I think I’m getting better at Christmas. For many years, it’s felt so bleak.
I know I’m not alone in this. For every person who loves this time of year, there’s another person for whom the festive season is filled with holes: gaps where people should be. Despite the breadth of this shared experience, it’s a strangely isolating feeling. About ten years ago, I spent a Christmas entirely alone, because that hurt least. I think I had gin and television, and a couple of people dropped by to check in on me anyway.
It’s not quite true that kids make Christmas, but they do offer a different perspective on things. My son is excited about Christmas, and his joy is infectious. The ghosts take their seats quietly in the corner of the room instead of pulling up a chair at the table. I can still see their shadows out of the corner of my eye, but if I blink and look back at the festivities they fade away for a while.
Now and then I turn to face the shadows, and it can feel a little overwhelming. There are so many of them. People who never age. People who would have spent Christmas with us, playing on the floor with my son and telling terrible jokes from Christmas crackers just to make him laugh. People who he will never know except through stories – their shadows are paler for him, so thin as to be almost invisible.
There are other shadows, too: people who are celebrating Christmases this year, somewhere else. Families which are not really families any more. I’m not even sure what I miss there, any more: perhaps it’s a sense of how things could have been different, had people been less wounded or unbending.
But this year, we have a Christmas tree in our house. It’s an actual tree, not a compromise. There is a steadily growing pile of presents beneath it: some wrapped in simple paper, labelled with spidery calligraphy; some wrapped in bright colours with hot pink gift cards and felt tip scrawl. Hot pink is not a colour I’d usually associate with Christmas, but its incongruity tickles me. There is a delicate ornament hanging from the tree: a dove, given to me to remember my brother. My chest tightened as I hung it on my tree; but then I hung a red bauble above it. The red bauble has messy glitter designs glued to it, and my son gravely told me I should put it at the top of the tree, because he is my only child.
He is indeed, and so I laughed and hung the bauble (oversized and completely at odds with the smaller silver and gold ornaments placed so uniformly across the branches) up near the very peak of the tree, just underneath the glowing star.
We are spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with family. Not all of our family, but enough. It will be warm and festive, and there will be mangoes and punch. I’m looking forward to it at the same time as I am looking back to Christmases past. It feels like a good end to a good year.