This year, I was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past.
It was Christmas 1999. I stood and watched as my Mum collapsed into a heap onto our kitchen floor, her tiny body unable to carry the weight of her sadness anymore. It was the big build up to a new, exciting millennium, with talk of parties and possible technological meltdowns. ‘… And tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999…’ blared out from every pseudo virtual-party radio station, and I wondered what all the excitement was about. My Mum was sad. She was infinitely worse than sad, and yet the whole of the rest of the world was ‘partying.’ Like it was 1999, apparently.
Traditionally, she hadn’t coped well with Christmas, albeit she’d put on a ‘good show’ for us – her sponge-like kids who would invariably soak up her sadness like an Amaretti biscuit floating in a flat white. Christmas parties didn’t exist in our world, because they couldn’t exist in hers. She was unable to be in that place, to laugh at a 1990s battery-operated Talking Santa or pose gormlessly in front of Dad’s Kodak camera wearing a party hat and a fake moustache from a cracker. She couldn’t do any of those things. Not because she didn’t want to (although I’m sure she made an active choice over the fake moustache), but because her mental health demons wouldn’t let her.
During my earlier childhood, we all knew of her Christmas Party Active Avoidance Zone, but we pretended otherwise. Even she pretended otherwise. We went to family parties and she sat in the quietest corner waiting… waiting for it all to end. A few of the perhaps more intuitive and sensitive family members would make gentle conversation with her. Nothing to force an Emergency Stop for her social anxiety internal warning system. Just enough for her to feel visible, included, and worthy of a conversation.
She showered us with gifts to try and mask her sadness. My little red 1980s Christmas Post Office set was my pride and joy (it had a counter that opened out to all of my teddy customers, and more stamps than I could ever dream of) but it was no substitute for my mum’s smile. I’d have given it back in a heartbeat.
This year, by virtue of my own family circumstances – both an imperfect and a perfect ‘Cut & Paste’ reworking of failed relationships – Tilly would spend Christmas Eve with her dad and his partner. She would wake up on Christmas morning in their house with their half-eaten mince pie and their talcum powder Santa footprints. I had no need to bother rushing around shortly before midnight to leave the necessary evidence of His visit, although I’ve done the talcum footprints for the previous five years.
I woke up on Christmas Day morning to no Tilly, no excited squeals of ‘He’s Been!!’ Just silence. Me, and Gav, and silence. And then Gav went out early to see his daughter open her presents, like he does every year. He waits outside her mum’s house until she’s awake, and he is there. Every year.
And as lovely as my silence was, it drew me back into my Mum’s muted Christmases gone by. Because they were my muted Christmases, too. Tilly would be back with us later on Christmas afternoon, and so I was left pacing around our house… waiting.
I made the mistake of picking up my phone and scrolling briefly through the Happy Family pages on social media. “Little bobby LOVES his new bike!” CLICK! “Here’s the recently extended Ned Flanders family enjoying a Christmas dinner together, wearing fake moustaches! HOW MUCH FUN!” CLICK! And it took me back to all those years I spent with the wrong people, in the wrong places trying to find my extended Ned Flanders family so I could share in their Christmases (complete with party hats and fake moustaches); and to all those years I spent searching for this elusive party I’d heard of that felt like it was 1999 (not my 1999, god forbid – someone else’s.) The Flanders family Christmas wasn’t mine, and neither was the party.
I put my phone down, and paced around our silent living room. My Mum had chosen to entirely avoid Christmas and go to the gym on Christmas Day this year, whilst I was left pacing up and down remembering the endless, searching Christmases gone by, and my daughter who was waking up with someone else’s fake Santa footprints. I picked my phone straight back up again.
‘I’m heading out for a run. I need to get out.’ Was the text I sent to Gav. He understood my need to run. Fuck it. I AM going to wear my Santa hat.
I set off out the door and within quarter of a mile, headed straight up a stinking great hill. Why am I doing this? I almost shouted out loud as I tried to will my body forwards and upwards at the same time. Why am I out here and not at some Flanders family Christmas present opening session? I pulled over and almost threw my Santa hat over a wall.
Am I running away from my own Christmas Day, or my Ghosts of Christmas Past, or my lack of comprehension of any of it? I started chugging up the bastard hill again. Or am I running away from myself? Is that all I’ve ever been doing?
I wanted to turn around, and go home.
And then Gav texted me, and said ‘I’ve parked up by Sammomden dam. I’m coming to find you.’
He did, and we ran together around the dam, as Storm Barbara did her best to wrestle with us, and tossed us around like a couple of empty Seabrook crisp packets in her wrath. At times, we could barely move forward as her wall of wind stood in our way. The damp air then turned entirely sodden and the fur around my Santa hat dripped slowly down my ears.
We got back to Gav’s car, and drove home. Barbara’s efforts had been spectacular. She had both beaten me and fixed me in some juxtaposed, therapeutic display of nature. As much as I’d battled and berated her, angrily yelling ‘I don’t want to fight this, today!’ whilst her wall of wind held me back, she also cleansed me. Blowing the cobwebs away: cobwebs hanging from the ghosts of Christmas past.
Back home, and the silence was no longer deafening. The turkey didn’t look over-facing, and the presents under the tree finally looked enticing. “It’s a chess set! Ace!”
We didn’t have a Flanders extended family Christmas dinner, but we loved our day, grateful for the absence of dreaded 1999 parties, or witnessing the social discomfort of my Mum as she once struggled to wrestle herself into a Christmas that wasn’t hers.
Tilly came home and she made the lights on our Christmas tree sparkle infinitely brighter. She got a bike, we played Pickin Chickens, and I went to bed knowing that next year, the only thing I’ll do differently is the talcum Santa footprints – regardless of where Tilly wakes up. They just make me smile.