When Christmas becomes irrevocably changed, how do you not get bogged down in what you’ve lost?
Everything in life evolves, it’s all temporary. Something I typically find comfort in during periods where I’m dissatisfied with the everyday – sat in the waiting room of the next exciting opportunity. Unfortunately, impermanency is true of everything, even the good.
Christmases were once magical and vibrant without trying; now, as I venture further into adulthood, I’m finding some of that festive feeling has expired. There are fewer pub trips in the lead up to the big day, as friends have moved away. Siblings might choose to spend Christmas with their partner’s family. And there’s just more of a requirement to actively search for the magic in the season now.
Growing up, I had always been envious of people who had big family Christmases. A house full of grandparents, aunties, uncles, and cousins upon cousins, sharing in the festivities. My only two cousins live in Australia, we rarely spent Christmas with my other aunt and uncle due to distance and work commitments, and I’d lost my grandparents by age 13.
I did learn to be grateful for the intimacy of Christmas with my immediate family; fuelled in part by complaints from peers about their judgemental grandparents and loud younger cousins, feeling thankful to be close with my only brother, my mum and my dad. But now this Christmas will be my smallest one yet.
My dad passed away last year, far too soon, from the insidious hands of cancer. If you’ve lost someone, you’ll be familiar with everyone coming together in the wake of their leaving. The house is suddenly full of family members and friends who you haven’t seen in years. It’s a revolving door of people reaching out to you.
In the first Christmas without my dad, my aunt and uncle drove the four hours to spend it with us, and my brother and his girlfriend, who had initially committed to spending Christmas with her family prior to my dad’s death, were with us too. There almost wasn’t a chance to pay too much attention to my dad’s absence, because the house was physically full.
After the initial shock and adjustment of bereavement, life resumes an odd normality, as I’ve experienced this year. The year has taken on an almost uncanny valley feeling, familiar but uneasy. I’ve settled into the rhythms of grief, and grown an acceptance to the loss, despite how unfair it still feels to me.
Grief’s relationship with Christmas
Facing Christmas this year will be very different though, just my mum and me. A shift from the distraction of people last year. But inevitably this is how Christmas will be sometimes, with my brother spending it with his girlfriend’s family, and other family members living far away. I’m learning that smaller, low-key celebrations are a natural progression of growing older.
To me, grief and the festive season seem explicably intertwined, as it highlights loss in a way that demands to be acknowledged. It’s impossible to ignore that empty seat at the table, the missing turkey carver, not needing to buy certain food that only they eat (in my dad’s case, Christmas pudding), and the glaring absence of their name on a list entitled ‘presents - to buy’.
My dad had a huge personality and a great sense of humour. He could strike up a conversation about anything, and remained a big kid all the way though his life. For me, the world has been emptier since his passing.
Finding joy in the difference
Although the immediate thought of a Christmas with just two of us seemed disheartening, we’re taking the opportunity of a small Christmas to treat ourselves. Food has always been the main event for our family at Christmas. So, when my mum turned around to me in September to ask what we should have, we settled on treating ourselves to a duck. Something we’ve never had before since they’re too small to feed the usual five of us. It’s not traditional, and it’s only a small thing, but I’m looking forward to it. (Plus, I’ve never been keen on turkey.)
I’m also focusing on how I can honour my dad, without sacrificing the joy of a season I so love. It’s easy to look around and see people’s big family gatherings and photos of friends with their parents on social media, and fixate on what I’ve lost. When Christmas can actually become a time to remember my dad.
I know from having lost grandparents, that as the years go on they’re not in the forefront of your mind so much, which brings me sadness. However, using Christmas as a natural period of slowing down, to focus and remember how they impacted me during their life is a great way to repurpose the season.
I’ll be lighting a candle for my dad on Christmas day, one first lit at his funeral. It’ll be a chilled and relaxed day, but the perks of not hosting people is that there’s so much less pressure on the event. Rather than filling every second of the day with activities and constant engagement, it can be slow and calm. I’ll think of my dad, as I do every day anyway, and enjoy a mince pie or two for him.