We’ve had our first snowfall, on the heels of sleet showers and icy rain. Winter has arrived in the Highlands after the wettest autumn most folks can remember. There is, as ever, a feeling of drawing-in at this time of year. Unfortunately the urge to hibernate begins each afternoon at about 3:30pm when the day is far from over, but by then we are deep in the gloaming and all I want to do is close the blinds, make a cup of hot chocolate, and curl up with a good book!
The holiday season can be a strange time. It’s often advertised as a time of family gatherings and get-togethers with friends, and of course for many people that is true. One or two friends have even said they already feel “burned out” by now, and it’s not even Christmas yet, as I write this column. Some friends have to run back and forth from close family to extended family, trying to fulfill all the social obligations that come with this time of year. Others have created their own chosen families, and this is a time for them to come together and share meals and stories, laughter and love in a more relaxed way. Then there are the countless multitude who face the holidays alone.
When I was a child we were invited each Christmas to the home of friends of my father’s. They invited the same people every year – us, and a handful of widows and widowers who had nowhere else to go. As an adult, I can see the kindness in this gesture. As a child, I dreaded it. They had two kids, but none of us were the slightest bit interested in each other. How could we be? We saw each other twice a year at most. My sister and I were not thrilled about this yearly event and I suspect the hosts’ children felt the same way that we did. In fact, at least in their son’s case, I am certain of it since he once famously refused to leave their car when his parents dragged him to our house for a big picnic my parents hosted. So you see, the feeling was mutual. It wasn’t that we didn’t like each other. We just didn’t know each other.
My father enjoyed those Christmas visits, which is understandable since the host was his good friend. The time came, though, after my sister was married and gone and I was a know-it-all teenager, when I put my foot down and said I would no longer go. By then it would have just been me and their son, who was four years older than I was, since their daughter (ten years older than me) had her own in-law Christmas gatherings to attend, as did my sister. My father was pretty angry about my refusal. Looking back now I suppose he probably thought that this was one of only a few social things he enjoyed each year, and the least we could do was to go along and be good sports about it, but after a decade or so of awkward hours with people I didn’t know, I’d had enough. I can’t even remember if my mother and father went without me from then on, or if none of us went. I just remember feeling relieved and guilty in equal measure that it was over.
A few years later I lost my father the week of Christmas; his actual passing came later, shortly after the new year, but I’ve always felt like we lost him the day he was taken to hospital. Every year since, this has been a time of stillness and remembrance, for me. The loss is always there, but Christmastime sharpens the focus. No matter what else is going on in my life, there is a certain day in the week before Christmas that brings me to my knees, emotionally, and I suppose it always will. I remember the way that awful day started, in shock and fear, and I remember the long hours later, coming home from the hospital with my mother and by silent, stunned agreement dismantling the Christmas tree because we could not bear to see its cheerful twinkling a moment longer. I’ve never had a Christmas tree, since.
The years between then and now have blurred and I can’t pick out individual Christmases with much accuracy. My mother’s one ‘family rule’ has always been that no matter where my sister and I chose to spend Christmas Day, we needed to be home on Christmas Eve. Until I moved to Scotland, I think I stuck to that rule – gladly, I might add – without fail. I’m sad that I can’t spend Christmas Eve with her anymore but the miles, the weather, the expense, and the health issues are all too great to be able to do so. Fortunately my sister now carries on the Christmas Eve tradition, and since she now owns our childhood home there is a lovely continuity to it.
I always thought that “some day” when I was a fully-formed adult I would host Christmas gatherings of my own, bringing together people who didn’t have anywhere else to go. I’m sure the seeds were sown by those Christmases spent with a kind family who wanted to bring warmth, laughter, and good food to those of their friends who might not have a large gathering to be a part of. To be sure, I would not have forced anyone’s kids to come unless they really wanted to, but I always imagined a gathering of “strays” – including me, since I have always felt like a bit of a stray, too. It didn’t work out that way, though. While I did manage to become a fully-formed adult (or at least to put up a good front!), I was never in a position to host such dinners. Mainly that’s because, happily, my friends all had families they could celebrate their holidays with; there were no “orphans” among them. Instead, I found myself being invited here and there along with my mother, both of us the recipients of kindness and love from good friends who opened their homes and hearts without hesitation. I will never cease to be grateful for them especially since after I moved away, friends continued to include my mother most years at Christmastime, which they do to this day. I wish I could be there, too, but the next best thing is knowing that my mom can spend time with both family and friends over the bittersweet, difficult holidays.
Being far from family and friends is something I chose when I joyfully accepted my husband’s proposal, and I love being in Scotland with my sweetheart. I can honestly say I’ve never been homesick, and I’m very glad for that. Even so, now and then there’s a wistfulness for that sort of warm, happy gathering of friends and family which I no longer have, here. I suppose I feel it this year especially because it is our first Christmas away from our beloved wee village and the familiar faces I’d grown so fond of. But Sem and I will enjoy this Christmas as we have enjoyed others; a nice dinner, watching utter nonsense on television, and something unwise-but-tasty later in the evening, for dessert. We will make phone calls and send emails, and enjoy each other’s company. We are happy, we are fortunate, and we are content.
Whatever you celebrate this time of year (if anything), I wish you peace and contentment, and all good things in the coming year. And if, in the next week or two, you have a spare seat at your table – or even an entirely empty set of chairs besides your own – maybe there’s someone you could invite along for a meal, to share some warmth and friendship. Whether they accept the invitation or not is up to them… but I know from experience that it is very nice just to be remembered, invited, and included.