Opinion

My awkward love affair with Christmas

It’s like Stockholm syndrome of some kind, perhaps, my fondness for Christmas. I say “fondness” in total denial of what it actually is – a well-meaning fanaticism that can, to the casual observer, seem like it can’t possibly be real. No way would someone be so into Christmas – the tin-knuckled, glittering fist of capitalism  that punches us all into submission – that he’d put up his tree in the first week of November, or sneak in a quick listen to All I Want For Christmas Is You in July, right? Oh, sure, you know these people exist – excitable tinsel-covered zealots who celebrate Christmas all year round and have children called Holly, Robin, Joy and Pig-in-Blanket – but they’re usually paraded as freaks on talk shows for the amusement of a baying crowd as their defeated relatives slouch in their chair and ask, yet again, whether they can have a break from turkey, and eat beans on toast for lunch just once a year.

My love for Christmas started, as most romances do, with great loathing. Oh, I don’t mean I didn’t like Christmas as a child; of course I did. I enjoyed getting presents, and the snow, and waiting for Father Christmas, but there was the huge problem that my birthday was two days before the big day, immediately and eternally overshadowed by JC’s own. Never any decent cards in the shops, joint presents, complaints nobody had any money or time to celebrate with me, being away from uni/Edinburgh/London friends because everyone had gone home for Christmas. Others had huge parties, weekends away. There were barbecues in the summer, guest lists at amazing clubs, legendary house parties that thankfully existed before the advent of social media. And for me, nothing, just the knowledge that something else very big was coming along in a moment and everyone needed to concentrate on that, thank you very much. But you can’t stay mad at Christmas for ever, because that mother isn’t going anywhere, no matter that hysterical tabloid headlines might tell you.

So Christmas and I called a truce. Over just eight days of the year, was my week of wonder –  birthday, Christmas and New Year – and I decided to make that week work. I don’t like spinning out birthdays any longer than necessary and “just celebrate it in the summer” doesn’t cut it for me, so I embraced Christmas, gave myself over to it. And it is wonderful. Lights. Trees. Most Christmas music is terrible – it really is – but there is something comforting about dusting it off around late October (yes that’s right) and hearing those interminable bells and vocal acrobatics of the old standards. They are songs that wrap themselves around you in the friendliest of chokes.

Once my deal with the devil was complete and Christmas and I became friends, I had a much better time. It can be tempting to focus on misery at Christmas, and I know there are a great deal of people for whom it’s a painful and anxious time, who just want it to be over. The loss of loved ones never feels so miserable and inescapable as it does when the streets glow with the optimism and cheerfulness of Christmas lights. Once, I wrote a jokey piece about how you should never date someone who hated Christmas, and a few people got very upset with me. It was actually a companion to a contradictory, and equally jokey, piece on why you should never date a Christmas fanatic either, but with the way we celebrate or mark solemn occasions or traditions increasingly under scrutiny, my humorous rant against festive killjoys touched a nerve. They assumed me privileged and insensitive and, while I am both of those things many, many times, on this occasion I thought I’d been misunderstood. It’s another assumption that if Christmas pains you, your only options are to ignore it, or wish it over quickly, or get as far away from it as possible. Some of us spend Christmas dreaming of the ghosts of years gone by and dealing with the demons of lonely ones to come. And I guess that’s up to them; I don’t think anyone should be forced to celebrate if they feel sad or tired of it. But the biggest reason I’ve come round to the idea is that  the alternative would be even worse. I find hope in Christmas. I am both lucky and unlucky enough to have seen many Christmases come and go, and I focus on the good, and the now, because they’ve not always been a celebration.

I never think now of the Christmas of my 18th birthday, when my uncle woke up on Christmas Day unable to walk, and that same New Year’s Eve when my grandfather collapsed and died the next day. Every bauble I buy and mulled wine I sip banishes all thoughts of my 21st, when my Irish nana was dying of cancer and I spent the entire festive period in a kind of gross limbo, torn between wanting to enjoy my youth and be free but terrified of letting her go, feeling like a selfish brat and knowing I would regret it. Standing smoking nervously on ice-cold doorsteps thinking about the cards life had dealt me, ludicrously surmising things couldn’t get much worse. My other grandma died two weeks before Christmas years later, her funeral the day before my birthday. I’ve had better Christmas Days and more glorious New Years since, and while they can never cancel out the bad ones, I owe it to them all to enjoy it as much as I can. If lost in festive reverie, I’m not thinking about how both grandmothers loved Christmas, decorating their trees, the sights and smells rushing back so hard they could wind me if I let them. Grandma’s baking. Their voices. I don’t think of carefully wrapping boxes of chocolates – tongue between teeth in bitter concentration – that my nana bought for her daughters and that only I could be trusted to wrap, because I was her favourite. I never think of the tins of Quality Street, or being allowed to use the “best room”, with the open fire, and reading the bumper editions of the TV and Radio Times. Nana’s pale, freckly, immaculate hands cutting me a slice of Mars bar. I don’t think of any of it at all. Except I do. It’s all I can do. I can smell it all now: the fire, the polish on the wood, chocolate, the mustiness clearing from an unused room and it starting to feel lived in and loved again. I can feel the imprint of the carpet as I kneel to wrap the presents and hear the tinny prattle of whatever’s on the TV, with Nana squinting at it from across the room. I don’t even have to close my eyes to be there; it’s a movie that plays on repeat, on all available screens, at every moment. But I cannot live in my memories – there’s nothing for me there.

So, in the now, I create new traditions. My tree goes up in the first week of November. I listen to the same three Christmas songs first, on 1 November. At Mum’s for Christmas, the first tin of chocolates is opened on my birthday and I am always bought a bottle of gin. My Christmas drinks are sloe gin and tonic, bucks fizz while opening presents and sham-cham-chams (cava or prosecco with Chambord liqueur top). I make the same salad every year. Each Christmas I search for the perfect table centrepiece and never find it – it’s a running joke. My sister and I refuse to allow the rather dog-eared fairy from the top of the tree to be replaced by a shiny, modern star. She was bought in Woolworths in 1981 and is as much part of Christmas as the Queen’s speech might be to someone who can be bothered watching it.

The Christmas fanatic is my superhero alter ego – a security blanket, maybe, or a shield. For two months of the year I am lost in it; as close to nostalgia as I allow. Deck the halls, I say – winter is long and dark enough. Let there be light – LED, warm white, two strings of 200 with optional flash.

A different version of this post was sent out in my regular mailout The Truth About Everything*. Sign up to get all this dreary whimsy before anyone else.

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