Sunday, 3 February 2013
The Ghosts of Christmases Past - 23/9/2012 approx.
The Ghosts of Christmases Past, for reasons unexplained, start haunting me as soon as autumn starts. Sometimes in September, when summer starts tipping over into winter and nature suddenly changes tack, a small, still unidentified switch goes off and I start listening to Christmas music. By November I’ve normally gotten it out of my system, and Christmas usually passes like any other day. This is rather the problem, you see. Christmas being just another day.
It is usually current situations that cause me to hide from Christmas, to ignore that it is a big deal, or to try and make the best of it, to find a point of view that makes it manageable. Of course, it is past situations that make it utterly unmanageable and such a big deal. I remember as a very young child not being able to understand why we couldn’t have Christmas every day – and, bizarrely for a young child, I didn’t mean the presents and food and Asterix on the telly. At Christmas everyone loved everyone, allegedly; why couldn’t we do this every day? Why did it have to stop? But of course it had never started, and we were all just engaging in a complicated production in which I had the mixed roles of lynchpin and performing monkey.
I was the only child in an extended yet broken family of people who hated each other. My mother, her sister and my grandmother just did not get on. There was so much resentment, hatred and guilt coursing between them that it poisoned the air around them. The men – my grandfather and my uncle, as my father had conceived me in August and ran off before the first Christmas had reared its ugly family head – only had minor roles. They were routinely dragged into the women’s continued war as scapegoats, casualties or weapons, but never actually fought.
It was a cold war, with recurrent small incidents of open fighting. Not-so-casual barbed comments would spark short yet explosive episodes. My grandmother always won, because, like Stalin, she fought with no regards for human casualties. Yet the victories didn’t bring an end to the conflict because boundaries between the warring parties would not get redrawn. There would be no treaties. Nobody would concede territories or build fortifications, because nobody would admit that it was a war. So it went on and on and on. You could not fall out fully or just leave each other alone, because “we’re family” and families have to stick together; yet you could not get on, so you continued with the friction and sniper attacks and occasional battles. Christmas was one of the casualties.
I didn’t understand any of this when I was a child. All I know is that mine and my mother’s Christmas was fragmented to the point of schizophrenia. We woke up in the morning and had our Christmas – of cuddles and kisses and pretending the world outside wasn’t so cold and mean and out to get us. Then we went to church, when I was still too young to go to midnight mass, and had our second Christmas, our community Christmas, even though we were interlopers there. We snuck in, really. My mother was an unmarried mother and I was a bastard child and that would never go away. But nobody knew, so we snuck in and sang the songs and rejoiced in the fact that even though our sins, the stain upon my birth, were still there today, one day they may yet be washed away.
Then we had to visit grandmother. We just had to. When my grandfather was still alive, this was quite tolerable. He was the only adult I’ve ever met fully glad I was alive, and we got on well. I was a bit much for him at times, him being already very old when I was born, but he loved me and I loved him. It was the only love I had that didn’t come with strings attached, that demanded no obligations. It was a love I didn’t have to earn – he loved me when I was good and when I was bad. He just loved me. We didn’t have much in common, I guess, this man from a small village far away who’d come from a solid family and fought two world wars, and this cuckoo child from the suburbs who’d not seen anything other than the concrete jungle and the war at home. But we loved each other fully and fiercely, and he taught me to whistle and gave me pink sweeties and kept new coins for me in a little metal tin, not because of the value of them but because he knew that I liked shiny things.
We could make a true Christmas together, me and my granddad. We’d go into the storage room and we would have what I remember as quiet times together, which probably didn’t seem quite so quiet to an unwell man in his late 80’s. He would show me old household things, scales or pens or wallets, and explain to me how they worked. I’d show him my collection of deformed Barbies and three-legged horses and told him stories of their adventures. The women would be in the kitchen, my grandmother busy flailing my mother and auntie to ribbons with what she would say and how she would say it, but we could ignore that. We hid in corners, together, as long as we could. We did that anyway – he’d lived hidden in corners all his life, I guess, to keep away from the women’s conflict. At Christmas it was easier, because of all the cooking and setting of the table and so on, but we always made time to hide with each other anyway. Of course, the time would come for the actual Christmas meal and something would go wrong. I would spill something, splash some sauce from my spaghetti over the starkly white linen tablecloth, or refuse to drink my watered wine, and my grandmother would kick off. But that was just ground state, and we ignored that too.
