The Ghosts Of Christmas Past, Present and Future

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…

PAST

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.

PRESENT

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!

FUTURE

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!

If You Could Turn Back Time…

I’m curious. If you could turn back time, first of all, would you? Second, when would you go back to and why?

I think I’ve always been a nostalgic sort of person. It’s not that I look back at the past through rose tinted glasses, it’s just that I’m ruled by my emotions, and all it takes is one song, or smell, or random memory out of nowhere and I’m transported back to a part of my life that is now over, or different. Maybe it’s just hard trying to come to grips with how fast life goes. It goes faster as you get older, right? I think we could all agree on that. I was talking about this with one of my kids the other day and we decided that the reason summer seemed to last forever when you were little was because you had no concept of time. For my youngest child, every day lasts a lifetime, whereas for my oldest child, her life is lived against the clock just like mine. As we age we are increasingly ruled by time and schedule. We have to do things by a certain time or on a certain day, and for this reason, we are far more aware of time passing. So it feels faster.

This got me thinking about time and schedules and life in general (it doesn’t take much to set me off…) and it got me wondering, if I could turn back time and go back to any point in my life, not for good, but just to enjoy it again, soak it up, experience it one more time, what part would it be?

It came to me instantly. If I could go back, just for a while, I would go back to when I was a young mum and my two eldest children were a baby and a toddler. And the reason is because life was so unbelievably simple and carefree at that time.

I had my first daughter at 24 and nineteen months later her sister was born. Looking after my daughters was my job, my full time job, my only job. I had started some of the training that would eventually lead to me qualifying as a childminder when my eldest was three years old, but back then, at one point, they were my only job, my only responsibility. They were my world.

And what a simple, sweet time it was. I’m not sure I realised it at the time but I do know I was happy. I had wanted to be a mum for a long time and felt like all my dreams had come true. I had these beautiful little girls and my entire life was looking after them, keeping them happy, having fun. I didn’t drive back then, so I walked everywhere pushing my double buggy with pride. I look back and I can see my face smiling. I remember strangers saying the predictable; ‘havn’t you got your hands full?’ and I would always say no, not really, it’s fine, I love it.

There aren’t always that many positive narratives about motherhood. Mostly, you hear horror stories of pregnancy, birth, ruined bodies, sleepless nights, dirty nappies and temper tantrums. Obviously, that’s all part of it, but I remember being surprised by how much fun it was, how much I enjoyed being with these two tiny humans.

Our lives back then were so simple. No nursery or school or work, so our days were our own. We did not have to be anywhere by a certain time. We did not have to pick anyone up or drive anyone about. It was just me and them and days to fill with fun. Good times. The best of times. And that is not to say that going on to have my two gorgeous sons was not as good. In many ways, my sons have always been easier than my girls! But because I qualified as a childminder before my third child came along, life was different. The eldest started school, the next nursery, and my son had to fit into this very scheduled life, of work and school run and dashing here and there. Same for my next son. Life is tiring. Often it is stressful. Often I start a day wishing for it to be over. I look forward to Friday and think about it as the week marches on. Sometimes there is not enough time to breathe or think. Sometimes I am horribly aware of how fast I am hurtling towards cold, final death. Sometimes I look in the mirror and do not recognise the tired eyes and fine lines staring back at me.

Back then, I was so young. So hopeful, so happy, so vibrant. I had my two longed for children and we could do anything we wanted. Life was an adventure, not a chore. I also actually liked my body. Having my daughters had shook me clear of the eating problems I had lived with for so long. For once, I was proud of my body, for growing, nurturing and feeding my babies. I was young enough to bounce back quickly after birth. I felt slim and young and attractive. The opposite to how I feel now!

So, that’s mine. If I could turn back time that is where I would go back to, just for a little while. Not that I would trade or change my life now. I wouldn’t. I just realise now how much more complicated and tiring it is. I would go back and spend some time in my young, slim body, cuddling my two tiny girls, who were the only people I had to please and who were so very pleased with every little thing I did. Simple times.

What about you? If you could turn back time just for a bit, where would you head back to and why? I would love to know.

Hello Forties!…I’m Ready For You

I normally love my birthday. I’m one of those people who likes to spread it out over a few days, maybe with a barbeque on one day, a family outing to the pub or another, meeting with friends and so on. I mean, why not? It’s a crazy world and a short life and I’ve always thought you should celebrate what and when you can!

