This year Christmas is going to be strange. It will be the first time we have spent Christmas without the girls since Emma was born 27 years ago. We will be hiding at home, isolating from a scary pandemic. Doug and I will have Christmas dinner together, just the two of us, as we have had every dinner since March. With any luck, we will not have run out of things to say. The girls will be half a world away, trying to connect with us across eight time zones, to unwrap presents and play board games virtually. Our Christmas tree is smaller this year, and many of the ornaments are still packed away, while the girls will be decorating their tree with hand-made ornaments, and perhaps starting new decorating traditions. For a few days, it seemed likely that even that wouldn’t happen, as Emma had a Covid scare (just a cold) and the girls contemplated being entirely on their own for Christmas.
We have many traditions around Christmas. Doug and the girls always get the tree, and the girls decorate it. Every ornament has a history and it gets remembered and told again as the tree is festooned. We always listen to Dylan Thomas recite his poem, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, on Christmas Eve, towards midnight. We turn the lights off while the Christmas tree lights are sparkling, and sip a glass of lovely Christmas wine while we listen to Thomas’ hypnotic voice. We all know the poem by heart and can’t help reciting along, especially the good parts. “Were there Uncles like in our house? There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles.”
This year will be different. It feels scary, and it feels sad, and strange. But thinking about it this morning, I have realised that we have a whole history of Christmas days that are different and strange. The fact of Christmas is often different than our idealised one, and each one stands clear and shiny and unique.
Christmas 1993. We were living in Australia, in Brisbane. Emma was seven months old. We lived in a tiny little house, a Queenslander, built up on stilts, with a hallway that ran from the front door to the back and a porch on each end. We had a garden full of passionfruit and mangoes, a blue-tongued skink that lived under the steps and stuck his tongue out at us at all times of day, except anytime we had a camera in our hands. It was 40 degrees out (105F) and almost unbearably hot and humid. It was our first Christmas with our beautiful baby girl, our families were 8,000 miles away, we were roasting, and in the morning I opened the newspaper and read that a Santa Claus had passed out from heat stroke downtown and been taken to hospital.
We had very little money. There was no tree or ornaments. The back porch on our house had latticework to give it a bit of privacy from the neighbours. Doug wound ribbons and Christmas cards through the lattice in the shape of a tree, and we laughingly dubbed it a Christmas tree. We put the presents under it, and sat in the sunshine, opening presents, laughing with Emma, singing songs, eating prawns off the barbeque, gossiping with our lovely neighbours across the backyard fences, and enjoying mango sorbet with fresh pineapple. We sipped gorgeous, crisp Australian wine, and watched the sun go down and the stars go up.
Christmas 1994. Emma was a year old. I gave birth to Leah in mid-December after a long and difficult pregnancy. I had been bed-ridden and in and out of hospital for months while Doug looked after Emma, kept the house, did the cooking and cleaning and shopping, and held down his job. About that time, the landlord sold our house and we had to move. There was no time to find a new place to live. Our lovely friends, Lynn and her teenage son Jeremy, invited us to live with them. Doug moved all of our belongings into their basement and moved us into a small suite in the back of their house. The birth was not easy, and I was kept in hospital for some weeks. On Christmas Eve, I begged to go home. The doctors released me and Leah for the day, and we went to Lynn’s house. I could not walk, and I sat in the front room, surrounded by Doug and Emma, Lynn and Jeremy, and other dear friends. We opened gifts, and laughed, and I watched while they all played in the swimming pool and brought me iced lemonade. Leah and I would end up back in the hospital, but on that lovely Christmas Eve, I nursed Leah while Emma cuddled on Doug’s lap, and listened to our friends tell stories and tall tales and fell asleep on the couch.