He died when I was four, and Christmas died with him. We didn’t go to my grandmother after that. They all came around to my mother’s, which put her under huge pressure as, of course, she could never do things quite right for my grandmother’s taste and didn’t have enough money to do things up to my auntie’s standards. In fairness, it must have been a pressure just to find the money to feed them all, as we really were poor. We were poor to the point that I was taught to unwrap my presents by carefully cutting out the cellotape, so the wrapping paper could be reused the following year. But that was our own fault – hers for falling into sin and bearing the fruit, and mine just for being born – so it had to be borne, too. Christmases became brittle, chaotic affairs, with nowhere for me to hide in our one-bedroom flat. Even if I could hide, I had no allies left. My grandfather had gone to his father’s, to a place where he could hopefully sit in peace without having to hide from war, but he’d left me behind, the cuckoo child, in the care of people who either didn’t or couldn’t care.
We had to have Christmas because of me, allegedly. The fact that I would have much preferred to be hidden in a wardrobe on my own than exposed to hatred in its most warped form didn’t matter. We were a family, there was a child, so we had to have a proper Christmas.
I meant it about the wardrobe, by the way. I don’t remember the actual event. I don’t know if I was too young or it was just too much of a big deal, but I have no memories of it, bar the wardrobe. Apparently during our first Christmas without my grandfather war broke over the dinner table. My auntie and grandmother started a proper screaming match, and they could scream. My mother told me that I ran off in floods of tears and hid in the wardrobe, where my mother’s dressing gown was kept. That was the dressing gown she’d left behind for me to cuddle when she was in hospital with cancer. She called it the “magic gown” and gave it to me specifically, because it was soft and smelled of her and when I put it on it would be like her holding me. It was my comfort blanket, I guess.
So there I was, in the wardrobe, hugging the magic gown. And out there my mother, for once, fought for me. Apparently she tore them both a fresh one because they’d ruined Christmas for me. Then and only then she got me out of the wardrobe.
That was the end of our joint family Christmas lunches. From that day onwards, we had four Christmases. First just the two of us, then in church, then lunch at ours with my grandmother, then going over to my auntie and uncle to exchange presents, which they were deemed capable of doing without Armageddon taking place. Then everyone would finally go off and we could declare an end to this year’s production. It felt more like a passion play, in truth, than a nativity scene. We had to go through Christmas without anything going off too drastically and terminally. There was a sense of relief, rather than loss, the day after, as if we’d survived a potentially catastrophic event.
This may make it sound a very stark affair, which it wasn’t. Harrowing, perhaps, but not stark. As the only child I was showered with gifts, even though my mother always struggled for money. I am guessing most of them were relatively small, from a financial point of view, but they were big for me. I really treasured them. She must have saved for months to make my Christmas special. My grandmother, I believe, just gave her a bit of money to buy me things, as she wasn’t really approving of me, the exchange of presents and, in fact, anything that gave anyone unwarranted joy. Gifts from my auntie were always difficult, as they were usually entirely unsuitable, pointless and sometimes unpleasant. However, I had to pretend I liked them, at the same time as not letting on that I knew that they came from her and not from Santa. Managing grownup egos and delusions can be quite complicated. Any which way you slice it, however, it wasn’t fun. It was sad and painful, with the knowledge of what Christmas should be creating a feeling of unbearable loss.
This is what most Christmases have been for me, throughout my life. I do not know how the ideal of Christmas, the concept of what it should be and isn’t, ever got into my head. I do not know whether it is my own construct, some primeval archetype or a Hollywood implant, but there it is. Christmas should be about the people you love the most all and who love you the most gathered together under one roof, in peace. Christmas = love + peace. More specifically, it’s family love and domestic bliss all wrapped up in a parcel of fairy lights and mistletoe. I’ve only ever come close to it once, and that was only recently, yet the dream of it has haunted and hurt me every year when things did not pan out like that.
