Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett: My family will never have a “perfect Christmas” – and that’s OK

It’s pretty difficult to get excited about Starbucks finally getting the red cups in when one of the adults present at Christmas dinner could soil themselves at any moment. But even a bittersweet Christmas is worth having.

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Here’s a handy – bastardised – literary  maxim for the festive season: “All un-crappy families are alike; each crappy family is crappy in its own way”.

It may not be Tolstoy, but it’s something I’ve certainly learned as I have got older. You think your family has problems? Divorce, disability, drug addiction, maybe some anger issues, a recent bereavement? Perhaps you’ve got someone literally going cold turkey in the upstairs bedroom? Tempting as it can be to lament how disappointingly unconventional your family is (and hell, at Christmas isn’t everyone dining out on their “weird” relatives?), there comes a time when you have to accept that you’re not the only one. 

Every family has its tragedies. As Christmas brings these sadnesses into sharper focus by bombarding us with wholesome images of happy, rosy-cheeked nuclear families in reindeer jumpers with no alcohol problems to speak of, remembering this factoid can be something of a comfort blanket when things get tough. It might not be as therapeutic as tanking up on more “port and brandy” (my Dad’s “cocktail” of choice) or nipping out the back to consume all the drugs you confiscated from your teenage offspring on Christmas Eve, but next time you’re midway through weathering the annual Yuletide rowpocalypse, do give it some thought. It helps. Tempting as it is to wallow in misery as you compare your eccentric, badly-behaved blood relatives with the respectable Joneses next door, it’s far healthier to assume that in all likelihood your neighbours have some dark secrets of their own too.

Still, you could give me all the “Christmas weed” (trust me, it’s a thing) in the world and I still wouldn’t view the festive period as a particularly happy time. After spending most of my teenage years wanting a Bing Cosby Christmas, by my mid-twenties, I finally accepted that 25 December  was never going to resemble the picture-perfect media confection I was presented with as a child. What can you expect with a family that is known to social services and has been ruptured by divorce? Unless you’re part of a tiny majority, you’re never going to see a supermarket Christmas advert that reflects your reality, whatever that might be – drunken rows, racist grandparents, Dad coming by to take you to his for that first Christmas dinner since the separation while your mum stays at home in her nightie, crying (and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have parents.) Factual depictions of real family dysfunction just wouldn’t sell enough chocolate logs, I guess. TV traditionally leaves that stuff to Eastenders.

Every Christmas I visit my severely disabled brother in his care home.  I help him open his presents and cuddle him while he sits there smiling in a Santa hat and then afterwards, every year, I cry because he is poorly and I wish he wasn’t. It’s always really sad and I always struggle to be the picture of festive joy and good tidings that I’m supposed to be because of it. It’s just not very “#Chrimbles” you know? What am I going to Instagram? His face as we drive away? Fuck that.

(Incidentally, I might be one of the few people on the planet who has a modicum of respect remaining for the film Love, Actually. That scene where she spends Christmas with her mentally ill brother breaks me, completely, every year.)

I know I’m not the only one who spends Christmas this way. Perhaps you’re visiting a terminally ill relative in hospital, are a victim of abuse, have a parent with a narcissistic personality disorder, or are one of the many hundreds of families who, thanks to our evil government Scrooge overlords, will be forced to rely on food banks and temporary accommodation this Christmas. If so, it can feel heartbreaking to have a life so imperfect when you are surrounded everywhere by Christmas cheer and crippled frog puppets announcing “God bless us, everyone!”

At Christmas, social inequalities become manifest – people naturally turn their thoughts to those who have nothing, donating money to those less fortunate via charities and Pret sandwiches. Unless, of course, you yourself have pretty much nothing, in which case you’re too busy worrying that you can’t give your children the Christmas they have been taught by advanced capitalism to want so desperately because your benefits have been cut and the fairy lights are fucked and Cancer Research only has dog-eared puzzles left on the shelves. I know Christmas is supposed to be a jolly time and it’s just not “done” to be too much of a Grinch about it, but it’s pretty difficult to get excited about Starbucks finally getting the red cups in when one of the adults present at Christmas dinner could shit themselves at any moment.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the person I’m currently in a relationship with absolutely loves Christmas. He comes from a big family (he’s one of nine children) that’s always considered Christmas as more of a festival than just a roast dinner with some extras and an excuse to get trashed. He maintains that, despite my suspicions, his family’s Christmas in no way resembles the “Home Alone” house, and yes, his family has its own issues (divorce, prison, veganism), but still nothing, and I mean nothing, comes in the way of Christmas. He struggles to understand why, for me, Christmas can feel emotionally fraught. There just aren’t enough of us to maintain a festive atmosphere, for a start. When it’s just you and your mum on the day itself it’s always going to feel a bit sad, no matter how much you might try and keep your spirits topped up.

I don’t want you to think that I’m feeling sorry for myself. I’m not – I do look forward to the day. I’d just like some media balance, because I’m sick of this peddled myth of Christmas perfection. None of us has the ideal family and every human has known sadness. This time of year, coming round as it does like clockwork throughout our lives, creates an impulse for nostalgia. Some of us will look back on the many Christmases we had as children, which will never be as innocent or as bounteous again. Others will remember those they loved whose seats around the table are now empty.

Personally, I try to balance sadness about my brother with the image of his excited, smiling face one December night a few years back when he still lived at home. Because my mum could not afford a tree, a good friend of mine agreed to risk the farmer’s shotgun to accompany me halfway up the mountain in the dark with a saw and “appropriate” one for us. It’s one of the nicest things that anyone has ever done for me or for my family. We may not be cookie cutter cut-outs, and we’re more than usually skint, but as a unit, we make it work.  It’s bittersweet, Christmas, for so many people, but somehow that’s what makes it mean something.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a founder of The Vagenda. She has donated the fee for this article to charity.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog. Her novel, The Tyranny of Lost Things, is published by Sandstone Press.

This article appears in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014