It’s coming on Christmas.
There’s the usual insane rush to the shops and the grumbling about getting together with people unliked, unloved and unimpressive. There’s the cheesy ads with perfect, laughing families as a stark contrast to what, for most people, is a very different reality.
Personally, I enjoy Christmas. We buy a decoration each year that has some sort of relevance; a car the year Zoe learnt to drive, an embroidered crown from Oxford for our big trip together, a high heeled shoe for the year she finished high school. This makes putting up the tree an absolute joy as we take out the decorations and remember. This year we included her beautiful live-in boyfriend, Stuart. He’s a skeptic and an atheist but I think he managed to enjoy it. Graham, as usual, was honorary grinch but he did manage to be present, and even to hang a couple of decorations. I think we’re starting to get to him.
On Christmas day we won’t go into any kind of frenzy. I like to say ‘It’s just lunch’. Graham’s parents are joining us and bringing ham and oysters. We’re lashing out on lobsters this year because they’re my favourite and when you’ve had a cancer diagnosis it’s suddenly important to eat your favourite things when you can. In anticipation of me being tired, Zoe’s stepped up to take care of salads. My dear friend, Cat, will be here for the week. She’s an amazing cook and will no doubt whip up something brilliant. Two of our close friends, Murray and Pam, will be joining us after their traditional family brunch. It’s going to be great.
My Mum was invited to join us but has opted to spend it with a friend that’s about to move out of the area and my sister. My sister and I don’t get on. We had a serious falling out several years back that resulted in me, after much soul searching, breaking off most contact with her. But truth be told we have never been close. Our childhood was distinguished by horrible, hurtful fights with both of us treating each other badly. As adults it seemed impossible for us to be at the same table without there being an argument. After one particularly unpleasant Christmas day, where I paid for all the food, spent three days preparing it, shared it with my family and endured a horrible argument I decided, as I was doing the cleaning up on my own, that it was time to redefine Christmas.
Just to be clear, I never said I wouldn’t spend Christmas with her, just that someone else could organise it. Having all that work and cost rewarded with verbal attack left me tired and angry. Life is too short. We’ve had two or three family get togethers since then, mostly for my Mum’s sake. After the last one she said, “I think I need to just accept the fact that I’ve raised three very different children and it’s not a good idea to put you all in the same room.” My brother never takes sides. She was talking about my sister and I.
I don’t bear my sister any ill will. I really do wish her a happy and successful life. I’m just pragmatic about it. The two of us at the same table invariably results in a pointless argument for both of us and the distress of watching us have one for everyone else. Christmas, and life generally, has been a lot less stressful without her in it.
When I worked in child protection I saw the pointy end of dysfunctional families. We’re nowhere near as bad. I’ve seen cases involving incest by fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. I’ve even had cases involving grandparents. What was often shocking was the extent to which those family members not directly involved would know what was going on and just choose to ignore it. It was as if by playing ‘happy families’ they could make it all go away. For the victims, this compounded the damage done to them. Not only was a trusted family member abusing them, other family members were failing to protect them or, when the abuse was discovered, to get them the help they needed to recover.
These were extreme cases but at Christmas I still see examples of the same kind of selective blindness; people feeling obliged to gather over a meal because of ‘tradition’ or because they fear the consequences of refusing to attend. Spouses and partners forced to endure rudeness or disrespect because their partner wants to join a ‘traditional’ family meal. I understand. It can be much easier to just get through it than to have the fight.
I used to be in this situation. In my first marriage, my husband’s mother made it very clear that she considered me an ‘unsuitable’ person, due mostly to my left wing politics and lack of religious beliefs. I was also opinionated, outspoken and a feminist. None of this sat well. As a well-bought-up private school girl she had a great skill for saying something offensive but wording it in such a way that she could claim ‘misunderstanding’ if she was challenged. “Oh that’s not what I meant at all!” and suddenly she was the hurt party.
I was advised by a very wise friend never to make my husband choose between me and his mother. It’s an impossible thing to ask anyone to do. I got through it my having two things; a time limit and an exit strategy. We would agree before hand what level of behaviour would be a trigger for us leaving early and how we would do that without it being confronting. We never needed to use it but I was ready to fake a throbbing headache and my husband was ready to respond accordingly. We always stuck to the time limit.
