No time of year is as emotive as this one.
For those of us who had less than loving childhoods, Christmas, with all its expectations of emotion, love, excitement and presents, more often than not descended into chaos, abuse, pain and fear.
For those of us who have lost loved ones over the festive season, Christmas is at worst a mockery of what should have been, at best a pale facsimile of something forever tarnished by loss.
For those of us who had happy childhoods, now deep in adulthood, it stands as a stark reminder of what it should be and never will be again.
I have talked before about Christmas when I was growing up. In stark contrast to the weather, at 6am Christmas morning, Father Christmas, collected from the airport by our neighbour, Uncle Mike (because he had so many places to go and South Africa was at the arse end of where his travels would normally take him, Santa had to catch a plane to get to us), would arrive in our tiny road of 11 houses, at the top of the big hill and wend his way downwards, ringing his bell. In fact, it was the sound of bell that brought most people out of their houses, audible before he was even visible.
And down the road he would come, distributing presents, remarking on how much this child had grown, whose little girl had their hair cut, making a special effort with those kids who had had a bad year and generally sprinkling a little bit of magic over us all, before getting into the car or van and with Uncle Mike driving back the way he had walked, waving at everyone and ringing his bell out of the window.
I was nine before I was told that Father Christmas was indeed my father. I didn’t believe the girl who took it upon herself to tell me (and all the kids in the road). My father was that good an actor that nothing of himself (except a certain twinkle in the eye) showed itself as Santa. He once said that when he put the suit and makeup on, he didn’t feel like himself. He felt as if (his words) “Old Saint Nicolas invades me and stays in me until it’s time to take the suit off again”.
His and Mike’s plan was seamless – at 4.30am, before the sun rose, Dad would get up, grab all his Father Christmas gear and leap over the 6 foot fence between our properties (having the built-in barbeque as a stepping stone helped), duck into Mike’s car and Mike would drive to the local petrol station, which was closed. There, Dad would transform before Mike drove him back to our little road and the magic would begin.
The rest of the day proceeded with Dad “arriving back from work” (he worked at an oil refinery and being called out in the middle of the night, or at weekends or bank holidays was not unusual), ruing the fact that he had missed Father Christmas again before settling down to tea and mince pies.
The year we were all told that Father Christmas was Dad, he was gutted and presents instead appeared on the snake tree, all tied up with glittery ribbon. If I recall properly, the next year, Uncle Mike became Father Christmas and it was Dad who collected him and drove him to our road. He did an exceptional job and those younger kids who had a chance to believe in the magic again, did. I was so very sad when I discovered that my brother had requisitioned the outfit. By rights, it should have gone to Mike and I am gutted that the tradition died when Dad did.
Present-opening would begin (we all took turns at opening ours in a round so the excitement lasted) and then be followed by more tea, laughing and joking. The year my Mum’s lovely cousin Gwen got all the labels wrong and Mum ended up with a posh deodorant and I ended up with a very risqué bikini aged about 8 was the first one I recall where we hooted with laughter.
The year my boyfriend at the time bought my Mum a very large pair of fake boobs was another one. Mum had complained that her boobs were sagging and small and A responded very appropriately. Everyone who visited that day tried them on, Mum first of all and I still have the photos, with her doing a model’s pose, topless, with just the enormous knockers on. My brother and his friend also tried them but they looked second best after Mum on our neighbour over the road, who posed completely dead pan, complete with hairy chest.
There was the time that Mum wanted a microwave. Dad was not convinced they were safe so held out for years and when he eventually agreed that actually they were, there was no money to get one. That didn’t stop Dad, who scrimped and scraped in the months leading up to Christmas. We often got presents in boxes that came from elsewhere so when Mum unwrapped her present and discovered the microwave box, she didn’t for a moment think that it was actually a microwave. She grabbed a knife and started to cut into the box, with us all yelling “careful!” and when the cut gave birth to a long tear from which a gleaming, much desired, white kitchen accessory emerged, she burst into tears.
I made it home for every Christmas apart from two – the first year I was overseas, as I had been home in the October; unexpectedly and tumultuously breaking up with the aforementioned A and my mother was not on speaking terms with me. I spent it in a pub with my cousins who had very generously offered to pay for both me and B, my best friend from school and current flatmate. I felt very flat and hope that I did not come across as petulant and rebellious as I felt. It was a foretaste of the future.