I have had decent Christmases, don’t get me wrong. There have been times when I have managed to gather with equally not-quite-orphaned people I loved, and make a celebration of us being together. The hook of missing family never fully ceases to tug at your heart, but we could ignore it for a while and bravely pretend that this was what we wanted, rather than all we could have.
Some Christmases have been decent, only slightly marred by circumstances. My first Christmas with my husband found us as allies. Both of us, utterly clueless, played house and fought against the pressure of our respective families, who demanded Christmas from us even though they couldn’t make a Christmas for or with us. Christmases with friends at University were often restful affairs, when I gave myself permission to forget books, exams, achievements and money worries for a day – sometimes two, if the work allowed – and have a break, a whole day of just chilling. A Christmas with a boyfriend, at his house, found me suddenly cast in the role of house-not-quite-wife, cooking a meal for a whole load of us, just gathered around in friendship. They have been alright, but not quite right.
Some Christmases have been particularly awful. My worst Christmas ever to date was probably my 17th, the one spent travelling back from Spain. I was supposed to be spending the holidays travelling around Spain, on my own, which I was more than happy with. For a change I had enough money. I would be sleeping indoors, in youth hostels, and travelling by train rather than hitchhiking. It was going to be a wonderful adventure, yet a lot safer and more comfortable than my life normally was. Admittedly, the Christmas music and general festive cheer were really getting to me – they were impossible to ignore and highlighted painfully what I didn’t have. Regardless, I was getting on fine. Then I rang my mother on Christmas Eve. In hysterics, she screamed that she was ill, that I needed to come home right then. In tears myself, I rushed off to the hostel, got my stuff together and got on the first train home. I ended up spending the night at a train station at the border between Spain and France, waiting for the next train, huddled in a corner, mindful of the drunken men at the station bar and of a random, incredibly large black dog that was roaming around on its own. I got home very late on Christmas Day, having had next to no sleep or food for over 24 hours. My mother opened the door, said smiling to me “I’m having a nervous breakdown”, and just walked off. That was it. There was nothing actually wrong with her; she just wanted me “home”. I was stuck there, having used up my travel money, until my boarding school opened again in January. We spent a memorable time, me seething with resentment and avoiding her like the plague and her pretending that everything was just peachy.
Other Christmases have been marred by people’s good intentions. One must learn about the quasi-orphan’s Christmas No-Nos, the main one being piggybacking on another family’s Christmas. It happened to me, quite by accident, the following year. I was supposed to spend a recuperating, quiet if lonely Christmas hiding out at a friend’s summer house in the country. I was all set up and as content as I could be – I had a lot of books and had just discovered St Matthew’s Passion by Bach. There was bread in the cupboard, a couple of wine bottles and the house was nearly heated. What more could a girl need? I rang my friend to check in with her and her parents asked me to go over for Christmas. I could not say no, but really I should have. They were utterly wonderful and made me very welcome. We had a lovely time, but it was their lovely time, their lovely family time, that I was encroaching upon. Again, it just highlighted what I did not have, plus it made me feel guilty about diminishing their experience. Above all, I guess, there was the feeling of being a charity case. They made space for me in their family because I didn’t have one of my own. They shared their love with the unloved. It was extremely kind of them, but awful for me.
If you can’t be with the right people, or with people in the right way, it is better to be without them altogether. I truly hold this as a basic Christmas rule – have your own, and do it properly, or don’t have one at all. Stay on your own. Lick your wounds. Pretend it’s January already. Let everyone else enjoy their Christmases, any way they want to, and reappear in the New Year.
I tried to explain this to one of my exes, the separated father of two lovely boys. The first year, when we were freshly together, I understood why he didn’t want me involved in their Christmas – one of the two the boys were going to have, as they naturally had to have one at their mummy’s too. The boys’ lives were complicated enough as it was, it was too soon for them to have me involved in such a major festivity, and there was always the risk of their mother having a hissy fit at an interloper entering their family circle. So I spent Christmas morning with him and disappeared before the boys arrived for the afternoon. It made sense, and wasn’t difficult. The following year, though, when the same happened again, even though the boys knew me closely by now and their mother had worked out what was going on months before, then it was difficult. But it wasn’t deemed appropriate for me to be with them, so I hovered on their outskirt of their family Christmas. The worst thing was the boys asking me why I wasn’t going around for dinner, as I did virtually every weekend they were there. I can’t remember what excuse I made. I didn’t want them to feel that it was their fault, but I could not blame it on their father either. I think I said that I had to work.
