As we battle with last-minute gift-giving dilemmas, and curse roundly as we circle the shopping centre car park in a seemingly interminable search for an elusive empty spot, it’s easy to rail against Christmas.
“Bah humbug,” we cry, not because – like Dickens’ Scrooge – we are too tight-fisted or mean-spirited to spend our hard-earned cash on the ones we love but because we are bereft of ideas and short of time. What to give to those who already seem to have every material thing they need? And how to fit in all the things that have to be done? We become frazzled and fraught, and declare that next year we are running away from it all to spend Christmas on a desert island.
Christmas was always a time of year I revelled in. I loved it all: the carols, the candlelight, the Christmas trees and fairy lights, Santa-spotting and stocking-stuffing, parties and presents, and all the tinsel and twee that comes with the decorations. It was all about family and friends, and I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to run away from it.
Then my marriage ended, and with it went the certainty of where I would be at Christmas, and with whom. Large family gatherings became fractured as our children shared their time between two branches of the family tree. With my own immediate extended family in a different country, spending Christmas at “home” was also not a practicable choice for me.
Each year as December marches inexorably on, there’s that dreaded question: “What are you doing for Christmas?” This year I silently admired a woman friend in her 70s who boldly replied that she was spending it alone, travelling around Tasmania, and couldn’t think of a better thing to do! But I could think of nothing worse than being alone at Christmas, which for me is a time for family and friends, food and wine, music and laughter and conversation.
I’ve never been alone on Christmas Day. My close friends and wider extended family have made sure of that. I’ve been scooped up and felt the love, been given gifts and fed well. My daughters have joined me for part of the day. I’ve been a “Christmas orphan” that warm and wonderful people have taken into their homes and included in their celebrations.
But I never quite recovered my old feeling for Christmas. Until this year. It began with a surprise “early Christmas” feast cooked just for me, with succulent pork, plum pudding and custard, a thoughtfully chosen gift, Christmas music, and a moistly delicious Christmas cake to take home with me. My spirits soared! I had the sneaking suspicion this special Santa had somehow just restored my Christmas mojo.
A few days later, dropping in on an old friend, recently bereaved, I recognised in her that same Christmas-time melancholy, despite the blazing lights and decorations that adorn her house in an effort to chase the shadows away. We’ve known each other for nearly 20 years, our kids have grown up together and we’ve laughed and cried together too many times to count. She asked the Christmas question, I sighed – and then we grinned simultaneously. We’ll spend Christmas together!
This week, dinner with a couple of angels who have shared their Christmas Day with me in two of my lonely years. An exchange of gifts over a restaurant table, toasts to friendship, good Italian food and wine, and we went our separate ways. We are “family” now, and always will be. Their unconditional friendship and kindness is a lasting gift that I’ll always hold dear.
Sometimes we take a lot for granted. We take the Christmas traditions and the people we share them with, and the bounty with which most of us celebrate it – especially in comfortable First World countries – for granted. Not everyone is so fortunate. For some, there are no gifts, no celebrations and no family or friends to spend it with.
So take a moment among the madness, the Christmas crowds and the frivolity to stop and remember why we exchange gifts. What we are really saying with those gifts is thank you for being part of my life, and for making it richer; thank you for being part of my family, for being my friend. Giving is a form of gratitude and we have much to be grateful for.