The tree is up and lit, the flat smells of spiced biscuits and hot cider (testing new recipes on some friends ahead of this year’s Christmas party), there have been carols on the stereo for much of the day and my husband and I just finished watching one of my favourite Christmas films, The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship. This will be our second Christmas together, so we’re still establishing our traditions – and I’m so glad that we are.
I love Christmas. I had a secular upbringing and have never been baptised into or practised any religion, but I’m quite happy to get in on other people’s religious festivities if it means a bit of light and merriment in darkest December (and my birthday is on the 20th, so it’s a time of year I’ve always associated with celebration anyway). However, as much as I love Christmas, for some time after my parents died I had no idea what to do about it. I feel like I’m finally finding my way back into it after a long gap.
The final Christmas with Mum and Dad was a lovely one. I remember they gave me a pair of red stiletto boots, which I still have, and for a joke they gave me some Brio (the wooden train set stuff). I had always wanted Brio when I was little but it was beyond our budget back then, so instead I got it when I was on the cusp of adulthood and the family’s finances were much healthier. They had planned to keep the joke for my 21st, but I’m glad they didn’t since only one of them would live to see it. There’s a photo somewhere of me and my Dad, both still in pyjamas, building a scene from Back to the Future III out of Brio. We went through to Linlithgow for lunch and to uphold the family tradition of feeding the ducks. I had made Christmas cake for the first time. The tree was the same tree that we have in our living room now.
Of course I didn’t know it would be our last Christmas together – at that point we had no idea anything was wrong. But the following year my dad and I spent Christmas wondering what to do with ourselves, not feeling right about honouring any of the traditions, not feeling right about ignoring them either. I had just turned 21, but we didn’t feel like celebrating when Mum had died just a couple of months before.
The year after that, when I had just turned 22, I spent my first Christmas as an orphan. I have no siblings, am not in touch with my extended family, and at that point I hadn’t made most of the friends I have now or grown close enough to impose myself on them for Christmas. On Christmas Day I went to see family friends. I was supposed to stay over, but I couldn’t – nothing to do with them, I just couldn’t stand being the recently bereaved guest at someone else’s family Christmas. I have never been good at being a guest. I like to be around the things and people that are mine, and ever since my parents died I have struggled to be around other people’s families, knowing that I won’t ever be around mine again. So I went home to find my central heating had broken down. 2004 was really not my year.
The thing is, Christmas is utterly miserable for the newly bereaved. Everything is geared towards family and togetherness. Everyone you know is getting ready to go home for the festive season, talking about their travel plans and bitching about their family’s traditions. There is no escape from adverts full of wide-eyed children watched over by a generation or two of smiling adults, all gathered together to rejoice in having everything you’ve just lost. You can’t set foot in a shop without seeing something you want to buy for your dead loved ones, and if you can find the energy to put up a tree there’s a conspicuous gap at the bottom where your gifts to one another would usually be.
But the worst thing of all is the music. Now That’s What I Call Everyone Else Having An Amazing Family Christmas Except You Because Everyone You Love Is Dead And You Are Alone 82! Logically you know that you can’t be the only bereaved person for whom Christmas is proving challenging, but that doesn’t help when you’re being bombarded with All I Want For Christmas Is You and all its horrifically cheerful counterparts whose lyrics take on a whole new meaning after a significant death. It’s a toss-up between those and more obviously melancholy tracks like Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and Stop the Cavalry for which is most likely to provoke floods of tears. And then you get to feel bad because no matter how sympathetic people are, you still know you’re bringing them down at Christmas.
So why am I writing this rather depressing post? Because it gets easier. As the years go by you find ways of coping. You find new people to spend Christmas with, and maybe one day it even feels right. You invent new traditions, you reach a stage where the old traditions are no longer too painful to observe. Perhaps some people get to the stage where they can join other people’s families for Christmas. I haven’t got there yet. I wonder if I ever will.
Most importantly, I wish I had found a post like this on 24.12.04 when I spent Christmas Eve staring at my computer screen trying to make the time pass, knowing that there must be people out there in same predicament but feeling the need for proof. Would it have helped? I don’t know, because I never found what I was looking for. Perhaps there wasn’t as much out there on the interwebs back then. Perhaps my google skills just weren’t as good. But at least I know that if there’s a Jen-equivalent out there this Christmas, desperate for a little comfort, this post will be out there. If it does nothing else, at least it confirms that she’s not the only one. I’ve always found that knowing I’m not the only one helps. I hope she feels the same.