Christmas, for me, has for a long while been the most depressing time of the year. It wasn't always that way - in fact, for the first ten years of my life it was the most exciting, magical time of year. When my parents were together, Christmas followed a pattern. My sister and I would wake up and creep downstairs to make a cup of tea for my Mum and Dad, carefully opening the living room door and peeking at the pillowcases that served as our Christmas stockings. At 8am and no sooner, we would wake them up, drag them downstairs, and open our presents.
Later in the morning my aunts, uncles and cousin would arrive, Christmas dinner was served at 1:30pm, after which point we had an excruciating wait for the Queen to finish her speech before we could open the big presents under the tree. In the evening, after a buffet tea, we would open the little presents that had been stowed in the branches of our huge Christmas tree.
The only year this sequence went sour was the year that my sister discovered our Christmas presents hidden in our parents' wardrobe, and our feigned surprise on opening each present was met with "Oh don't pretend. You already knew you were getting that". Oops.
At the age of 11, Christmas became a whole new ball game. My sister and I lived with my Mum and Stepdad, and visited my Dad every other weekend. Each Christmas was alternated between parents, switching houses between Christmas and New Year. Each year my Mum would pull faces at the presents Dad had bought and make comments that he was just trying to buy our love and 'show off', and each year my sister and I grew further and further apart from my Dad as he built a new family with my Stepmum and my little brother, pushing us out of their circle. The joy of opening presents from my Dad slowly changed in to an annual performance of false gratitude (which surely deserved at least an equity card, if not an Oscar) as we unwrapped well-intentioned gifts that neither of us liked.
At least this was better than Christmas at home with my Mum and Stepdad. Whilst every day living with my Stepdad was spent walking on eggshells, the festive season was akin to hopping blindfold through a minefield. One particularly joyous year that springs to mind was when I was sixteen years old, and my sister had left home. My Mum had been working on Christmas Eve, and - sin of sins - had been seen by my Stepdad chatting to one of the workmen who used to buy his lunch from the shop. Saving his inquisition until he was well and truly drunk, the early hours of my Christmas morning were spent listening to my Stepdad accusing my Mum of - amongst other things - being a "f*cking whore" and wanting to "f*ck that ginger C*NT" accompanied by slammed doors, things being thrown and dropped, and occasional shrieks - which could have been injuries, or maybe not. It was always hard to tell.
Eight hours later my Mum was persuading my Stepdad and I to open our Christmas stockings as though nothing had happened and to "cheer up and be nice because it's Christmas Day", before she went out in the car to fetch my Stepdad's Mum and Dad. Christmas Dinner was intended for 2pm, but my Stepdad wasn't hungry at that point, and so we waited until 6:30 before tucking in to a long-overcooked and reheated meal in uncomfortable silence. We watched evening TV with a running commentary from my Stepdad, nursing his beer, shotgun at side. At 10pm I went upstairs and got ready for bed whilst my Mum dropped my 'Nan and Granddad' off home, at which point my Stepfather took the opportunity to come up to my room and sexually abuse me. Not for the first time, so no great surprise there then.
Ho. Ho. Ho. Me-erry Christmas.
After I had left home, whether in a relationship or not, I always felt as though I was being shoved from pillar to post. Dad always had a "family Christmas" and so the habit grew of having our Christmas at New Year. I spent Christmas with Mum once after she had left my Stepdad, but started to realise that the Christmas I wanted was never the Christmas I was going to get.
Every year I wanted just to forget all about Christmas. And when my last relationship ended I became the hot potato - "What do we do with KR this Christmas?" Christmas with my Mum has not been an option since she moved in with her partner 12 years ago - they have their own Christmas, together. For several years I went to stay with my Aunt, but after being woken up the last time on Christmas morning with a barked "Wake up, you!" and having no presents to open on the day except for a hastily grabbed pair of pink fluffy bed-socks, I decided I needed a change.
And then my friend made me an offer to visit them instead. I've known my friend for 25 years now and our lives are very different - she's been with the same man for nearly 20 years, has two daughters and is the main breadwinner of the house. We repeatedly promise to be better at staying in touch and yet still go months without any contact (this year our promise has been to Skype on a regular basis) but despite this we seem to have a bond that only gets stronger each year. When we do get together, it only takes one mention of "'E's a giraffe!" or 'Gothic Nazis' to send us back in to the same fits of giggles that got us in to great trouble at college. But most of all, we seem to just accept each other for Who We Really Are, without needing to say a word. And you can't buy that for Christmas.
The first year I went to visit it was slightly painful at first - sitting in on someone else's family Christmas, again pining for the Christmases I felt had been stolen from me - but now it's a blessing to be invited to join them, watching her girls create the memories that I once had and taking a Santa sized bite out of the mince pie before heading off to bed. It is a relaxed affair and they all make me feel really at home and part of the family. It's helped to remind me what is really important in my life and what the true meaning of Christmas really is.
Christmas is about goodwill, not getting crushed in the crowds on Oxford Street trying to find "the right present". Christmas is for Christians, not a spiritual convert who invests energy in Chanukah and Pesach and Rosh Hashannah. Christmas is for kids - to give them a day that they will look forward to and never forget for the right reasons.
Next year, Christmas is going to be reserved for the kids and the people I actually spend the day with. No more buying presents out of duty for those who leave it until three days before Christmas to ask when they might see me. No more charades. No more pretence. No more buying gifts as part of an obligation to family who celebrate a day which belongs to a religion I no longer follow.
Don't think that I've gone all Scrooge, though. I think that the Honest me is going to be far more genuine and giving and lighter than the Unhappy, Obligated me who spent most of her time clawing her way through Christmas wearing jeans and a grimace. I feel so much better now that I have got that off my chest. But don't think to get me started on New Year...