It is impossible to avoid being inundated by all things Christmas at this time of year. Decorations adorn the streets and, thanks to television and the internet, the seasonal theme extends inexorably into all of our homes.
Yet Christmas means different things to each of us.
From shopping and eating to faith and family, we all have different, unique understandings of what constitutes Christmas. The adverts portray a trouble-free time of unblemished happiness; December is the month where commercial escapism reaches new heights. Children and adults alike are encouraged to enter magical lands of wonder and surrealism.
For me and countless others who've lost loved ones this year, Christmas 2016 will indeed be surreal and unlike any other. Memories of Christmases past will bring tears. And comfort. And joy.
Grief isn't Christmassy. Yet grief is a fundamental part of Christmas for so many people. This may be a despairing, raw grief at a recent death or a silent, lingering grief from a loss suffered long ago. I expected the first Christmas after my Dad passed away to be difficult but I didn't foresee the cauldron of conflicting emotions of the last few weeks. Within the space of twenty minutes I've gone from happily singing along to festive songs on the car radio to abandoning my shopping as the cheerful Christmas supermarket music made me resentful and upset. Feigning excitement can be tiring but work colleagues, shop assistants and acquaintances don't deserve tears in return for enquiring about my festive plans. I've avoided the family Christmas card list because I cannot bring myself to repeatedly sign cards from only my mother and I, as though each card were a reminder of our lost husband and father. The Christmas decorations of my childhood will remain untouched this year and I decorated the office before contemplating any new decorations for home.
But to be shamelessly cliche, the season of good will brings out the best in people. Regardless of personal grief, one cannot help but be lifted by the pervading joyful atmosphere of December. People are chattier at this time of year, even if this often entails strangers fretting about the pressures of cooking the Christmas dinner. Friends and families are reunited over the holiday season and people are generally more charitable and thoughtful. I was given a free bag of spinach when the self-service machine went AWOL in a shop last week "because it's Christmas". Joking aside, donations to food banks and homeless shelters peak at Christmastime. Similarly, choirs and local community groups have been paying festive visits to lonely residents in my Grandmother's care home. I find comfort and encouragement in these seasonal reminders of people's kindness. I keep seeing the joy in young children's faces and fondly remember sharing my own excitement at that age with my Dad.
This Christmas I'm thinking about people and not presents. A wish to see loved ones who've passed away would top the Christmas list of many people. The days preceding Christmas are filled by the selecting, sending and receiving of gifts but undoubtedly the greatest gift is one we can all give to ourselves. Be it family or friends, let's spend time appreciating those we love whilst we can.