The only reason that Christmas, and for that matter, birthdays, are so loaded with emotion and so difficult to manage is because they don’t happen every day. If we lived with a year of Christmas days, the power would soon dissipate, and it’d become so ordinary that we wouldn’t cry every time we saw THAT bauble hanging off the tree.
I’m not advocating a year of Christmas days, but the only way that grief gets any less jagged is by exposure to the elements of daily living. So, if we only lift this day out of its special box once a year, it’s always going to be bright and brittle and pierce us with its shards of memories. It never gets enough time to become weathered.
Knowing this doesn’t help, mind you. I can muse on my theory, but it doesn’t stop the fact that Christmas is indeed a very brief spell in each long year. And with it come both some universal foggy nostalgia for Christmases that didn’t really exist even before I was born, alongside my own happy childhood memories. These are topped with those see-saw Christmases where Dan would land beside me or Steve, his dad, each taking our turn to revel in the magic of Christmas with a child. In the early years of our separation, we even visited each other’s houses on Christmas morning so we could both be there to watch little Dan open gifts. An extra gift for him of having Mummy and Daddy together, playing, having fun.
Latterly, he stayed with me for Christmas. Steve had moved from Glossop, but that wasn’t the primary reason – he would have moved heaven and earth to have Dan with him if that’s what Dan had wanted. But what Dan wanted was to be at home with his daily comforts, close to his Nanny and Grandad, his friends, his Xbox.
Our last Christmas was a quiet, grown-up affair, in Sheffield. We rose late, opened gifts, lazed about. I took Maggie for a walk and wished other dog walkers a Merry Christmas. Dan stayed in and played FIFA 18. I cooked Christmas dinner and Dan ate it. We couldn’t get to Glossop to visit Nanny and Grandad; snow had rendered both the Snake Pass and Woodhead Pass dangerous. And we thought there would be time later in the week anyway when the ice had melted some more. It was all very much our first Christmas away from home. Next year, we decided, we’d rent a two-bedroomed cottage in Glossop for the week, just to ensure we could share the festivities with our framily. By the time we packed away the decorations a few days later, the property in Glossop was booked.
Christmases since Dan have been different. That first one, in the little cottage in Glossop with that second bedroom whose door I did not open, was the most normal. I was still in shock, my body being propelled through time whilst my mind was still caught up in the round-mouthed O of surprise that this was my life now.
‘Dan loved Christmas, and so do I, so I’m being positive’, I parroted. I grinned maniacally at the dog walkers on Christmas day and opened presents from friends. I took Mum to mass, and later we ate Christmas dinner at her house, and I jollied her and Dad along wearing hats from crackers and it was all ok.
The second Christmas was shit. I was in a relationship with H by then and he was in New Zealand for three weeks. Mum had died. I stayed at Dad’s. There were no decorations. I walked the dog and avoided any gaze. We thought we had cheated the ghost of Christmas past by having sandwiches on Christmas Day and eating a more traditional turkey dinner on Boxing Day. But no. The ghosts arrived. Our gaze was dragged to the two empty seats. Empty like a void, anti-matter, the shape of those who were not there. We ate and cleared the table quickly and stared mutely at the tv.
Last year, late adjustments to Covid restrictions forced a last-minute change to plans and the first glimmer of fun. I would not be spending Christmas at mine. Instead, I got to sit beside H and eat and drink myself into oblivion. On Christmas morning I walked the dog listening to Radio 2’s Junior Choice on my headphones, singing along to My Brother and A Windmill in Old Amsterdam, passing no-one. Then I called at Dad’s for a doorstep chat before going back to the settee to consume more chocolate, more biscuits, more wine. I was sodden and bleary by new year.
This year will be my dad’s last Christmas. I miss my mum. I’m finding it hard to catch the festive spirit. Live Forever came on the radio as I made porridge this morning, and tears flowed as I stirred. Dan’s song. I’m caught in a low-grade emotional storm. Instead of looking forward to Christmas, I’m looking forward to its passing; all its weight of expectation sloughing from my shoulders like snow from a roof thawed by sunlight.