In adulthood festive joy is changed, not ended, as Marie McCoy discovers.
I have always loved Christmas. Growing up, birthdays in my family were celebrated and enjoyed but, as for so many people, Christmas was always by far the biggest celebration of the year.
My sister and I loved setting out the mince pie and glass of whisky for Santa and a carrot for the reindeer before going to bed and trying our hardest to sleep despite the intense and building excitement. We would then wake up at the crack of dawn and take it in turns to go through to my parents’ bedroom to beg to be allowed to get up.
When we were finally granted permission to do so, my dad always infuriated us by insisting on getting fully dressed before we went downstairs, but our (im)patience was always rewarded by my mum stopping at the door of the living room, peaking around it and proclaiming the two most exciting words known to a young child: “Santa’s been!”
Over the years, our Christmas celebrations inevitably changed. Preparations for Santa were replaced by Midnight Mass and a late-night mince pie. Christmas Days, once filled with opening and spending hours playing with new toys, were exchanged for lazy afternoons watching Christmas films with a glass of champagne and a prawn cocktail. Some of those we used to visit in childhood are no longer with us but Christmas has instead become a time to remember them as well as holding those who remain still a little closer.
Throughout all the years and the many changes they have brought with them, Christmas has remained for me a season of joy. It has always felt that I was celebrating something tangible, something real, and something just as important today as it has been for the last 2000 years.
Yet, six years ago that seemed to change. With my older daughter having arrived in dramatic style the previous June, my husband and I looked forward to celebrating her first Christmas. Yet, on that day, our daughter’s first Christmas seemed more miserable than memorable as we tried and failed to schedule naps around visits to family, struggled to eat our Christmas dinner one-handed and had little success with interesting our daughter in any of the numerous gifts we had chosen so carefully for her.
Slowly, as she has grown older and her little sister has joined in the fun, some of the magic of Christmas has begun to unfold for us all again.
I love the day when the boxes of decorations and Christmas books are taken down from the attic and opened by the girls as though they themselves are Christmas gifts.
I love being able to share with them much-loved Christmas films from my own childhood and to dance about the living room to Christmas songs that are older than I am.
I love our annual visit to Santa and afterwards being able to compare the photo with those from previous years, marvelling at how much they have grown in that time.
I also love watching my own children organising a snack for Santa (although only milk is available in our house!) and the excitement and disbelief when they arrive downstairs on Christmas morning to full stockings and the gifts they have asked for.
The magic of Christmas is therefore still there but I confess rather unexpectedly that in the past few years Christmas has for me has lost some of its joy.
All of a sudden there is no Midnight Mass, no relaxing evenings writing Christmas cards to far-flung friends and family, no quiet time to consider and be thankful for all of the blessings of the year that has gone and rejoice in the promise of the new one just around the corner.
Of course the restrictions of last Christmas did not help but I am learning that perhaps in the busy world we live in, with so many constantly competing demands on our time, we have to look a little harder if we want to experience the true joy of Christmas.
For it is still there. It is just different. It is being able to watch my elder daughter in her pre-school nativity play, outside in the playground due to COVID restrictions, but all the more beautiful for the determination of her Head Teacher to make sure that it still went ahead.
It is the overflowing tables at her primary school this year covered in donations for the local foodbank. It is in the actions of one of my pupils who, having spent the previous lesson discussing how small acts of kindness can help to prepare us for the celebration for Christmas, arrived before me in class and began to distribute the necessary resources so that they were ready for me when I got there.
Two years ago I hosted the annual present swap with my best friend and her family. Our four children raided the dressing-up box, feasted on reindeer biscuits and, in great excitement, ripped open their presents almost as soon as they were placed in front of them.
Then, just before it was time to go home – and of their own accord – they began to act out the story of the nativity. My friend was both an angel, wearing far too small fairy wings and holding up a star bag, and later on the donkey, carrying ‘Mary’ on her back. The not quite two-year-old ‘Joseph’ kept running off at inopportune moments and more than a few key characters did not feature.
Yet, that memory keeps coming back to me. While they didn’t realise it, our children were taking part in an act of storytelling that has been passed down through more generations than they could count and one that has inspired this whole season of goodwill. It was a simple moment of joy in the midst of the usual Christmas magic and excitement. I don’t think I will ever forget it.
So I hope you have a magical Christmas this year. I wish you crispy roast potatoes, time with those you love and more than just a pair of socks under the tree. But more than that, I wish you joy, even if you have to look a little harder for it than before.
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