It’s been decided, definitively, after weeks of dithering: I won’t be home for Christmas. You cannot, in fact, plan on me. You may go ahead and have your snow and mistletoe and presents by the tree, but you’ll be having them alone. The decision came slowly: on one side, stern messages from the Irish government about the diaspora’s responsibility to stay away, and on the other an irrational but powerful inward conviction that it just wasn’t fair and could not be abided. How could I be expected to miss Christmas? Wouldn’t my family die of heartbreak? Wouldn’t the order of the universe be skewed if I didn’t follow our traditions?
In the end, I can’t pretend the decision was purely a noble sacrifice on my part. Certainly, I know that it’s the right thing to do, that a mass of international travellers descending on elderly parents is a recipe for disaster. It’s also true, though, that it was the notion of a halfway-house, hinterland Christmas that put me off going as much as the public health concerns. A not-quite-right Christmas seems sadder than its entire absence.
I thought back to March and April when my dad came to visit me and stood in the garden, and imagined this scenario playing out in freezing weather, me afraid to give him a hug. That would be a stranger and worse feeling than to sit it out altogether. Still, I’m not at peace with my choice. I’m afraid that on the day itself I’ll see other, less cautious immigrants who did decide to risk it and envy them terribly and feel like a fool for staying in London.
I’m 30 and I’ve never spent a Christmas away from home before. I’ve never even come close. One Christmas Eve in my early twenties, when I was working in retail, my shift ended perilously close to the time of the last train. My dad told me to relax: he’d drive the few hours each way to get me if it came to it, no bother. I’ve never had a boyfriend I would consider missing Christmas with my family for. When I lived in Athens in 2016, I briefly thought about staying there through the holidays, but rejected the idea for the simple reason that I wouldn’t be able to stand the feeling of being left out. There aren’t many things I fear missing out on. I don’t care about not making it to the house party everyone talks about afterwards, or the fabulous launch with all the free champagne. There are always more of those. But Christmas with my family, with all of us there – well, that’s a genuinely unmissable ticket.
Some say that since the format of the day stays the same each year, it doesn’t matter that we’re missing this one. This stance ignores the fact that with each identical Christmas that passes I’m aware of how many we have had and how many more I might reasonably expect to have left. I’m a flighty person, begrudging of commitments, of routine, but what allows me to be this way is the base foundation of love beneath me, and the familiar repetition of Christmas is part of that.
My parents split up when I was a small kid. I don’t ascribe any trauma to growing up with separated parents and different homes. Part of why that’s true is, I’m sure, the ability of my family in all its fragments to be happily together. Every year I wake up in my mother’s house, where I will likely have stayed up very late drinking with some combination of her and my two brothers, my stepdad wandering in every so often to shake his head in mock-disapproval at our giddiness and excess. My dad and his wife come by my mam’s place around 11am and have a coffee and give my brothers cards with cash inside, though they are both in their thirties. My mam and dad swap interchangeable bottles of wine and we all have a chat.
I pull myself together as much as my hangover allows and go to church with my dad and stepmother and grandmother, where I will inevitably cry at the end during “Silent Night”. We go to visit the graves of my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother. We say a prayer. Dad drops me back into my mam’s house, where the rest of the day is spent with the boys, alternately tormenting and helping her make dinner, which is always five hours later than initially proposed. Drinking, games, shouting, flopping about listlessly in front of Babe.
It all acts as a marker of time passing. Can it be true, for instance, that there have only been 30 of those days in my life, given how permanent a fixture the layout feels? How many more will I have? And how many more with all the members of my family, in the place I was born and grew up? The inevitable spectre of death aside, we’ll splinter for happier reasons too. My brothers will have children, my mother longs eventually to retire to a hotter country than Ireland. Things happen to change the original dynamic, even when those things are not bad.
The Christmas period also acts as a truce between me and the troubles of my ordinary life. Sometimes to my detriment, I allow myself to mentally check out of my problems at Christmas and return to them on 6 January. In no other part of my life am I capable of putting my brain on ice.
Grown though I may now be, and finally in possession of a coherent and happy independent life of my own, I wasn’t ready to exit this stage yet. Yes, my life is in London, and my friends are my core daily relationships. I will spend the day itself happily with them. But I didn’t want to have an independent Christmas just yet. I am, frankly, quite devastated to be getting one fewer whole-family day than I otherwise would have. There is nothing to be done about it, but I’ve promised to allow myself just a swift bout of brief desolation that morning – before I turn to the new kind of enjoyment that waits for me in my best friend’s flat.