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After a lifetime of empty Christmases


'Lonely Christmas' by Chris JohnstonIt started, our lifetime of lonely exiled Christmases, with a fight. But it didn't really start then. It started in pre-history, or pre-my-history, in ancient bitternesses, deaths and sins unforgiven from before I was even born.

By the time the fight happened, my mother and grandmother were the sole survivors of a small, intense and insular family, and I was almost grown up. A father and husband had died, a brother and uncle had died, a powerful grandfather had died, a two-year-old son had died, making my mother an only child. Things were said, their partial estrangement began, and increased, and our many years of bad Christmases began.

At first it was got through pleasantly enough on the surface, but at great emotional cost to my mother. Then it became an annual awkwardness, the problem of somehow dealing with Christmas in a way that kept my mother and grandmother apart — or at least, bubble-wrapped, like two delicate presents sent together through the mail.

My grandmother was a compulsive talker, and she would corner my mother after lunch and go over and over the past. And her complaints about the present. My mother would often say that after a conversation with my grandmother she felt like shooting herself.

Then the strategies began. For several years we would rent the Godfather films — yes, Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather films — and watch one or other of those immediately after lunch, effectively to prevent conversation. I don't exactly know why those films were chosen but perhaps (to quote The Song of Bernadette) for those who have faith no explanation is necessary.

When that wore out my father and sister and I would take my grandmother out, leaving my mother at home, having taken to her bed. (For my mother was always mysteriously ill at Christmas.)

Later still, as the years passed, my father, sister and I would visit my grandmother, who lived two hours away, with a packed lunch (my grandmother strongly objected to hostessing duties) and my mother (having packed the lunch) would rather nobly ring and talk to her while we were on our way there. And then take to her bed.

But things only got worse. Eventually, on 1 December every year — her birthday — a black pall of depression would descend on my mother which lasted for months and made even a semblance of Christmas impossible.

So my family ceased to celebrate Christmas and my Christmases became an annual desolation. The weird truth was, my mother couldn't be happy at Christmas because her mother was unhappy, and I couldn't be happy at Christmas because my mother was unhappy. I think they call that enmeshment.

The thing about Christmas is that you can't say, well, after all, it's just another day. I've tried that. No matter how difficult it is for you, you cannot simply abstain. The cup must be drunk. It's like death or taxes. Like grief.

And what makes Christmas unique, I think, is the way in which what you might call The Ideal has its nose rubbed in the Real. The ideal and the real are shoved up hard against one another, and something's got to give. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that, 'The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.' That's Christmas.

Or maybe Christmas is the Pavlovian dog, trained to do two separate and mutually exclusive actions in obedience to two different triggers, who goes insane when the two triggers are sounded at the same time.

I have spent Christmas as an orphan/waif/stray, kindly included in the family christmas celebrations of a friend. I have spent Christmas visiting a children's hospital. I have spent Christmas singing in church choirs. The most memorable Christmas of my adult life was spent wandering around the city with my sister, unexpectedly forbidden from returning home until nightfall by a deeply depressed mother and with nowhere to go.

I can't pretend to look back on my lifetime of empty Christmases with mysterious joy. And yet ...

I am deeply suspicious of our preoccupation, deification, even, of success, and of our narrow definitions of it. I feel with every fibre of my being that what is of most worth, our real treasure, is somehow to be found in our experiences of poverty, of desolation. Often it is love's absence that defines love most sharply. What is of most value is what is not there — and therefore, truly, it is there. It is present because it is absent.

And how is it that Christmas has become about plenty, about feasting, celebration and success? Christmas is not about triumphalism. Christmas is about poverty, vulnerability, the embracing of powerlessness by the one at the very heart of reality, the one who is supposed to be all-powerful, and about how, in some mysterious way, that is where true power lies. It's about being left out. It's about there being no room. It's about the little door.