I approached my 40th birthday with a different mindset though. This one, I have to admit, was one I’d been dreading from afar for a long time. And then suddenly it was upon me. The worst thing about my 39th year was watching loads of other people turn 40 before me. Partly, I was shocked that they were hitting the big 4-0, and partly I was worn out by all the many exciting ways they planned to celebrate it!

These people were really up for it! I’m talking about trips abroad, weekends away, big family get-togethers and barbeques, surprise parties, meals with friends and so on. I was impressed and exhausted! The closer I got to my birthday month, the more I felt like rejecting the entire, inevitable thing. I wanted to hide from my 40th birthday. I wanted to run from it!

I mean, it all went too fast! Look, I was a little newborn baby once!? How is it possible I am about to become truly middle-aged??

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I don’t think I’m really that bothered about looking older, getting wrinkles or grey hair or things like that. I’m not overly vain and have never really been into looks, mine or anyone else’s. I think it was just the speed with which I reached this milestone that bothers me!

I can remember being a little dreamy kid, my head in the clouds the whole time. Shy and awkward, I just wanted to be left alone to make up stories in my head. At that age, even becoming a teenager seemed impossible. Something that would never happen! And now I look at these old photos and feel rather emotional about how fast it all went. How is that little girl me??

me as a kid

Hitting 40 certainly makes you feel a tad nostalgic, I’ve found. I’ve been looking back at old photos and wandering through the memories and feelings they evoke. They mostly remind me of a simpler time and they also make me feel fortunate. I was happy then, and I’m still happy now. Funnily enough, I couldn’t find any pictures of me as a teenager! I think I may have burnt them all!?

But even in my 20’s, I didn’t feel like an adult. I don’t think I had adult thought processes or reactions. I was still in a bit of a dream, I guess. I became a mum in my early 20’s and motherhood dominated my next two decades. I threw myself into motherhood with gusto and passion, because it was the best thing to have ever happened to me. I truly loved every minute of those first few years as a young mum with two small girls. They were magnificent times.

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I remember feeling a bit freaked out as my 30’s approached though. Turning 30 seemed huge at the time. Like I had to suddenly grow up and stop being silly. Get a real job and my arse into gear! I had three children in my 20’s and worked as a childminder, where every day was a fun filled blur of playdough, Lego, building dens, dressing up and making mess! I remember looking at women older than me when I was approaching 30 because I thought I probably better start dressing differently. I genuinely thought that! I’d been wearing the same scruffy student type clothes for years and thought, I’m too old for this no. I need to wear women’s clothes! Well, I never managed to figure out what that was and I’m still dressing the same now!

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In the end, I quite liked being in my 30’s. I was far more confident. I started writing again and publishing my books. I had my much longed-for fourth child. It’s been a truly memorable decade. Your 30’s are nice, really. You’re still young, you still look young, but you’re an adult, with a settled home-life and responsibilities. Middle age and old age still felt a long way away!

But then suddenly, you know what? 40 is here. Everyone else has had their turn, and now it’s yours. No running. No hiding. Just shoulders back, head up and look it in the eye. Because it’s arrived. It’s knocking on the door.

It’s a bit scary, I guess. Your mortality feels more real. Your aging is not something you can escape. It’s going to stare you in the face every time you look in the mirror. I admit I was starting to freak out about it a bit…But the other night I met up with friends, as we do from time to time, to sit in the pub, eat chips and talk about anything and everything. I adore these meet-ups with these particular women because I find them all very impressive. They all have a fairly similar mindset to me, but all come from different backgrounds. We’ll talk about politics, society, what’s happening to the NHS and education in our country, we’ll moan about our other half’s and express concerns about our children. We’ll talk and laugh and the entire evening always goes far quicker than I wish it to. So, we got to talking about our 40’s, and one of the ladies who has already had hers told me that she quite embraced turning 40. She said she saw her 30’s as mostly about raising kids and running a home and dashing around after everyone, but that she looked forward to her 40’s when it would begin to be a bit more about her, and what she wants. I thought how right she was. And with my youngest starting school this September, it reminded me that my 40’s, are also going to become more about me and what I want to achieve. I felt quite liberated hearing this, as I really hadn’t looked at it that way. I’d been approaching it from a very negative mindset. I don’t want to be 40! I don’t want to get old! But I feel better about it now…

So, come on then 40. I’m ready for you. I’m not running anywhere. We’re in this thing together and what would a life be if you could choose to stand still, or turn back? My next decade will be full of ups and downs, surprises and opportunities. I’m looking forward to it. I’m even starting to like the sound of the number…40. Forty. I’m Chantelle and I’m forty years old. Nice. It’s all right!