Christmas, 1997. We were living in Potsdam, Germany. Potsdam was in the former East, and although the Berlin Wall had fallen some years before, Potsdam still felt very East. We lived on the edge of the Sanssouci, a beautiful park filled with palaces, sweeping architecture and amusing follies. The girls viewed it as their back garden and knew every inch of path and every palace structure. On this Christmas Eve, it began to snow, and we grabbed the sleds and walked to the Sanssouci Palace and the girls went sledding down the ramps on the sides of the palace. Although this was forbidden, all the kids in the neighborhood were there with their parents, swooping down each hill in turn. Some guards came and told us we should stop, but two of the neighbours were judges, and there ensued a long conversation of legalities and Christmases past, and nostalgia for the East and its traditions, and then the guards laughed and wished us a Merry Christmas. Afterwards, we walked through the town to the Christmas market, which would close down later that day. We ate sausages and mushrooms cooked in enormous flat pots, six feet across, and ice-skated on the little ice rink in the middle of the square. The girls rode endlessly on little trains and dragons and fire trucks around and around a little track, while Doug and I drank hot mulled wine, and my toes froze.
Doug and I put out the stockings for the girls and fell into bed, only to be awakened half an hour later by the girls running in and exclaiming “It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas!” It was not even 11pm. We ushered them back to bed where they whispered for a long time. The next morning we were up early, opening stockings and presents, and then making a turkey with stuffing and gravy and all of the trimmings. After eating, we went for a walk in the park. Everyone in Potsdam it seemed was out for a Christmas walk – whole families, with great-grandparents in wheelchairs and babies in strollers and everyone in between. We promenaded for hours, stopping and talking with all of the neighbours, admiring new scarves and hats, throwing snowballs, feeding the ducks. Everywhere we went, people stopped to talk to the girls. We were very much a novelty, this strange American-Canadian family living in the East, with two little girls who spoke perfect Berliner German. Those Christmas seem so far away now, strange but oddly familiar.
Christmas, 2006. Our first Christmas in England. We were homesick for Germany. We had just moved from a gorgeous, light-filled, 270 square metre apartment in Germany, with 4 metre high ceilings, to a tiny, 90 square metre house (which cost double the rent). Every bit of the house was filled with furniture and belongings; you couldn’t move a step without running into something. Nonetheless, we bought a big Christmas tree, with either a great deal of naivete or a complete misunderstanding of physics. We couldn’t fit the Christmas tree in the house, and after rearranging the furniture three times, we finally ended up moving the dining table into an unheated conservatory, and giving the tree pride of place. We ate our Christmas dinner in the cold, with space heaters on extension cords gamely trying and failing to heat the space. We dressed up in our best clothes, like we were attending the opera, and drank champagne, and delighted in the absurdity of it all.
Christmas, 2015. Emma and Leah were both living in Vancouver, where they were students at UBC. They were going to fly home for Christmas and spend two weeks at home with us in England. Leah had an exam and couldn’t fly home until late, but Emma was free days earlier and asked to fly home early. Doug booked tickets for the girls, and told me “I got such a great deal on Emma’s ticket!” Emma packs up her bags, and goes to the airport, and stands in line at the ticket counter. When she gets to the front, the air steward looks at her in astonishment, and says “Why are you flying to London through Hong Kong?” Yes, Emma had a 14-hour flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong, an 8-hour layover in the Hong Kong airport, and then another 14-hour flight from Hong Kong to London. She flew all the way around the world! She sat in economy and had a middle seat on both flights. When she got home, Leah, who had left Vancouver a day later, was already here. Emma arrived late on Christmas Eve and promptly passed out. We didn’t get around to opening presents until very late the next day and Emma was in a stupor for days.
Looking back, I realise I could pick many other examples. Perhaps the Christmas that Doug and I flew to Vancouver to see the girls and he injured his knee and couldn’t walk the entire time we were there. Or the year we decided to all stay in Leah’s tiny apartment over the holiday, there was a snowstorm Christmas Eve, and then the boiler broke down and we were without heat.
Looking back on these very different Christmases, I realise that I love every one of them, and learned from them all. I learned that Christmas is where you are, wherever that may be, and that good friends are worth their weight in gold. I learned that each of them builds up into a tapestry and gives you stories to tell and cherish. The funnier and stranger the Christmas, the greater the tales you can tell. Emma loves nothing more than telling of her flight to London through Hong Kong, and every time she tells it, she and Doug laugh themselves silly.
I hope that wherever you are, and whether you celebrate Christmas or not, you are safe and warm this holiday season. And I hope that in years to come, this terrible year will be woven into our tapestries, and we will tell these stories with affection as well as exasperation.