In writing this I have taken the literary liberty, which I hope you will forgive, of allowing the ‘present’ to mean the ongoing circumstances in which I found myself in 2012… It is Christmas past I suppose, but not as I considered my past Christmases to be, and 2014 has marked much of a new era, so much so that it deserves to be ‘the future’. So the grace of literary liberties in place, I begin.
I love Advent, the waiting and the build up. I love the family time at Christmas, and playing lots of cards. I love the lights on the tree and wrapping presents and watching Christmas films, and lighting candles that smell like Christmas.
I hated that Christmas.
For Christmas 2012 I had no Santa sack for the first time in 26 years, as I had in Christmas Past. I slept fitfully at my Grandma’s as there was no room at the proverbial inn and I couldn’t bear to be by myself in my own home. My entire world was upside down and I had no idea what was going to happen next.
My now sister-in-law was spending her first Christmas with us, and I am not proud to say that I ruined everyone’s Christmas by having an incredibly, if understandably, short temper. I spent the greater proportion of the time crying, trying not to cry, or just locking myself away in the bathroom – and at times all three. Being surrounded by people was a nightmare, but I didn’t want to be by myself. The situation made no sense, and all my traditions had been thrown out the window. Every conversation seemed ridiculous because it was so insignificant in the turmoil of my world. Trying not to be entirely selfish could only last so long, before I broke down again. Teasing was a no-go, I had no sense of humour and a fuse shorter than my little toe. And when I’m miserable, I don’t want to eat.
Christmas can be fraught at the best of times, with timings, and gifts, then throw in a devastated relative. Of course no one wants to spend their entire Christmas discussing the whys and wherefores of a trauma, and I was not the only one there. There were 7 other people who wanted a happy, family Christmas, with what I can only imagine were a whole combination of feelings about the situation in which they too had been placed, wondering if I would irrationally fly off the handle or be devastated by an insignificant, innocent comment. Everyone, my Mum especially, trying to hold in tension the enjoyment of everyone, and the handling of me and my trampled heart in kid gloves.
Last Sunday some of my family and I sat at the table, of course playing cards (it is nearly Christmas!) and someone mentioned this fateful year. For some it had got lost in the annals of time, a distant, hazy memory and the assumption it was enjoyable, like every Christmas. I could feel the hints of different memories and the way it was experienced, the different ways people recalled that time and had dealt with it as a day.
I don’t imagine the first Christmas was much fun either. Mary, in labour, no one with her who knew what they were doing, sat on a donkey. Joseph, first child on the way, never seen anyone give birth, and now there’s nowhere to stay. Bethlehem, packed to the gunnels with people, who may not have seen each other for a very long time so perhaps a lot of rowdy, raucous behaviour. It paints a very different picture to the tranquil scene on a Christmas card. The ultimate joy preceded by a perhaps rather more stressful build up.
My family did their absolute best to enjoy it, and to make me enjoy it, but there was nothing that worked. And I know I’m not unique in this. I guess for me, Christmas was always about family, and now my family was in tatters. I’d love to offer some useful advice, but I’m not sure I have any. However my few words of wisdom are these.. laugh with them when they can laugh, mourn and cry with them when they cry, accept those moments they’re angry, and reassure them you’ll be there when the future seems bleak.
Being separated or in the middle of an emotional turmoil is – as a colossal understatement – hard, and it’s especially hard at Christmas. I now feel repentant for the way I behaved and the lack of fun that Christmas was for everyone else. I don’t know that the black hole I felt I had tumbled into gave any other way to manage my emotions. My sister-in-law fortunately was not put off, and has returned for subsequent, slightly less stressful Christmases.
And I am reminded again, of how Christmas is a time of friends and family. I am thankful for their gifts of time (spending hours with me as I cried the Christmas period away), of patience (it was never too much to ask or too long a time) and generosity in the giving of their time, love and care. Even now, two years on, it is hard not to cry. Not because I am still amidst that turmoil, but with the deepest and most heartfelt gratitude to the people who kept me going that Christmas. Who, in the absence of my traditions, made the new ones survivable. And who, at my most unlovable and feeling at my most unloved, loved me, and continue to love me, without question or expectation. To them, I love you too – thank you.