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The Lane of a Thousand Stories

It’s not just a lane. To those who don’t know. But then nothing is ever just something. Everything is much, much more than that. To us, the lane is alive with a thousand stories. Millions of lives. Endless possibilities.

For me and you, hand in hand, it’s not just a lane, is it? It’s an adventure waiting to happen. It’s Doctor Who and Clara. It’s sticks turned into sonic screwdrivers. It’s the Tardis waiting for us back home. It’s mud monsters that will drag you down. It’s Cybermen and Daleks and Zygons. It’s a stretch of concrete that twists and turns, and it’s me watching your little legs running down it as fast as you can, yelling over your shoulder to run from the monsters. It’s me, forever tensed that a car will round the corner too fast.

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They are not just puddles in the lane. They are wonders to explore with stones and sticks and welly boots that never quite manage to keep the water out. They are covered with ice to crack and slip on. They are deep with mud to squelch and squerch through. We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going on a bear hunt. They are not just puddles. They are portals to another world. Many worlds. Worlds with trees and telephone lines inside them. Worlds with a mystery face staring right back at yours.

They are not just bushes! Not just a hedgerow to hurl rubbish into. They are blackberries in the summer. Your little hands reaching in to pluck juicy berries from between the thorns. Your sleeve getting snagged on brambles. Your face smeared with red. They are alive, teeming with small unseen lives that run adjacent to ours, unknown. They are buzzing with bees and birds and butterflies, who go about their private lives without fuss or blunder. Who live never to question or worry. Me and you know they are there. And there is not a bush we don’t walk by without knowing or thinking.

Hello Mr Robin. Mr Blackbird. Mrs Blackbird. The shy Heron who takes off should you get too close. The noisy geese. The silent swans. The otters we have never seen. The rabbits in the fields and the buzzards on the telephone poles. The woodpecker drumming. Swifts and starlings and magpies and our favourite, the mighty crow. The crow rules the world, or so we secretly believe. With his knowing caaw and his murder of companions, they could take us all on, should they want to.

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It’s not just a bridge, is it? It’s poo sticks and science. It’s sygnets and ducklings. It’s where we collect conkers in the Autumn. And it’s not just a river, it’s a ford, a fork, an expanse of water fit for paddling. Your favourite place. Your tree dragon and the swing and sitting on the fallen tree, trying to catch tiddlers in a jar. Mucky feet and cold toes. Snacks in the pushchair. Summer. Shady spot, dragonflies and damselflies. Kicking the water. Us and the dogs and me lost in time, caught between now and us, this life and an old one. Me and my sister, stood in the river, captured in a moment that has lasted forever, the sunlight perfect, illuminating our small lives, fishing nets in hand, shadows dancing. At the river, I am full of a thousand memories and with you, I am making a thousand more.

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The lane seems so long when you walk so slow. It’s me saying hurry up, walk faster, come on, come on then, can you at least walk in the right direction? It’s you, picking up stones and sticks and conkers and leaves, staring at bugs, helping them cross the road, saying ‘that’s sad’ when you spot something dead because the lane is not just full of life, it’s full of death and we see it daily. Creatures too slow for the cars. It’s me in a hurry. Urging you on. Rolling my eyes. Come on, come on I’ve got stuff to do. Hurry up and I’ll get you a hot chocolate when we get in.

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It’s not just a lane. It’s songs and silliness and passing the time. It’s make-believe and storytelling and laughter and tears. Death and life and why? Why Mum? Why?

It’s not just a lane. It’s Nature, who was here first with the blackberries and the hawthorn and the Oaks and the Hazel and the dandelions, bluebells and daisies. It’s all the things that exist despite us and will go on after us. But for now, for a moment, it is our lane. Not just a lane, but our world and a thousand stories and lives.

Nothing is ever just something.

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