Saturday, 6 December 2014
My family loved Christmas so much that we’d have it three times every single year. Yes, you’ve heard it right: we had three completely separate and independent celebrations. Christmas eve was for me, my mum and the Baby Jesus; we would listen to carols, eat a special meal and stay up super-late for the magic of the midnight mass. Christmas lunch was at my grandmother’s, who’d produce a fabulous spread that would have been enjoyable had it not been for the stress of formal table manners and overcomplicated cutlery arrangements. Christmas dinner was at my auntie and uncle’s for champagne, the richest puddings imaginable, and the exchange of unfortunate gifts. By the end of the day my mother and I were all Christmased out, utterly exhausted and glad it was over. You might think this is overdoing it, but my folks really believed in Christmas. We saw it as such an important festival of hope, joy, love and family that we were willing to have as many celebrations as it took to make sure that everyone had a chance to celebrate and nobody was left out.
That’s the official version of the story, anyway. Unfortunately, its accuracy is rendered somewhat doubtful by the fact that my mother, grandmother and aunt lived in the same block of flats. A twenty meters’ trip would have got us all together. Our inability to celebrate a joined Christmas wasn’t due to geography, but to history.
My memories of The Fight That Broke Christmas, back in the mists of time, are both vague and tangled up with what I’ve been told. It was our first Christmas at my mother’s house, the very first time the whole family would gather at our table for a major celebration. It was a big deal for my mother as a new hostess, but an even bigger deal for me. I was finally old enough to understand that something big was coming up. Santa, the Baby Jesus and my entire family were running on parallel tracks towards this Special Day, a day so special that it only happened once a year. Everything about it was going to be extraordinary: the lights, the music, the food, the presents, the general feeling of it all. Everything about it was going to be different – except that it wasn’t.
We had not managed to get through the first course when my grandmother and my aunt, her daughter, got into a screaming fight. Given that screeching, occasionally punctuated by slamming doors, was their main method of communication, this ought to have been a commonplace occurrence. However, this was not an ordinary day: this was Christmas. And Christmas, as I’d been told repeatedly, was the celebration of family and love and joy and everything shiny and warm and comforting. Shouting abuse at each other clearly didn’t fit into the scheme of things. This wasn’t just not right; this was very, very wrong.
Lacking both the words and authority to express my dismay, I did the next best thing: I bolted from the table and sought shelter in my mother’s wardrobe. Unable to get me to come out despite much cajoling, my mother flipped and, uncharacteristically, displayed some backbone. She told everyone what she thought of their behaviour and kicked them out. And that was that, for that Christmas and all other Christmases to come.
Christmas was about love and family; we had the family, but lacked the love. The sad truth was that our lot could not be trusted to sit together through a meal without sending it flying, regardless of the occasion. This left the holiday season hanging upon us less like mistletoe and more like a guillotine. How could we get through the holidays without any major conflagrations? Proximity prevented us from making excuses. The need to keep face prevented us from telling the truth. We just couldn’t admit that we all detested each other and would rather be anywhere than together – we were a good family, after all, and good families aren’t like that. So we parcelled Christmas out into manageable chunks, with me and my mother being the only safe moving parts connecting the whole, pretended that it was normal, made it a tradition out of it and never spoke about it again.
I was clearly a very dense child, because this did not teach me that the myth we wrap around Christmas is precisely that – a myth. For me, Christmas was and is real. Christmas is the beating heart of family love; love flows towards it and emanates from it in an endless cycle. Somewhere there is that perfect place where people come together in celebration, joined not only by blood ties, but by mutual love, trust and care. I don’t much care what holiday they are actually celebrating, because the fact that such a bond exists seems a good enough reason.
As a child, I created and defended that place in my head. Although I’d never seen anything like that, I could close my eyes and feel how it must feel. I was good at make- believe and, after all, it wasn’t any harder to imagine than the nativity scene: two parents in the same house? Adults glad of the arrival of a newborn? That wasn’t how it was in my world. Either it was all completely bogus, or it was real but out of my grasp. I chose to believe that it was real. The lack of it hurt me, but the hope in it supported me; I guess the two nearly balanced each other out.
To this day, I don’t know if I ran away from the fake Christmas or towards the real one. All I know is that as soon as I was able I made damn sure not to be “home” for the holidays. I respected my family tradition of lies and omissions and never blew the whistle on their Christmas dysfunction. The fact that I’d rather spend the holiday season in a pit full of snakes was never openly mentioned. I simply made sure that I was reliably elsewhere so I didn’t have to be with them. I left my family to their Christmas fate and went off to find mine.
Alas, finding a Christmas, or at least my version of it, is nigh-on impossible. It doesn’t matter if you have the most wonderful bunch of friends, because Christmas, my Christmas, is about family. Unless your friends are also avoiding their folk, they will be busy – and you must not, repeat, MUST NOT piggyback on someone else’s celebration, ever. Regardless of people’s good intentions, there is nothing as depressing as feeling like a charity case at someone’s family party. Even when you are welcome, even when you are invited, it is hard not to feel like a Dickensian orphan.
Getting together with other folk who can’t or won’t celebrate with their family is a possibility, but that doesn’t make a Christmas. It makes a faux-Christmas, an anti-Christmas, or a fort-against-Christmas, but that’s about the best you can hope for. The only safe bet is to actually be part of a family for the holiday. That can be achieved by the very simple method of being in a relationship and agreeing to visit the in-laws. All you have to deal with then is, well, reality: the fact that many people’s Christmases involve, to a greater or lesser degree, the hasty and shallow burying of hatchets at the front door and a great deal of praying that the truce will last until the eggnog kicks in.
I ought to know better by now, but believing in the power of Christmas created a magic in my world that hasn’t been tarnished yet, despite my utter lack of success thus far. I’ve had all manners of Christmases – happy and sad, quiet and busy, dull, exciting and utterly random – but I’ve never had a “real” one. I still believe, though. I believe in the possibility of it, and I wonder if the problem has been that I’ve been hoping to find the Right Christmas, or hoping that the Right Christmas would find me, instead of building my own Right Christmas.
Christmas isn’t a seasonal miracle that magically improves your life and fills it with love; it is the culmination of day after day of focused effort in choosing the right people with whom to create and maintain solid relationships. So this year, instead of a Christmas wish I have a Christmas resolution. I resolve to look at my choices, routines and unconscious habits every day of the year and ask myself: what kind of Christmas can they give me, in the long and short run? At the end of this road, will I find myself in a place worth celebrating?