'This too will pass', people say — and, finally, it has. Both my mother and my grandmother are still alive, but my grandmother is 102 and something of a spent force, and my mother? Her Alzheimer's has meant that she has forgotten much of what used to upset her so deeply. Both have become immured in the here and now, and two women who were once obsessed with one another hardly think about each other any more.

And me? I had been single all my life, but two Christmases ago, to my astonishment, I spent the afternoon speaking, for three hours, on the phone to a man I had met a couple of months before in Melbourne, newly separated from a marriage in which he had endured many long years of lonely Christmases. He was alone on Christmas Day, and we both had nothing to do, and nothing we wanted to do more than speak to each other.

Now all our Christmases will be spent together, as two refugees from Christmas. But perhaps after all, perversely, allusively, that is where Christmas is at. 

Cassandra Golds headshotCassandra Golds is a Melbourne-based author of children's fiction. Her most recent book is The Three Loves of Persimmon.

Topic tags: Cassandra Golds, Christmas



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This story will resonate with many Cassandra. This year, for the first time, my brother will spend Christmas away from Brisbane, our childhood home. He's in Canada and from my correspondence with him, it's a strange situation for him. I've spent many, not all, Christmases with him. I have a husband, children and Christmas is a time with huge expectations - it's like organising a complex puzzle. For me anyway. Leunig is right, I think, when he says the pre-Christmas crack-up is always followed by an epiphany.

Pam | 17 December 2012  

I am sitting here at my computer with a huge smile on my face You have made my day and my Christmas and I love you for that because I am going to enjoy it this year with all the enthusiasm I can muster just because you survived and won. We all get so negative about small and often unimportant stuff on that day although I dont discount first family and its complications Bless you

GAJ | 17 December 2012  


Jonathan Shaw | 17 December 2012  

Thanks, Cassandra, for a rich, intense, terrible and wonderful story. Happy days - you deserve them.

Joe Castley | 17 December 2012  

Thank you Cassandra..you have given me the reality,the true and the lost meaning in all this ...under the fabricated niceties. Absence is the 'measure' of God.. I can approach Christmas as I should now ..with humility.xxxxxxx

Catherine | 17 December 2012  

Thank you, Cassandra. I think this particular conundrum is true for more of us than society encourages us to admit. It certainly is for me. My father died suddenly on a Christmas night 17 years ago and ever since I've had to steel myself in the weeks leading up to the day my mother dreads. You've articulated the paradox artfully. I long to repackage Christmas... one day soon!

Emily | 17 December 2012  

I think you hit the nail on the head Cassandra. Christmas is a paradox. You can't genuinely enjoy it till you grow up emotionally. That means experiencing pain, separation and loneliness. The big cities of Australia can be as cold and lonely as anywhere on earth. It always strikes me as interesting that Christ was born in a stable, surrounded by animals, because "there was no room at the inn". So many families have long unresolved conflicts or are so busy "having a wonderful time" that they miss the simplicity of what it's really about. Many vacuous sermons will be preached to no avail to so many lonely people who can't let go their loneliness. You have glimpsed reality. Congratulations.

Edward F | 17 December 2012  

Thank you for sharing your poignant and touching story. It is a timely reminder that Christmas is an event which multiplies the emotions of life, and heightens the joys - and strains - within families. Wishing you happiness in the Christmases ahead.

Peter | 17 December 2012  

Thank you ever so much Cassandra. What is most private is most public and you have helped my quest for meaning. I too have had the ups and downs of Christmas and spent the last one on my own which was also painful. Christmasses I enjoyed were as a Jesuit novice and a believer where there was meaning and music in the celebration and Christmas in Sweden where the season is appropriate. As a child I felt I was in the wrong place for Christmas with all the winter icons while we sweltered on an alien shore. As a religious I felt the lack of family. Now with a blended family I feel the lack of a common meaning or common values. Trying to war against a sea of rank materialism I have allientaed myself from my family and am now seen as a Scrouge figure. I find it incomprehensible that a major celebration is so separate from its origin. For many friends it is hollow, a burdensome expense, an annual act of hypocracy or just a fight; scarcely a time for reflection. So thank you for raising the issues Cassandra. As a result of your article I feel more at home with the Negative Capability of John Keats or being tested to hold opposites as you quote. All the Best.

