When I was a child, Christmas was my favourite, favourite time of the year. In fact, the whole slow sweep from October into the 25th of December was joyful to me, gradually gathering momentum until The Big Day. I loved the presents, of course, but more than that there was something ineffable about the nights closing in, the hush of the days around the 25th, the way my family closed in on itself and into our private rituals that felt so sacred and special.
The moment I loved most of all – the actual second – was the first note of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ beginning the carol service from King’s College, Cambridge at 3pm on Christmas Eve. My mum and I would be busy making stuffing or bread sauce, everyone was home, I felt at that moment so safe and sure of everything.
As I got older, of course, my feelings about Christmas changed. Father Christmas was sacrificed on the pyre of growing up, and my childish wonder was tempered by the cynicism that comes from experiencing the unfairnesses of adolescent life. Christmas was still special, right into my late twenties, but there was a counterpoint to the joy. There was, increasingly, something melancholy at the heart of the season – something I can’t quite put my finger on. The closing of another year with all that entails. The inevitability of time passing and the time that can’t be got back. The routines repeated without those who once were part of them. I spent Christmas on an emotional tightrope – The Snowman, that first note of Once In Royal David’s City, any participation in a carol service all reduced me to embarrassed tears of happiness or sadness or somewhere in between.
Though there was still joy at the heart of Christmas, it was somehow sweetened and deepened by the contrast of the sadness that was woven into it. Then one year, on the 4th December, I had a phone call telling me that I had lesions in my brain suggestive of the early stages of MS and Christmas became imbued with very different emotions – horror, fear, and sadness. After that, it was a milestone – marking another year I’d managed not to be diagnosed with MS, but heralding a new year that might see my worst fears come true.
Since then I’ve tried so hard to feel the joy of Christmas again, but despite the happiness I feel at seeing my children’s unbridled excitement and wonder I’ve just been going through the motions. I could never allow myself to feel unabated happiness again. This was not just at Christmas but all year round, but when celebration is mandated and all around are (supposedly) having the wonderfullest of times hiding a deep sadness becomes even more difficult.
And so to this year – the year that finally realised my fears. The year that ruined my life. A year I’ll be happy to leave behind but that propels me into a future of even greater uncertainty. And how do I feel? Happier than I have done for years. Without fear hanging over me, I can finally allow myself the joy that’s been suffocated by fear and anger. What’s more, for the first time I truly realise what I have and how lucky I am. I think it’s going to be a great Christmas.
Merry Christmas one and all, and a very Happy New Year. I’ll leave you with my favourite Christmas song – one steeped in longing and pitched precariously between tipsy euphoria and frosty despair – a perfect soundtrack!