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).
St Mungo’s – homelessness and mental health 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