The Other Type of Christmas

And then there was the year when Christmas went wrong.

In my part of the world and in my family, Christmas involves a house decorated with bright colours. It’s a time of secrets and excitement as presents are bought or made and then hidden; for the wider family to get together, exchange gifts, play boardgames, eat a lot of very rich food for twenty-four hours followed by leftovers for what feels like twenty-four days. For some of us it might include one or more church services, for others not. It’s a few days of switching off from the normal world, being a little self-indulgent, and having fun. 

It’s nice and cosy. 

I was lucky perhaps to get to my mid teens before I first experienced one where it wasn’t.

That Christmas my parents had decided we’d have Christmas Day at home in South Wales and not visit my paternal grandparents in Reading till Boxing Day. It was possibly because my grandfather, then aged about seventy-two, had been ill with a bad cold and didn’t want visitors or any of the fuss. 

Early on Christmas Eve – a bitter cold day with biting rain – my parents, sister and I went to do last minute Christmas shopping. I watched my parents amble in the direction of the stationery section of Woolworths suspecting that they were going to buy me the calculator I’d asked for and fearing that they’d forget I wanted one with a square-root function to save checking my maths homework against a log table. (If you don’t know what log tables are, you don’t know what you’ve missed.) 

Aged fourteen, the fact that I’d be disappointed if my parents forgot the square root function (which they did) was about the worst thing that I thought could happen in my Christmas world. Then we went home and just as we were settling down to watch TV, the telephone rang. It was my father’s cousin who’d been trying to get through all day, saying that my paternal grandfather had died. She was caring for my grandmother who was distraught at the loss of the man she’d adored for over fifty years.

Why we didn’t go to Reading then and there, I also don’t know. It’s possible my grandmother said not to, it’s possible that my father, who always struggled with knowing how to express emotion or comfort in the right way, was too distraught. I can’t recall. On Christmas Day we went through the motions I guess and ate a meal that tasted of grief. I can’t really recall that either. 

We travelled to Reading the next day. Late afternoon, it started to snow heavily. My grandmother begged us to stay, my father refused. I’m sure he was simply overwhelmed with emotions he didn’t know how to deal with, but it was a downright stupid decision. He drove the hundred and forty two miles home in a blizzard, hoping the car wouldn’t break down (as she was inclined to). He could see virtually nothing. He drove along the motorway in the outside (‘fast’) lane using the central reservation barriers as a guide.

We were half-frozen, because a windscreen wiper kept getting stuck meaning that my mother had to keep winding down the window to give it a shove. On the radio was a play about someone contemplating jumping off a foggy cliff. My sister and I remember it as a sort of dreamlike nightmare of a journey which can never be a funny recollection because of the context.

When we finally did get to our village, Dad couldn’t drive up the steep hairpin bends to our house as they were clogged with snow. We had to go the back way which involved a narrow, twisty lane without much in the way of hedges or fences between us and a steep slope down to the river on one side. They were, in any event, invisible.

No amount of pretty decorations or colourful lights could make up for the misery of that Christmas.

The following Christmas wasn’t a great deal better. My grandmother seemed constantly half-asleep. She died two months later. Although the medical cause was stroke, we were always sure it was actually a broken heart.

Even after rather more years that I care to count, it chokes me up to write this. Several years passed before those shadows receded.

Illogical it is, people will often say ‘how much worse that XYZ happened at Christmas.’ There’s an expectation that everything at Christmastime should be happy and perfect and when it’s not that seems to be a travesty. 

In the grand scheme of things, I know that losing a beloved elderly grandparent to natural causes is not a tragedy, it’s just sad. I haven’t had to endure the kind of horror that people had suffered in the last few weeks – losing loved ones in situations which should never happen. My heart goes out to the bereaved families of the children who were playing on ice, those crushed at a concert, victims of car accidents, violence and of course war. I’m not trying to make a comparison. But that particular Christmas was when I realised for myself that the realities of life do not pause for manmade red letter days.

And I know that there are other reasons apart from grief why Christmas can be hard going. It can be boring if you aren’t interested but everyone else is, and the whole commercial nonsense is constantly bombarding you. It can be lonely when everyone is in family groups and for whatever reason you’re not, or you don’t want to be or your family life is toxic.

