Without Boris Johnson to do it for me I have taken it upon myself to cancel Christmas this year. Not long after this magazine reaches you I will be boarding a flight to Bali, completely alone, and not returning until the end of the year. I have opted out of present-exchanging and so there is no shopping to be done, save for the mosquito repellent and sun dresses demanded by my first hot holiday in three years. I watch everyone else with quiet bemusement as they empty their pockets at John Lewis and proclaim loudly about their first mulled wine of the season. What need is there for hauling home trussed-up trees and splitting bags of shopping, like beavers beavering away at their dams? Haven’t people heard? Christmas isn’t happening this year.
I was once your average child, too excited to sleep on Christmas Eve, in anticipation of the Michael Morpurgo books and Hobbycraft kits (and, later, Mac make-up and Kate Moss’s Topshop collection) that, I hoped, were inside the parcels my parents were doing a bad job of sneaking downstairs. The day itself always seemed to pass too quickly: darkness hurrying me towards bed mere hours after I’d woken; not enough time to play Crash Bandicoot; not enough Toblerone eaten.
Somewhere along the way the season changed for me. Christmas has never quite been what I imagine it is supposed to be. Where other families, somewhere else, had church visits and frosty walks and board games, we had Laurel and Hardy films and trays of roast potatoes and sausages at the pub. It was a little different, and it was ours, but I remember quite keenly the longing I felt for the towering heights of the tree in Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas: this was the platonic ideal of Christmas. (This vision I enact each year with my school friends, and have done since we were teenagers, in a faux-festival we call “Mini Christmas”.)
Far be it from me to blame my parents’ divorce for everything, but as I grew older, Christmas came to highlight to me all the ways in which my family was not fit for a Hallmark card. As an adult I love the build-up to the day: the parties, the sequins; each wrapped gift a beribboned work of art; festooning each room, tastefully, in white and bronze and candlelight (last year there were two trees in my one-bedroom flat). But I hate the day itself. Expectations are never met, and perhaps, I wonder, might be better done away with altogether.
And so, to Bali. It will be a terrific adventure, or else it is a sure sign of an imminent breakdown, depending on whom you speak to. I will spend two weeks among the paddy fields and Aussie backpackers, visiting waterfalls and temples, being pummelled by massage therapists and trying to avoid the monkeys that steal sunglasses. Perhaps I will have my perspective on life changed by a mystic and fall in love with a Brazilian man, Eat, Pray, Love-style. I am perfectly, painfully aware of what a cliché the whole endeavour is, but at least I haven’t used the phrase “find myself”. And if it is a disaster and I spend a sad Christmas alone, I will approach a return to normal proceedings next year with newfound gratitude.
It cannot possibly have already been a year since I wrote my last column for a Christmas Special but, reflecting on how I signed off for 2021, confessing my continuing love for A–, it seems also to have been longer than a year. At the height of that terrible summer a reader wrote to me to share some survival tactics she’d learned from her own break-up. “I never had a moment where suddenly I thought, ‘But of course! We were terrible for each other!’” she wrote. “I can still imagine a life path where I stayed with my ex, but it feels extremely distant and totally neutral.”
At the time the feelings she described seemed unreachable, but rereading them today they are more familiar. It is endlessly tempting to look for tied-up ends and clear dividing lines, for reason and completeness, where there is none to be found. I love him, I don’t love him. I never loved him and I always will. Somehow, all these things can be true at once. Somehow, most days, it feels neutral.
Thank you, as ever, for reading, and I wish you all a very merry Christmas – or I would, if it was happening.
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special