I’m not a fan of Christmas. I know – just sue me already.
I’m not a total iron-clad Scrooge, mind you – I too succumb to the warm fuzziness of the run up to the day: the lights, the pointless spending, the mince pies. Oh, the mince pies! Why must they be confined to this one day?
But I digress: I do not look forward to December 25th (mince pies aside).
I certainly look back to it – to the Christmases of my childhood – with a movie-montage-worthy wistfulness. The tumbling down the stairs and the jostling with my brothers to get to the tree first, not to mention the frustration that came with my dad’s camcorder being shoved in our faces, posing a great inconvenience to our greedy gift unwrapping process. The Santa-skeptic years were a bit dark, but were still imbued with the final, clinging vestiges of my childhood innocence and imagination.
But I also associate the day with the impersonal, disinfected smell of a hospital. And yes, I am a real barrel of laughs to have around for the crackers.
Christmas decorations look completely out of place in a hospital, or at least the one that comes to my mind. The buffed, shining floors that absorb the ceiling’s fluorescent white light generally struggle to carry the weight of tacky Santas and busy-looking wreaths. Nurses donning antlers are heartening but not exactly reassuring. And the ward’s mini plastic tree always pales by comparison to the one at home – where you’d much rather be.
Christmas decorations look completely out of place in a hospital, or at least the one that comes to my mind
When I was 13, I spent much of the Christmas season in and out of a hospital visiting my ailing mother. I can still hear the jarring dissonance of jingle bells against the beeping monitors.
It was the first Christmas dinner that I did not spend with my mum. In fact, most disgracefully to my 13-year-old self, it was the first Christmas dinner that I didn’t get to coat my exorbitant meal in her famed gravy. Worse yet, it was the first year that I didn’t get to witness her annual tipsy rendition of just about any ABBA song you can think of.
Nearly eight years on, and I still haven’t had the chance to float my dinner in her gravy, nor hear her tone-deaf (but sincere) rendering of “Dancing Queen”. She passed away the day after St Stephen’s Day that year.
So, I struggle with Christmas.
The day not only heralds in these dystopian memories but, as is the case for most people who have suffered a loss, it serves as a nodal point around which my grief collects itself.
Big occasions have a quality about them that gathers grief. It’s the marking of time’s passage, of an increased distance from the people you’ve lost. All of these atoms of loss and bereavement that float and bump around on any other day, sometimes joining, other times pulling apart, come together and invest so many of the day’s moments with a sadness and absence that is difficult to ignore.
The day not only heralds in these dystopian memories but, as is the case for most people who have suffered a loss, it serves as a nodal point around which my grief collects itself
Christmas is a kind of coat hook for disparate sensations – of loss and nostalgia and bereftness – that the bereaved reckon with irregularly. It’s made all the more confounding by the fact that the day is meant to be a joyous, golden time. What’s more, it’s meant to be a stable, unchanging thing – a tradition. We all have our routines for the day and the little things that our families just do. But loss shifts its nature in such a dramatic way that it feels farcical to attempt to recreate the tradition you know and love, but futile to create a new one.
After a year in flux, we are wont to cling onto tradition: those days which root us, mark the passage of time, and stand constant even when everything around us has changed utterly. Many of us are now up against the overwhelming realisation that this once immovable thing has very much been moved, along with just about everything else this year.
I still look around the Christmas dinner table and struggle with the fact that my mum isn’t there (and don’t get me started on the gravy). I don’t know how much longer it will take me to escape this annual pang of sadness and this discomfort with change, or if I ever will – but it has certainly taught me the fluidity and fragility of even the most ingrained of regularities.
When life suffers a loss, and when a tradition is necessarily overturned, it’s disorienting – most of all, it feels unfair. This year, most of us will have to reckon with the seasick sensation of not recognising a day that for so long has seemed inalterable, invincible. But traditions can’t last in one form forever. This lesson reaches everyone at some point in life – 2020 is just teaching us all at once.