I’ve been lucky with family, but even so I’ve had times when I’ve been sad or lonely; wondering how to make ends meet; wondering if I’d ever have a family of my own to start traditions with; worrying about whether someone would survive the sickness they were suffering.

This is not about my books (I’ll post about that another day). But when I wrote the short stories for The Advent Calendar seven years ago, I wanted to reflect the true experiences of Christmas, even in the less serious stories: the expectations versus the reality. In it there are nativity plays and carol singers and office parties, but also neglected lonely relations, homeless people, and refugees. Nothing, including the refugee situation, has really changed since (including, just to lighten the mood – the possibility of my sister dressing up in a tutu and embarrassing me in public). But I also wanted to reflect that stripping away the nonsense, the commerciality, the hype – there can be the tiniest flicker of hope that things can change.

This can be a hard time of year, it can be a lovely time of year, sometimes it can be a mixture of both. I hope that for you, it is what you want it to be and that you have what you need. But if for any who need support, or who want to give to organisations who help others – please see the links below (these are UK charities – but if you have equivalent links elsewhere please let me know and I’ll add them).

Mind – mental health support

Give Us a Shout

The Samaritans

Young Minds

The Calm Zone

Papyrus UK

St Mungo’s – homelessness and mental health support

Beat Eating Disorders Support

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image https://www.dreamstime.com/print-image127586004

Big Tree, Little Boxes

When we decorate the Christmas tree this year (some time this week), there will be something missing.

Several things in fact.

When my son started primary school aged four, there was a fundraising fair towards the end of the Christmas term, which included a stall selling decorations. I bought two for the children:  each with a teddy-bear riding a rocking horse. One was behaving in a proper manner and the other was lying on its back being silly. I decided at that point that these would be the start of a collection for each of my children. The good teddy was for my daughter and the naughty teddy was for my son, because at the time this is precisely how both of them would have behaved when faced with a rocking horse or in fact in any situation you could think of. Nowadays however, I suspect my daughter would be standing in the saddle and my son (who has been sky-diving in his time) would be eyeing the rocking horse with deep suspicion.

Over the following eighteen years, we and the children’s grandparents added to the boxes. Every Christmas, the children would decide where their own decorations should go on the tree and put them there. The idea was that ultimately, when they had homes of their own, they’d have their own little box of decorations which would be a little bit of their ‘home-home’ that they’d be take with them to put on their own trees.

A couple of weeks ago, I handed my son’s box of decorations to him, because now – at last – he does have his own place. It felt like a bit of a watershed. The little boy who’d have caused havoc with a rocking horse, is now a young adult with a grown up job and the sort of tenancy that needs you to have a grown up job. 

I’m not sure where the time has gone. Once – just over twenty-nine years ago – there was just me and my husband with an artificial Christmas tree that my in-laws had given us (it was then about ten years old) about to celebrate our first married Christmas.

I bought what were the latest tasteful 1990s decorations and spent ages placing them evenly, but my husband ‘wrecked’ the effect by adding some multi-coloured lights which clashed completely as I’d made the tree ‘too serious and sensible’. (This sort of summed our differences in personality at marriage which is to some extent which is why a good many people thought we’d never get past that first Christmas, let alone our first year.) 

Then years passed and there were first three of us and then four of us, with the same old tree. Apart from a few rather expensive (for a mum of two small children working part-time) baubles I bought out of social embarrassment (long story), the decoration collection grew steadily more eclectic. When they were being randomly placed by little hands, all attempts at symmetry, co-ordination (and to some extent taste) went out of the window and never came back. By Christmas Eve everything would be done, and all four of us would be waiting for the grandparents to arrive.

This Christmas it’s all change again. There will be the same old tree (now nearly forty years of age and still going strong), but there will be just two of us decorating it, and this year, even the children and my son’s partner won’t arrive until Christmas Eve only an hour or so before the grandparents. It’s one of the oddest things to get our heads round: the children coming home almost as if they’re guests. (The novelty wears off quite quickly as they revert straight back into the nest in baby-bird mode – ‘Feed me! Feed me!’ while bickering and playing video games and leaving doors open despite the cost of heating.)

