The Bittersweet Moment When Christmas Stops Being About You, And Starts Being About Your Parents
The Debrief: Or: how to stay sane when you're the only sibling at home for Christmas...
It's a disappointing moment in life when you realise Christmas isn't all about you. As children we're fed the lie that it is. Our fresh little egos are pumped full of stories of Elves whose full time job is to make our presents, that later will be couriered down our chimney by a magical velvet grandad. Take this fantastical narrative, mix it with an electrifying level of purified sugar and any tot would believe the whole Christmas circus was just for them.
If you're an optimist, you're probably thinking 'Christmas is about family, charity, togetherness.' You're also probably keeping your local indie cinema in business with annual pilgrimages to see It's a Wonderful Life, while weeping cathartic tears into your Kilner jar of mulled wine. It's an admirable outlook, but it's not about that. If you're a cynic, you'll think it's a capitalist ruse, trapping consumers in a cycle of overspending and debt. (Actually you're probably right, but if you try to say that at your office party, it'll be ten seconds before someone in a novelty jumper calls you Scrooge.) It's not about any of those things, at least not for me, not anymore. It's about my parents.
I think I clocked this concept at a young age. One Christmas Eve while putting a carrot on the fireplace for Rudolf, I thought 'Why do Mum & Dad want to watch me put this vegetable in the living room? Why are they taking photos?' Then I looked at their twinkly eyes and thought 'Oh, I'm doing this for them.' Adults get joy from giving Christmas to children and now I want to give them some joy back. This is why every December I board a train at Kings Cross, heading north, laden with luggage, presents and enough M&S food to cater a small wedding.
2016 will be the seventh consecutive year I have been the only child at home for Christmas. I have one sibling, an older sister by five years, who lives in L.A. My mum and dad are only children, meaning no aunts, uncles or cousins and my grandparents are gone now, so no one ever drops in on the day. Our Christmases have always been quiet. Over these seven solo years, I have discovered the gold plated trick to surviving Christmas, the trick is ... Overcompensate! Big time, dial it up to eleven, think balloons and fireworks. Trust me, it might sound like a pop-psychology naughty word, but overcompensating is weirdly liberating, borderline intoxicating.
To ward off seasonal gloom I decided to be active. I'll arrive off the train to a baubleless house, I'll then unleash a plague of fairy lights and plastic holly, until the hall is decorated more outlandishly than a GBBO show stopper. I started stuffing the family stockings the year before I graduated. Mum always did them historically, sorry, I mean Santa would always do them (close one), but then 'Santa' would know what was in her own stocking, so she never got any surprises. I also I thought, while still a student, it would be a cheep way to do presents, that need more care than cash. I was wrong. It is insanely expensive and time consuming. On average I now start stocking shopping in September and I look back on my undergraduate self and curse the fool.
Combining my new overcompensating manifesto with my inherent artsy urges and I started to Christmas craft like an elf on crack. I'm making decorations, gift wrap, cards, last year I had a spare hour on Christmas Eve, so I made my mum a new tartan stocking from scratch. It had bells and everything.
Survival note: gift wrapping and crafting can be a real sanity saver. When you just can't be around other humans, it's a perfect festive excuse to spend hours alone in a room, with tea and Netflix. I also cook Christmas lunch, I offered one year so my mum didn't have to and it seems to have stuck. I always refuse a sous-chief, so again, time alone with a project. In 2015 I tried to introduce a new compensation tool and bought 'Cluedo' crackers. I thought a game would be festive and I could ringmaster. I couldn't, it was a bad idea. It wasn't even the full game, just a simplified version, but it still took over an hour, my dad claimed he'd never heard of Cluedo and deliberately miss-played his hand to bring the round to an end asap. Also there are few things more awkward than organising a three man triangular cracker pull.
There are many positives to flying solo, for example, my parents attentions are focused on just me. In years to come, I'll look back on these seven yuletides and think how lucky I was to have so much one on one time with my folks. Also I get to treat this lost week at the end of December as an excuse to look revolting. I'll potter about with deep conditioning treatments in my hair and my face slathered in Sudacrem. I definatly look my absolute worst and it feels like a holiday from human eyes.
I loved Christmas as a child, even in my late teens to early twenties, I would eagerly look forward to it. I remember one year being so sad in London because I was in between arts jobs and counting down the days on the advent calendar. The idea of being at home and free for a whole week made me so happy. Now I count down the days in a different way. I feel responsibility and duty. I sometimes feel a bit purposeless at home and that leads me to get into a festive-huff. My parents live outside of the city, so there aren't any excuses to "just pop out for a hour". Another survival tip is make sure you have a few events in your diary that make you leave the homestead. I have two annual excursions, the first is to a little pub with old mates on Christmas Eve, the second to friend's houses, where I wrap her presents for her and she fuels me with tea and biscuits. These breaks will give you time to defuse, revive and appreciate.
I can't deny there has been a role reversal over these past years. I watch mum and dad opening their present, holding my breath and I live or die on whether they like them. If Big Sis isn't there, of course they'll miss her. If I had children, I would shamelessly trick them into flocking home at every opportunity. I'd want them to take me out for lunch once a week and check I was top of their speed dial. But with our own parents, we can't find time to call them. They've given us their absolute best shot and what do they get back? A week of us lying on their sofa, complaining about millennial problems and eating all their food.
A time will come in the near future when I'll have to start the couples alternating rota with my boyfriend. I'll either be at his parents, or he'd be with me at mine, or we might have our own kids in the mix. Either way, it'll never be just me and my parents again. So while I can, I'm going to make Christmas all about them, I think they deserve their turn.
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