Other people may bask in the glow of Christmas with the family but, for me, it’s a special form of torture. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family dearly; it’s just that at Christmas time I like them best in small doses, preferably from a distance. We all have our quirks and, let’s face it, that’s what makes us interesting but it doesn’t mean I want to deal with other people’s idiosyncrasies 24/7, no matter how much I may adore them. My mother is the driving force of the Christmas dynamic and so everything depends upon her mood. She’s not big on self-awareness and, even though she hates Christmas, tends to spend the build up in frenetic preparation when, common sense would dictate a low key approach would probably suit her best. Rather than acknowledge it’s a time of year that renders her mildly depressed and sad, she feigns illness. This year, in common with the last eight, she took to her bed with ‘flu’ on Christmas Day. Couple that with the fact that my siblings and I have a tendency to revert back to childhood whenever we are under my mother’s roof at the same time and you can see it’s a toxic mix.
You’re probably asking why we put ourselves through it and, that’s a question my sister and I typically ask each other around the beginning of January, when we swear we’ll never do it again. The rot set in eight years ago, which was our first Christmas without my dad. When he was here it was easier to circumnavigate the festive madness without any lingering feelings of guilt. After all, my parents had each other but how could we possibly condemn my mother to a lonely Christmas by herself?
Christmas for us then seems to fall into two distinct categories – pre 2008 and the ones we have now. I’m not viewing the past through rose tinted specs either because Christmas in my family has always been fraught with tension. Pre 2008, when I didn’t live in Sheffield, I would sometimes travel back to stay with my parents, a deluded, hazy, festive glow having bamboozled me into booking my train ticket for a week’s stay. The joke was the day after Boxing Day would see me queuing in the train station to pay the supplement that would allow me to change my return ticket. My parents would be so glad to see the back of me; I wouldn’t even have to make an excuse for my hasty departure.
The best Christmases were the ones where I wasn’t in the country. There is a particularly memorable one where my sister and I spent Christmas Day in Las Vegas, gambling and drinking like it was any other day. Then there were the times I pretended to be out of the country in order to avoid returning home. I had one Christmas in Brighton feeling like the sole person on earth as everything went into shutdown mode. By Boxing Day, I was so stir crazy I spent the entire day in the one cafe that was open – in an amusement arcade on the pier. The woman who had drawn the short straw and had to work the shift clearly thought I was homeless and kept slipping me custard cream biscuits. Little did she know, with my notebook and endless supply of hot chocolate, I was happy as Larry. The custard creams were simply a bonus.
I realise that some of you may be reading this appalled by my Grinch family spirit but, other than at Christmas, I would say we are more or less normal. I think we were doomed never to have one of those perfect, TV Christmases though when my mum’s dad died on Christmas Eve when she was thirteen. Traumatic as that must have been, the event still might not have cast such a permanent cloud over Christmas if her mother hadn’t ever after gone into a period of mourning, just as everyone else was gearing up for fun. As a result, my mother’s illusion of Christmas as a happy time ended at thirteen and the repercussions rippled onwards into my own childhood and beyond, as Grandma would come for Christmas bringing with her an air of gloom that would infect the whole day.
The thing is I’m sure my family aren’t unique and there are lots of other people who don’t get to have the TV Christmas either. What worked this year then, I hear you cry? Why was this one not as hideous as Christmases past? I think the main thing was preparation born out of a heavy dose of realism. I went into whole thing this year with zero expectations rather than hoping that; just maybe, this would be the year when the Christmas spirit would arrive like fairy dust on Christmas Eve. Nope, I took my Kindle and enough books to keep a library going and my brother, sister and I ignored the whole festive business, choosing instead to read quietly while mum took to her bed. We were like the Brontes without the opium.
In fact the whole thing was so pleasant, my sister and I aren’t going to be able to have our yearly January ‘never again’ rant. No, we have our Christmas contingency plan for next year in place already. My sister can bring the books next year though.