I didn’t think to take a photograph of my son’s box before I handed it over. The picture below is of my daughter’s. She has technically left home too, but she’s still living in her student digs with a lot of other people, so it’s not quite her own place yet and she’s not ready to take the box away with her.

Perhaps it’s time for me and my husband to start making our own little collection of special decorations to replace the ones that are in the children’s boxes. 

But I don’t think I’ll waste time worrying if they’re tasteful or in vogue, or co-ordinate. I’ll just embrace the joyous, colourful silliness of Christmas decorating – that bit of brightness in the miserable dark of midwinter. There’s enough to be worrying about in life – I’ve long learned that trying to be sensible really isn’t one that’s worth the effort.

Fun facts: when I was researching what the Victorians put on their Christmas trees apart from candles for a memory of Margaret’s in The Treacherous Dead(relevant extract below the picture), I found this fascinating website which has photographs of some very bright and unusual Victorian trees and some rather alarming patriotic baubles (zeppelins anyone?) http://www.victoriana.com/Victorian_Christmas/Christmas_in_the_Victorian_Times.html. And if you want to know about the history of Christmas decorations and and how long it took turkeys to walk – yes walk – to London from East Anglia here’s another fascinating article: https://www.countryfile.com/go-outdoors/days-out/top-10-quirky-christmas-traditions/

Extract from The Treacherous Dead

A hollow clatter made Margaret look round. Juniper was batting a red and white glass ball towards the wall. She snatched it away and held it in her palm. ‘Mother gave this to me to put on the Christmas tree. Katherine had a blue one. I’d forgotten. How lovely.’

Fox had fallen silent but Margaret wasn’t paying attention. The bauble brought a sudden, sharp image of her mother: the face of a woman younger than Margaret was now, with much redder hair dressed in curls and ringlets. As the image faded, other memories took over: scents of lavender and cinnamon, pine and candles; the swish of a silk dress and the crackle of a winter fire; pine needles pricking as Margaret was lifted in warm arms to hang the glass ball in a Christmas tree’s branches.

‘Perhaps you should deal with the rest,’ said Fox. His face was pale. A bundle of letters tied in pink ribbon had risen to the top. ‘Who are these from? Or don’t I want to know?’

Margaret took the letters. ‘Honestly, Fox, look at their age and the address.’ Pink dye stained the envelopes where it had touched them. The paper was yellowed, the address her sister Katherine’s. ‘These are twelve years old. They were from someone called Joel Gifford. He was a doctor.’

‘Was?’

‘He died in Kimberley aged twenty-six.’

‘Oh,’ said Fox. ‘Kimberley, South Africa? Boer War?’ 

‘Yes. He was an army medic and he died during the siege.’ Margaret tried to picture Joel and failed. She had no photographs: just his letters and a memory of pleasant evenings in quiet restaurants. ‘We were friends.’

‘Just friends?’

Margaret touched the letters. ‘Perhaps if he’d lived it might have become something more, but he didn’t. These aren’t love letters. They’re descriptions of South Africa, his cases, his opinions and his responses to my ideas and attempts to get a good job. I haven’t looked at them for years.’ She put them on the floor. ‘I should have burnt them when I married Owen, but I didn’t. I suppose I should have done it when I fell in love with you, but I’d forgotten them. I’ll do it now.’

‘Why?’ Fox reached for her hand. ‘I still have Cynthia’s letters. I haven’t read those since 1896, but she’s part of who I am. Do you want me to burn those?’

‘Of course not, Fox! She was your wife.’ 

Fox returned Joel’s letters to the box, tucking the mantilla over the top. ‘Memories of people we loved are things we should keep. It’s the bad memories we should burn.’

They sat in silence, staring at the box. A movement alerted Margaret to Juniper reaching for the bauble again. ‘Good grief,’ she said. ‘This is rather maudlin. It’s quite unlike us.’

‘I’ve been away too long.’ Fox pulled her into a hug and kissed her slowly. ‘We need to stop tidying and get reacquainted. Then we’ll be in a fit state to start arguing again.’

[The Treacherous Dead will be published as an ebook on 29th December 2022. The paperback will be out sooner. The decoration may not be relevant, but it’s just possible the rest is…]

Words and photograph copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.