Christmas. What the hell is it about anyway?
It’s that time again. The weather turns chilly; mornings consist of scraping your car windscreen or stamping your feet at bus stops, and by 5pm it feels like midnight. Strings of multi-coloured lights, inflatable Santas and twinkling reindeer appear in front gardens, and children begin their delicious few weeks of early morning chocolate treats. It seems that all anyone can talk about is meals out, drink-ups and what they have / haven’t bought yet. Urgh. It’s Christmas time.
Don’t get me wrong, when I was a child I loved Christmas. The excitement was almost unbearable, especially when I lived in New Jersey and the snow began falling. It often settled several feet thick and we had to shovel a path from the porch to the drive. We always had a tall, bushy tree (real, of course), festooned with lights and decorations which dated back years; we greeted them like old friends as we plucked them from their musty boxes in mid-December. We attended church carol services and my mum organised the nativity play, which involved a plastic baby doll and shepherds wearing tea towels on their heads. My starring role, a dozy shepherd who had to suddenly grab her toy lamb and shout, ‘Wait for me!’ before racing offstage, got a laugh. Walking home, while the freezing air knitted frostbite into my cheek, then sitting in front of a roaring open fire to let it thaw out – they are my cherished Christmas memories. Too much food to possibly eat, including a mandarin flan because I didn’t like Figgie pudding back then, presents that seemed impossibly wonderful, even though they were fairly ordinary: toys, books, pyjamas. That weird way Christmas Day always had, of sneaking up on me as a thought for 24 hours only … it’s Christmas! They are the things I loved.
After mum died, Christmas became false and forced. Awkward and tense. I moved out and went to other people’s houses for dinner, a smiling façade hiding my sadness. When we travelled Australia, we spent the 25th on Coogee Beach, Sydney, wearing bikinis and drinking Foster’s. We had fish fingers and chips for dinner.
Then, the magic returned. I had three small children of my own, who couldn’t sleep for excitement, and woke at 4am to open presents. They ripped and tore the paper like wild beasts, barely drawing breath to see what was inside. After a frenzied half hour, with nothing left to open, the Lego building would begin. By 8am my husband would still be slaving, bleary-eyed, over a Millennium Falcon or Indiana Jones kit, but the boys would have lost interest. Too long to wait. Instead, they’d be whacking each other with cardboard tubes or sitting in the boxes the presents came in. My daughter would be copying whatever they did. The music would be on, I’d have a few Bucks Fizzes inside me and peeling spuds would feel like it would take until New Year’s Eve. It was great. All the shopping, wrapping, preparation, cooking and inevitable errors seemed worth it when I saw the kids having fun. But now they’re all quite big. They’re teenagers who text me a list of what they’d like and aren’t interested in helping with the tree. They say, ‘Cheers, mum’ when I hand them an advent calendar – three days late. Somehow, the event has lost its importance.
It seems that to have a good Christmas these day, you have to take photos of piles and piles of presents under a tree and post it on Facebook. You have to drink to excess for two weeks straight. You have to spend at least twice what you can afford and pay it off over the next six months. But that’s ok, ‘cause you look impressive to your followers.
I don’t know what’s happened to me. I’m not religious at all, but I think it’s a shame that Christmas in the 21st century is a material celebration. It’s about shopping rather than spending time with those you love. The chasm between my fond childhood Christmas memories and the reality as an adult feels too wide to bridge but I will persevere in the hope that my kids still feel something. I will huff and puff and moan and stress, but I will enjoy the day. I always do, because it’s a day to stop and just be. You see, I learned from grief that being materialistic is meaningless. For me, Christmas is a day to spend with my husband and children, eating, chilling out and exchanging a few gifts which say, ‘I love you.’ Because that is what’s important.