Why Christmas isn’t all jolly holly

I love Christmas. Anyone who knows me will tell you that. I love the dark nights and the vibrant stars. I love cosying up in the sitting room, with rugs, hot water bottles, an open fire, a steaming mug of tea (several in fact). I love the Christmas songs, carols by candlelight; I love the rituals of buying and decorating the Christmas tree. Gifting is one of my love languages, so picking out things that people I care for will appreciate also fills me with all the Christmas tingles.

And yet.

Feeling down

I feel pretty down right now. Maybe that’s to be expected. Christmas IS a bit more complicated with two children under 6, a dog and preparations to travel and be a guest in someone else’s Christmas for a week. And of course, we have Covid uncertainty. Will we be able to go? Will we be able to stay? Will our New Year plans (to travel some more, this time to the Lake District) be cancelled or postponed? It’s a lot.

But as I sink into this downness, as I sit with it and let it be, under the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree, I sense it’s older than now.

I remember my first Christmas after my sister left home. Sent out to play on my brand new white BMX bike whilst my parents processed the magnitude of the changes that had happened in their life. In a year that had seen their eldest child leave the nest whilst they moved the remaining three of us 450 miles away, down to Cornwall.

Another country

I remember my first Christmas away from home, kept in Oxford by a job that meant I had to work Christmas Eve. I remember Christmas Day dinner out with kindly colleagues and my flatmate and best friend, making up our own Christmas. All the while my dad lay in a  bed in hospital awaiting a heart valve operation that never happened. In a hospital that he never left. I got to visit him a few times, as soon as I could go home for New Year. But he was in Plymouth and we lived in St Erth, which without a car may as well have been another country.

I remember my second Christmas in what I thought would be my ‘forever house’, decorating a Christmas tree alone. Listening to the Moss Witch by Sara Maitland, hanging tiny pink and black baubles I had bought from Habitat, keen to mark this Christmas my own way. It was the end of a year that had seen my then-husband and I move in together, just before the previous Christmas. Only for him to move out, (rightfully, but no less painfully so) breaking us up well before that first winter was out.

Laughing and Merry

I remember slowly, slowly, putting together a life that was just mine. I remember inventing and reinventing traditions. Having the freedom to engage in as much or as little of the celebrations as I desired, with the support of my family and my friends. Walks on Dartmoor with my dog, or on the beach at Exmouth, when the sand dunes still existed there. Carol services with my niece and nephew, sister and mum. The sweet smell of bacon cooking at mum’s on Christmas morning, which we munched in buttery sandwiches and drank hot coffee. I remember walking down in the cold together to go to Church, laughing and merry because this is the happiest season of all.

And that being her last Christmas. Tired in January, more tired still in February. Sleeping for 36 hours straight after a blood transfusion they promised would have her up and running around like a teenager again. I remember doctors’ appointments and eventual diagnosis. They gave her a few months. Within a few weeks, she was dead.

More inaccessible than Mars

I remember the Christmas afterwards at my sister’s house, drinking Bailey’s by the twinkly lights in her sitting room, neither of us sure what this time of year, this day, this festival looked like anymore. I remember wanting to be back in a past that was more remote and inaccessible than Mars. I remember wanting oblivion.

So much has changed in the 10 Christmases that have passed since then. And of course, before, since – and even during our time of grief – there has been so much gladness and joy too. But these are only parts of the much bigger story we live.

Earlier this year I read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer in which she writes ‘ceremonies are our way of remembering to remember’ – which instantly resonated with me. Lighting candles at dinner time recollects me back to every Saturday night ever in my childhood. The specialness of sitting down together, for stories and music and laughter and food. All the rituals of Christmas, taking me back into a past filled to the brim with love, taking me forward into Christmases of the future that haven’t yet been. Ritual and remembrance.

Some of my downness is just that there’s less time than I’d like to sit beneath the Christmas tree or gaze into the fire and be transported elsewhere. Each year I say, next year I’ll do it differently, be better prepared, earlier. So that in these, the darkest days, the longest nights, there is the time to be, to dream, to read, to write and to be very very quiet and still. And I will. Next year.

New joys

Christmas is bringing me new joys as a mother of course. My 3-year-old, so excited to tell me he’d seen Santa at a pre-schooler group he can hardly get the words out. My 5-year-old, singing her nativity play songs to me every evening and proudly practising her lines. The wonder (and the questions) about Father Christmas. The daily excitement at opening their advent calendars. Our evening pleasure in lighting the advent candle and watching as the flame burns through the days, bringing us ever closer to the final celebration. And of course this year the chances are much higher we will get to spend the time with family.

But, if you need me, and I can’t be found running around dizzy with busyness, then check under the Christmas tree. There you’ll find me as transfixed as a baby watching the fairy lights careening off the baubles, or gazing into the fire, a book open on my knee with a steaming cup of tea close at hand. Pour yourself a cuppa, or tipple of your choice, and let’s remember our remembrances, together.

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