Michael D. Breen | 17 December 2012  

Sounds like a shame that your mother forced herself to see her mother. Some people are better off separate, regardless (or perhaps even because of) their familial ties. So glad you have won your way through to better Christmases. For Christ's sake, have some fun! It's important to reflect on those who are alone and miserable, but presents and champagne are good. Even Jesus, born in the stable, received presents. Useless ones for a baby, but presents, nonetheless. Mary or Joseph probably swapped them for something more useful, come to think of it. Like a room. And some wine. Or a new model donkey. Thanks for this article.

Penelope | 18 December 2012  

Cassandra, thank you- how true- And what makes Christmas unique, I think, is the way in which what you might call The Ideal has its nose rubbed in the Real. And that 'Christmas is about poverty, vulnerability, the embracing of powerlessness by the one at the very heart of reality, the one who is supposed to be all-powerful, and about how, in some mysterious way, that is where true power lies. It's about being left out. It's about there being no room. It's about the little door.' I am glad you have found refuge at last.

Vacy Vlazna | 19 December 2012  

Cassandra, like many genuine artists and writers, I think you see through the covering debris to what lies beneath. Christmas, amongst other things, is a place in the heart. Both the official religious Christmas Story and fictional works such as Dickens "A Christmas Carol" point to the same place. Traditionally the heart was seen as the centre of the feelings. So many people's feelings have been tragically hurt. Christmas is often the time our personal or group unresolved problems rise to the surface. Any genuine Christian or secular philosophy would mandate we face them and attempt, as much as possible, attempt to resolve and integrate them. It is a lifetime process. I think, because we are a relatively new country, we seem to have both lost the old European cultural roots as regards Christmas and failed to really integrate them here. Perhaps they once existed to some extent but I think the gradual reduction in religious adherence since the 1960s and the current crass materialism certainly obscure them. Older cultures and smaller places often seem to have the feeling more strongly. I think most of us need to dig deeper, as you did, so as to find the real emotional (and possibly spiritual) roots within ourselves.

Edward F | 19 December 2012  

Well written Cassandra.Yes, the irony of broken-ness in our lives should be overcome by the Child of compassion. Those who are meant to be closest to us can be so far away.

Chris Flamer | 19 December 2012  

A great article Cassandra. Thanks. Good luck and many happy "Christmasses" to come.

Penny | 20 December 2012  

" ... as two refugees from Christmas" - wow - that says it all, Thanks Cassandra. And thanks too to Michael Breen who wrote about Christmas' past "... where there is meaning and music in the celebration." These days, apart from the service of lessons and carols from Cambridge, we have to thank Woolworths or Myers for at least a token nod to the birth of Christ - but again, the bottom line is "rampant commercialism". Apart from lunch with our son, we have already moved to fill the moat and raise the drawbridge.

tony5073 | 23 December 2012  

Thank you Cassandra for articulating the mixed emotions which descend on so many of us at Christmas time. If you don't want to cook and eat turkey, if your family has scattered and you cannot pull together twenty happy relatives for dinner, if you cannot see how spending large amounts of money on stuff that no one seems to want or like equates with the simplicity and wonder of the Christmas story, you can feel a complete failure and, yes, a Scrooge, as Michael D Breen identifies. After experiencing the same sorts of Christmases as you Cassandra, I have now found the answer: singing in various scratch community and parish Christmas choirs, singing about the joy and mystery of the season for the pleasure of anyone who finds it in song, including myself. My anxieties have just about evaporated. If anyone would like to join us next year, we always need more voice.

Anna | 27 December 2012  

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