My strategy was to pretend I was lunching with a stranger. Have you ever noticed that we are much kinder to strangers than we are to family? I would nod politely, ask relevant questions and keep my opinions to myself, even when the opinions being expressed were offensive to me. Okay. That stuff about poor people totally deserving it did provoke a response but it was a calm and polite response and not the “Are you fucking kidding me!” that first sprang to mind.
Over time a curious thing started to happen. I came to appreciate this woman’s strengths and admired many things about her. We shared a love of gardening and I learnt a great deal from her. She had been a single parent during a difficult part of history and she’d done a great job with her three sons. Ultimately I came to be grateful to her for having and raising my husband to be the kind, compassionate human being he continues to be.
It worked out okay in the end. If it hadn’t I’d have stopped going. I just don’t see the sense in putting myself, or anyone else, through that kind of agony. Why? What does it achieve except another deposit in the bank of bad memories.
We’re trying to make it just another Christmas this year. For a while it looked like it would be my last and, pragmatically there’s still a risk it will be, but we’re not making it about that. It’s just a lunch with great food and even better company.
We don’t do gifts to extended family and this takes a lot of the pressure off. We do silly, funny, meaningful, price limited gifts with Stuart, Zoe and each other. We keep it simple. It’s going to be a very merry Christmas.
But I still spare a thought for those who have lost someone dear to them, those who can’t afford a roof over their heads or a meal with friends, those who have only demons at their table and those fighting serious illness. Christmas can be a difficult time for a lot of people and we always make the effort to clear the house of anything reusable and donatable along with making cash donations to the limit of our budget. I think that’s more Christmassy than expensive gifts.
I also think it’s a good time to think about ways of making this time of year a special occasion with deep spiritual significance, regardless of your religion or absence of it. Here’s my personal list for generating real Christmas spirit:
1. Apologise to anyone that feels you have hurt them (even if you disagree) and ask how you can make amends.
2.Forgive anyone you feel has hurt you (even if they don’t apologise).
3.Be grateful for everything you already have.
4.If it isn’t beautiful, useful or necessary then move it out of your home. (Don’t donate garbage to charities because it costs them money to get rid of it.)
5.Say ‘thank you’ to anyone that has blessed your life this year with love, kindness, expertise, friendship, laughter or wisdom. Send cards. Tell them face to face.
6.Give money to your favourite charity, or to several. If you still have lots of gift giving in your family then ask people to donate on your behalf rather than adding to your accumulated stuff.
7.Have the conversation this year about how to make Christmas better next year. If that means saying ‘from now on we’re staying home for Christmas’ then do it pleasantly and don’t look back.
8. Have the conversation this year about how to make the gift giving less expensive and less crazy. Graham’s parents give us dinner out and we return the favour. We get two great meals together and no need to buy gifts. For other branches of the family we’ve just agreed not to exchange presents.
9.If you don’t already have a spiritual practice around Christmas then start one. It might be attending a place of worship or sitting around a fire and talking about what was great this year. It might be holding hands and singing or getting everyone to list three things they’re grateful for. It only has to have meaning for your family to be beautiful.
10.Consider hosting an ‘orphans Christmas’ next year. Invite any friends that are on their own either by choice or circumstance and have everyone bring something. In my experience these are the BEST Christmas meals you can possibly have.
If, like me, you’re busy killing cancer this year then there’s a couple of extras for you.
1.Take it easy and let everyone else do the work. Stop worrying that it won’t be good enough and let it be different to how you would have done it. Put your feet up. Point at the spice cupboard. Hand over the recipes.
2.If there was ever a year to have exactly the Christmas you want to have then this is it! Don’t give in to pressure to spend time with people you don’t like. It’s all about you.
3.Stick to your treatment schedule. Yes, it’s traditionally a time to overindulge and a little of what you fancy is surely good for you, but a LITTLE!
4.When your mind starts to lure you down that hole labelled ‘Is this my last Christmas’ respond with things like ‘Couldn’t any Christmas be that?’ and ‘It could be anyone’s last Christmas’ and ‘Shut up and pass the lobster.’
5.Take some time out if you need to. It can be tiring being merry if you don’t feel like it. If you can’t be merry, be bright enough to get out of there.
And finally, here’s a Christmas present from me to you. Here I am on my second last chemotherapy drip. How many to go? Yep. Only one! Fuck you cancer!