will light a fire and start the morning off with a glass of something bubbly followed by Irish coffee! We won’t have the same responsibilities or demands on us. Our day will be our own. I will still get the food in and put up the tree and bake a Chritstmas cake and gingerbread house and all the rest of it. And we will probably have a long walk and then spend the rest of it in front of the TV or playing games before we nod off! It will be different. But it won’t be bad.
It’s emotional, I think, Christmas. If you’re religious it has emotion attached to it and if you’re not, you have to find meaning in it, because you can’t very easily ignore or avoid it. I think the key is to decide what makes you happy and just stick to it. Mix it up, change it around, keep it fresh. Don’t try to please everyone. Aim to please yourself because it’s your time too, your day too. There is so much emotion attached because we reflect back on another year gone by, whether it was good or bad, whether we lost anyone or made any dreams come true. We think about Christmas when we were young and we imagine Christmas when we are old, and we miss those who are gone, and we love those who are still with us and want them to know how we feel. So we do it with love and presents and food and drink, and that makes it a really special, magical time of year. It should be anyway.
I’ve enjoyed my journeys into the past, present and future.
What about you? What were your childhood Christmases like compared to your present ones? What do you look forward to or fear about future ones?
Please feel free to comment!