I yield to no man in my love of the festive season.
From the twinkling, coloured lights, the smell of newly-given after-shave, the nauseous knitwear and the straining vocal chords of Noddy Holder announcing its arrival, it is my favourite time of year.
It’s all about childhood. Not that of our children but those fading childhoods of our own. We’re briefly transported in our memories to a time before responsibilities, and if we were lucky, to a time when we were loved unconditionally by those around us. This impossible yearning for a return to lost innocence is permissible for one or two days a year and we can revel in memories so wonderful as to almost be exquisitely painful. But I’ll repeat it, if we were lucky.
I know what it means for me, and the memories it evokes. The Welsh have a beautiful word – hiareth – for which there isn’t a perfect translation but if you look it up you’ll read about longing, yearning, nostalgia and wistfulness. It’s also a desire to return to a past which may have never really existed except in our imaginations. The Germans have a word – heimat – which again speaks of childhood, tradition and roots and I suppose we have the word “home”. For many of us, Christmas will always be about home – to be surrounded by our loved ones, the ties of blood and shared experience, the one place where we can be ourselves. How many of us go off searching to find a similar feeling and spend our whole life chasing an experience that can compare to that earliest love we felt? How many of us are looking for our way “home”?
And we see in the innocent joy of children that thing that we chase and the magic rubs off on us for a short while. We remember a time and place before the world, life or anything bad had ever intruded.
We live in a mainly secular society, for which I’m glad but I realise that faith is a personal choice, and I recognise that all the aspects of Christmas that I most dislike – the consumer-fest, the pressure to spend, the relentless demands made of us that we wear awful knitwear – are all reflections of that secularity. Not for nothing do so many people visit a church at this one and only time of year, again to reconnect with something that they think that they have lost.
But I know that there are many for whom Christmas is a terrible ordeal.
When my own children were very little, I used to find the first part of the day emotionally overwhelming – their joy at seeing that Santa had visited, the unwrapping, the smiles and the cries of delight would sometimes be all it would take to peel back the years and see the faces of loved ones who are no longer here; the mixture of joy and sadness made for such a heady cocktail that I would struggle to keep my equilibrium. For people who have suffered a recent loss it is always a tough time and my Christmas wish is that you find the strength you need to deal with your emotions. Forced jollity is unbearable under the weight of grief and so this brightest point on the calendar is also the Season of Lost and Missing Things, as well as the Season of Loneliness for those who find themselves without loved ones around them.
It can be a time when pressures push people over the edge of whatever cliff-edge they walk along and the need to conform to the idea of the perfect family is at its strongest. We feel as though we have to put on our best selves for a few days, that we must eat well, drink well, deal with others well or simply deal with ourselves as best we can. I’ve felt the shame of not being able to afford the things that my children have wanted and all the time worried about them going back to school in January and having to explain why “this year” they didn’t get all they were hoping for, and when I’ve wept at some sappy film, it’s not the film but the fact that I am missing people, all wisps of slowly fading memories, faces that I will never see or touch again. And yet I know I am one of the lucky ones.
For all these reasons, the two things I like most about Christmas are when strangers pass each other in the street on Christmas morning and wish each other a Merry Christmas and actually mean it, and when people shake hands on New Year’s Day. This always takes me back to childhood and being taken to the club with my Dad and the men, all big broad-shoulders, who worked the building sites making homes and roads and reservoirs, giants who forged a living with their strength and sweat, and I’d watch in wonder as they would would reach out their hands-like-iron to one another and wish each the best for the year to come.
I wish each and every one of you a Merry Christmas and hope you find within it whatever it is you’re looking for, and to those of you who dread it, I hope that you can treat it as just another day and that it passes quickly.
And to each and every single one of you, I wish you nothing but the best of all things for 2017. May it be your greatest year yet.