“Happy Christmas” has to be one of the most over-used, yet under-utilised expressions in the English language. Aside from a few short moments on Christmas morning watching the children open their presents, the day itself is always fraught with stress and heightened emotion. Having thought I was on the home-stretch by ensuring that the turkey fits in my oven, and that I have a baking tray big enough to hold it, I will be frantically searching the house for bits of leftover foil with which to cover it. By mid morning I am topping and tailing sprouts and cursing my husband for insisting we find a way of transforming these fiddly green knobs into something that does not resemble cabbage for the one day of the year that he eats them. Having spent three weeks arranging fronds of fresh holly and candles in our “good room” – I am overcome with fear that one of the kids will smear the Mars Bar from their 7am selection box on my once-a-year sofa. Instead of enjoying the gift giving, I am glowering miserably at the piles of packaging and wrapping paper fretting over the next recycling bin collection date. My husband always buys me some wonderful trinket which makes the novelty mug and Dunnes socks look even more dreadful than they are, and the stress of the last few weeks trying to make the perfect Christmas – sending cards to all the right people, buying gifts for everyone, finding a dressy red cardigan and gathering advice from Sunday supplements on what to do with those wretched sprouts, has fuelled me with such wild expectation that the day itself somehow always disintegrates into a toxic state of exhaustion and regret. By mid afternoon, I just want everyone to go home so I can settle into the Big Movie (which I have invariably seen already on my one cinema trip this year) and indulge my regretful addiction to Quality Street.
This Christmas is going to be different. Not because I have a Jamie Oliver sprouts recipe or have bought my husband a Tag watch. For the worst and best reasons in the world, 2009 has given me a different perspective on Christmas. My husband and I are facing into the festive season without our two only brothers, who both died suddenly this year, and now my father-in-law is seriously ill in hospital. In what has been an extraordinary year for us, we have also gained two new members to our family as my sister in law and myself both gave birth unexpectedly. Where previous Christmases have been dominated by co-ordinating decorating schemes and scoring wild smoked salmon for the starter – this year we’ll eat farmed salmon for a fiver from Lidl and I couldn’t give a damn about the decorations. All I care about is the people I’ll be with.
The truth is all the decorating, and cooking and shopping and glittery table dressing is so often used as a distraction for the main business of being with our family. Not the favourite sister, or the adored children – but the extended family. The mother-in-law who makes better gravy than you, the verbally incontinent uncle, the vegan cousin who has to be especially catered for, the sibling you haven’t seen since last Christmas when he got into a drunken fight with your husband after an argument playing Family Fortunes.
“How to Survive Your Family this Christmas” is in every popular women’s magazine, and people keep saying to me “it’s a difficult time of the year.” And it is going to be difficult in our family. My mother and sisters have all gone to London so they can visit my brother’s grave on Christmas morning, and I am spending this Christmas at home in Mayo with my in-laws, keeping the home fires burning as they travel up and down to Castlebar hospital every day.
But as I look out at the sea, for the first time I can see the snow-settled mountains in Sligo melt into the skyline and I realise that the gift that losing my brother has given me this year is the ability to reflect and appreciate the life I have and, crucially the people I have left in it.
Christmas is a time when everyone tries to be the best they can be. From going to their only mass this year, to putting on a glitzy outfit just to sit in their own houses or trying to turn dry, dull turkey meat into something magnificent. Not everyone gets it right, but it’s the time of year when it’s worth remembering that everyone endeavours to be their best selves, even if it is annoying or crass, even if they have to be drunk to get through it. The message of Christmas – “goodwill to all men” – is a challenge to tolerance and acceptance. At best, it’s a call to love. Not just the people it is easy to love, our partners and children - but the old, the difficult, the jaded, and the boorish – the ignorable relations. It’s not an easy time, but then I have learned this year, life is not easy – and the only thing we truly have in this life that is worth holding onto is people.
So instead of tolerating Christmas this year, I am going to treasure it. Because in the holding of this annual Christian tradition, society offers us the opportunity to share, not just the presents and the food and the hospitality, but of ourselves and our human spirit. The ability to be graciously outshined by our mother-in-law’s gravy, watch our husbands guzzle back the sprouts and forget about the bickering and disappointments of the other 364 days of the year because this day, this moment is all we truly have.
Midnight mass, usually an interruption to the stuffing and peeling frenzy that is Christmas Eve, will take on a special significance this year. An opportunity to get dressed up and meet our neighbours in the village at a time when the pub seems overwhelmingly social. While the “A La Carte Catholics” annual token trip can be a cause of irritation for the faithful as they arrive early and hog all the good seats, there is something solid and comforting about a community gathering to celebrate the mystery and magic of Christmas together. As mothers, the Christmas holiday somehow invites us to set aside the recent horror of the Ryan and Murphy reports to enjoy the miracle of birth and the innocence of childhood.
There will be sadness in our house this Christmas – instead of phone calls and cards - Tom and Fintan will be represented by candles lit on our mantlepiece. Their pictures remind me that greatest gift I can give myself – and my family - this Christmas is gratitude. There are always things to treasure, even in hard times. My children have never looked more beautiful or happy to me. Our family may be depleted by death and illness, and I will miss my own sisters and my mother on the day – but I will treasure the people who are with me, bring them closer to me and try to make it a day of warmth and memories, not just for the children – but for all of us.
We never know what the next year will hold, but on this one day, although our loved ones aren’t always with us in body, in spirit at least we will gather around the same table and eat the same food – and even if the brussel sprouts recipe has changed, there is always hope in the magical routine of Christmas Day.
Happy Christmas from Killala, County Mayo.