The fire crackles, candles cast a warm glow around the tinsel-decorated room and the wrapped parcels under the tree are full of promise.
I’m sat on the sofa, huddled under a tartan blanket with the dog. Tomorrow the other half and I will cook Christmas dinner for our folks, who will be staying with us in our recently-purchased home.
It all sounds very idyllic and that’s because, for the first time in my life, it is. But before I get accused of being smug, let me explain – for years, the “season of joy” felt utterly dismal.
When people reminisce about the magical Christmases they enjoyed as children – excitement about Santa, family fun – I can’t relate. It’s as though we’ve grown up on different planets.
My grandmother died on Christmas Eve. She’d been prepping food and sat down to take a break. When they found her, she’d had a heart attack. Just like that, she was gone.
I was only five-years-old at the time, so I don’t remember much. My mum put on a brave face every Christmas after that, but I could sense her grief as though it was coming out of her pores. The sadness infected me and made me convinced that Christmas was a time when people died, that it brought bad luck.
There was also the being forced to spend time with my parents part. It’s not that I didn’t love them – individually, my mum was always great and when my dad was sober (not often) he resembled a normal person. But when they were within close proximity, and with alcohol and money problems thrown into the mix, it was a recipe for disaster.
A little seed of anxiety would plant itself in the pit of my stomach as soon as TV channels began broadcasting the Advent church services, with those drawn-out, melancholy Orthodox hymns. The seed would grow bigger and bigger as the tree went up and a succession of Santas, snowmen and reindeer paraded around TV screens and billboards in the days before Christmas.
Our dire finances meant my mum was even more stressed and harassed than usual. Meanwhile my dad numbed the desolation that seemed to come over him every December with ever larger quantities of alcohol. Drinking away the little money we had.
The big showdown would normally come at the Christmas Eve dinner. As is the tradition, my mum would cook seven meat-free dishes and lay them out on a blanket on the floor (the idea is to mimic being in a barn, like Mary and Joseph…except in a Soviet-era high-rise).
At some point my dad would stumble in from the pub, smelling like a keg and mumbling incoherently. In bizarre comedy sketch fashion, he’d trip over the festive spread on the floor, sending food and decorations flying everywhere. A lot of shouting and tears would ensue. For added drama, my mum would sometimes throw his clothes out on the landing and threaten him with divorce. Or the neighbours would call the police to calm things down.
He’d then sleep it all off and the next day we’d try to pretend nothing had happened. If I was lucky there would be presents to open. It wasn’t guaranteed, though. One year all my parents could afford was a Kinder egg, and I knew better than to complain. Or to have delusions about Santa.
After a Christmas meal of pork and pickled cabbage (the joys of growing up in Eastern Europe) we’d stretch back in our chairs and breathe a sigh of relief. It was all over for another year, and we could go back to avoiding each other.
When my parents separated, things improved and Christmas went from being torture to merely a non-event. Sure, there was a small tree, some token presents and a bit more food than usual, but in my memory all those Christmases are fused into one. I desperately wanted to enjoy myself and I’d listen enviously to people talking about what a great time they’d had. For me though, it was all a bit…meh.
So now I’m making up for all these years. I’m an adult, in my own home, where I can be in control and not at the mercy of someone else’s mood. My other half is a calm, non shout-y person. Our mums are both happy with their partners after bad first marriages. We’ll eat, drink, talk and laugh, then watch rubbish TV until bed time.
If you’re by yourself this Christmas, or spending it with people you’d rather not be with, or simply feeling low and not in the mood for all the enforced jollity…know that you’re not alone. Life can be hard and human relationships are messy. That doesn’t suddenly change on this one day of the year.
Use the holiday lull to evaluate what you really want from life. For me, that was a peaceful home. There is hope, and whatever you’re going through will pass.