A little Christmas spirit was engendered on Boxing Day when B and I had gone back to the flat of the man who was to become my partner, Richard (we were flat sitting whilst he was up north with his family), we put the fire on, exchanged presents and had a cup of tea before realising that it was softly snowing outside.
One of the flat’s residents had proposed, his words written in the snow below us. B was pregnant and the world seemed clean and the air clear, the future full of promise.
The other year I didn’t make it home (the reason eludes me now), Richard was working over the period (although not Christmas Day) so was in London. We were used to not having Christmas together (me in South Africa, him in a little village outside Manchester) and would have pre-Christmas dinner and an After-Christmas-Christmas party for friends.
Richard knew how much not being home meant to me and made a wonderful effort, not only making a four course dinner but ensured it was full of my and Sal’s (who was living with us by this time) favourite foods, we had champagne, Sal and I rang South Africa and he rang the States, where his Mum was. The weather was foul but we were snug indoors, with everything we needed.
So Christmases continued as we got older. Dad, who every year thought he was getting too old for the part and worried about being too Fred and not enough St Nick , had to be cajoled a bit. Mum still made a full Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve (Christmas Day being way too hot for an all trimmings affair) and we had cold cuts on Christmas Day, fighting over the last piece of her gorgeous ham. As adults, a little of the gloss and excitement had naturally faded but we all still made it home for Christmas.
Two years before my Dad passed, my brother decided it was time to be a complete arse and on the basis that we apparently all hated his girlfriend (and what a mind fuck that turned out to be when she and I unravelled that little mess), declared himself ostracised from the family and declined to join us. Nothing could have hurt my parents more, as he well knew.
We soldiered on regardless and managed two happy Christmasses without him. The last Christmas was a bumper one, with me getting engaged and my sister being pregnant. Dad once again became St Nick and despite having huge back problems (and being in the final stages of terminal cancer, although we didn’t know it) walked down the road unaided and sprinkled magic for the last time,
The first Christmas after Dad’s death I stayed home in the UK. Faced with his death in the July, my husband leaving in the November (something I had kept from Mum until I absolutely had to) and my wonderful job in jeopardy due to a contract change, I also had no money to get there. Whether Mum was not invited to spend Christmas with my siblings or may well have declined I am not sure but she instead went to CROW, where she worked and spent the day with the volunteers there, some of them very far from home themselves. That became a tradition for her for the next four years.
Flying overseas at Christmas is ruinously expensive (a flight from the UK to South Africa costs three times as much as does normally) it and I did not have the cash or, to be honest, the inclination or means to borrow the cash to do it. I got home instead on her birthday. I never spent a Christmas in South Africa again.
The second year after Dad died, I can’t recall what I did, but the third was spent with my lovely neighbour and my best friend, popping between the two. Subsequent Christmases have been spent like this or with boyfriend’s families, including two lovely times spent in Manchester (for some reason, I always seem to date Northern men) and an equally lovely time last Christmas up in York
I was always enthusiastic about Christmas, started shopping, planning mid-year, booking tickets, rewriting lists, my spare cupboard filling up with gifts. In recent years, I keep forgetting the bloody day is looming and this year in particular, being caught on the hop as the day gallops towards me and I am like a deer in headlights, unable to move but knowing I have to do so.
In truth, Christmas for me has just become a reminder of what we have forever lost. My parents should be alive, their Christmases filled with grandchildren, joy, feasting and family. I should be flying home, the eccentric aunt, bags full of presents, a bottle of Dad’s favourite scotch and a kilogram of pine nuts for Mum, who liked to make her own pesto but could not get them in South Africa.
Instead, they have gone, leaving behind amazing memories and a chasm so deep it will never be filled. Christmas carols can still render me speechless with grief and I actively close my ears when walking around the shops to prevent spontaneous tears.
Given some of my friends’ recent posts on facebook, I am clearly not alone. For all sorts of reasons, including some of those mentioned in the beginning of this blog, this day for us will always be bittersweet, for losses of all kinds and for the joys that should be in our lives.
I am thinking of us all tonight and tomorrow and wishing them (and everyone else who reads this blog) the very, very best Christmas you can have.