The year after, when things were clearly going to be repeating themselves on the same pattern, I decided it was quite simply unhealthy for me to stick around. I told the guy that I wanted to go away with my dogs for a few days; I tried to explain to him that as I could not be with them, I needed to be without them. This did not go down well. I guess I should have been there to be girlfriend-on-tap for him, for when he needed or wanted me. The fact that the situation hurt me didn’t seem to come into it. We didn’t last long after that.
Of course, it isn’t the bad Christmases that really haunt you. Those just pass and turn into bad memories, like any other semi-traumatic event. The good ones, though, they never go away. They haunt you forever. My best Christmas ever was spent in a circus wagon parked at the heart of Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland. I had it all. I was with the man I loved more than anyone in the world, his gorgeous, funny, lovely baby girl, and my two dogs. All that love under one roof melted my heart so often that I thought it would burst; I didn’t know how to handle that much happiness. I had been able to give up the job I had hated for years to become a stay-at-home (ok, stay-in-caravan) partner. My life rotated around taking care of those I loved. That was heaven on its own. Plus we were staying in an incredibly nice part of London and surrounded by, well, Christmas. They build a miniature village on Hyde Park, with rides and stalls selling Christmas goods, food and mulled wine. I didn’t care about what they sold, or the rides, but the music and the atmosphere and the smiling people walking hand in hand, that got right into my heart. It really was a wonderland. I had everything. It was a dream-come-true. And of course, like all dreams it ended, rather abruptly, and I was metaphorically thrown out in the middle of a bitter winter.
Always winter, never Christmas. C. S. Lewis had it right, it is a terrible thing. Christmas is the bright light that helps us navigate through the dark months, the promise of warmth that keeps us soldiering on through the cold.
I have made some very stupid decisions for the sake of a Christmas. Twice I left jobs and homes at very short notice to be with my loved one that bit earlier, just so we could have Christmas together. On the second of these occasions I literally upped and left, my van pulling a caravan with the entirety of my worldly belonging and nowhere to go. My then boss, a circus proprietor, had refused to give me a day off over the Christmas period so I could visit my ex-stepdaughter. I didn’t particularly want Christmas day off; any day would have done. I just needed to see her. He did not as such say no; what he said was that December was too busy, January didn’t look good either and in February we would be getting ready to get the show on the road, so it definitely wasn’t going to happen then. I wanted to be with my baby girl, even if for only a brief while, so I hitched my wagon and scarpered while he was at the post office. I did see her on Christmas day, as it turned out. I ended up with no job and nowhere to go, but to this day I cannot regret it, because I got to see her smile on Christmas morning.
Christmas has a power over me. It grips my heart and seemingly can stop my brain from functioning. The irony is fabulous. Me, a bastard whose life was shaped from an early age by being a bastard, spending nearly a quarter of the year every year getting myself tied up in knots over a festivity allegedly celebrating the birth of another bastard. If only my mother had retained her claim to virginity! Things could have been so different. I have no idea how he might have felt, that little baby in the manger, adored and wanted not only by his nearest and dearest, but by strangers too. I do not know that feeling. He was a lucky bastard. But then again, he got crucified at Easter, so maybe it makes no difference in the long run and all bastards must pay for others’ sins. At least I only pay for it in bad weather, while he had his spring ruined.
I can’t get away from it. The celebration of the birth of this baby boy I don’t believe in, which symbolises a process of redemption I do not agree with, takes on monstrous proportion and eats up the entire season that precedes it. Maybe one day I will work it out, I will figure the cause of its hold on me and break it, and Christmas will mean nothing to me. Maybe I will become one of those people who complain about the waste and commercialism and tackiness of it, instead of becoming misty-eyed at the sight of the poorest display of Christmas lights. But not this year, my friend, not this year.