I have long since given up the frenzy of commercial Christmas in favour of my own approach to the mid-winter feast. If you're harassed by shopping, planning parties and hosting roasts then allow me to let you in on an ill-kept secret: you don't must!
If you love and thrive on the hustle & bustle then go for it! But if you're doing it because you feel you have to, or not doing things because others are choosing not to when you really rather would, then you are being unkind to yourself and not serving the world either. At this time of the year, of all the times of the year, follow your own heart; be true to what you believe in.
I loved going home for Christmas. It was a tradition I kept for the joy of it for many years. But there came a time when I realised I was going to my parents for Christmas, rather than "going home". I was going away, rather than "staying home", which is where I wanted to be.
I loved the visiting and Dad's-grown-Mam's-cooked dinners (always turkey for Christmas day, Pork on Boxing day). I loved the over-done decorations and drinking at inappropriate hours and singing carols. But increasingly, I found that I was also counting the days until I could come home.
I had already stopped worrying about what to buy certain people. I bought what I thought they would like, and accepted that they probably wouldn't – and wouldn't be kind enough not to tell me so. That was the first step.
The big one was the year my partner's mother died. He had nursed her through her decline and had never come up north for the festivities – not after the first year when he arrived on the doorstep at 8:30 on a New Year's Day. He has animals and would no more leave them alone at Christmas than I would leave him. That year, if I travelled, I would be leaving him…it was the excuse I had been needing. I could hear the disappointment at the end of the telephone line when I made the announcement, Mam's brave-face-voice as she understood and knew it was only a matter of time. At least she didn't lie that she didn't mind.
That was the year that new traditions started. Like the one that has him cooking Christmas dinner.
And the one that has me walking on the marsh on Christmas morning.
I will watch midnight mass on the TV, anything which seeks to make a connection and bring a little more peace into the world gets my vote.
I will embrace my weirdness here… I love waking up alone in my own bed on Christmas Day, hearing the church bell from across the way – it's a modern church and they only have one bell. I enjoy going down to find the tree still lit, the lights always left on overnight Christmas eve as they always were at home. A slow champagne and smoked salmon breakfast. A peaceful start to the day, which this year will also include writing my morning pages. A new tradition – it's never too late to start them. They all had a first time.
Later I will walk while he cooks: his "thank you" for all the meals I cook during the year. On a good year, a frost & ice & snow year, the walk will be round the marsh and along the river, and there will people alone, in couples, in families, with and without their dogs and everyone will be smiling: six and half miles of good living. On a drear year it will be two miles round the ring road in the rain. And I pretend I understand the need for balance.
We will eat and drink more than is strictly necessary, but relish it all. Open presents. Play with the cats. Watch tv or play board games. Start to read the books that Santa brought, do quizzes and word puzzles. We will be just us. Together. And relish that too.
In the last few years he has also learned not to panic if everything isn't done. Of course I will remember the year that he remembered the pigs-in-blankets just as we were finishing desert. And the one where the tree had been lit – never done before Christmas Eve in his family – but not decorated…it was getting towards dawn when he decided sleep was more important and he could finish it in the morning; only sleep proved to be more important and he didn't have time on Christmas morn. It stayed lit but otherwise unadorned for the rest of the holiday. But I will remember those things with affection…the way I remember being dropped in a puddle, or locked in a castle. If they matter at all, they matter in a good and cherished way.
Other traditions survive from before.
My own tree is decorated on what would be my Mam's birthday: a habit that grew out of coincidence: a double celebration this year, because it is my Graduation day.
And I continue to send cards. Oh yes, I'm giving to charity as well. The two things are completely unrelated. I support the charities because, well, I support the work they do. I send the cards because it's Christmas and I enjoy the writing of them. It is the only time that I connect with some of the people in the family and beyond it, but that doesn't mean it's a habit or a duty. It's a reminder that I do think of them at other times and that I genuinely do hope they are well and happy. It's a long distance hug… a peace and goodwill message….a kind of prayer for them if that's the way your spirit works.
Speaking of prayers…apart from the tree-dressing, the solstice is the real start of my personal Christmas. Whatever decorating and present wrapping and card writing and party-going may be part of the overall thing, the real festival begins for me on longest night. In the days when we would spend the holiday apart, I would cook a special meal for our last night before I left. That was when we exchanged, but didn't open, our gifts to each other. The present giving has moved on to the big day, but the solstice supper is still a thing. In a way it honours how long we've been together. How much has changed and how much hasn't.
For me it also marks the turning of the year. I don't believe in any of the gods – or more properly I suppose I believe in all of them – the teachings all come down to the same thing in the end. To say I pray is to stretch a linguistic point, but I still call what I write on longest night and send out into the world 'a solstice prayer'. I make a ritual of it…of the writing and the releasing of it…though it has been released in many ways…words on the wind, paper in the flame, or allowed to drift across the waters…but the essence remains the same each year.
There are three simple elements – the things from the past year that I feel blessed by and am grateful for – the hurts and angers and unhappiness and failed endeavours from the year that I need to lay down and let be and let go – and the hopes and dreams for the year to come, setting my own intent and asking the universe for support.
Whatever dogma the various faiths and denominations and factions choose to wrap it in, in the northern hemisphere all of the midwinter festival is about this turning of the year, from the darkness back to the light. Most of it is also about caring and sharing. For it to have any meaning, I believe that we should each find one corner of it and make it truly personal…whether you go to church at midnight, or in the morning, or not at all, whether you walk in the nearest bit of nature or relish the fairy lights on the town square tree, drink mulled wine in the market or sweet coffee by your own fire, sit down with extended family or travel alone or help out giving solace to those otherwise without any…I urge you to find a moment, make it yours, embrace it and embrace yourself in the process.
And who knows you might just create a new annual little ritual of your own.
Have a peaceful solstice, and a joyful yuletide.
© Lesley Mason
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