Christmas has always been a special time of year in our household. Aside from the fact that my parents are both Christian, we've grown up in a little village, so Christmas has always involved the primary school nativity, the church party and carol service, and the vicar demonstrating each child's favourite gift on Christmas morning (he once skateboarded down the aisle).
We have lots of lovely family traditions too; wrapping up warmly to go and dig up the Christmas tree with Dad (and it always being too tall and always needing the top cut off in order to fit Mum's star on), baking mince pies, gingerbread houses and shortbread Christmas trees with Mum, and all three children, however big we got, snuggling up to Mum in Mum and Dad's bed on Christmas Eve listening her read the Farmyard Tales Christmas book, finding the yellow duck on every page.
Every other year, we'd host a big Christmas with cousins (and later, their various families), aunties, uncles and grandparents descending upon us from all over the country. The house would be full from Christmas to New Year and we'd never be short of someone to play with. Mum would be 'on call' for the hospital and the children's hospice the years we were home, and we'd always hope that she wouldn't be called during Christmas dinner.
The last few years, Christmas has still been special, but there's no denying that cancer has squeezed it's way into it.
2012: The Christmas of diagnosis one.
Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of August 2012.
Christmas fell during the chemo weeks. Mum would have a dose of chemo, take a week off work, then head back to work for two weeks before the next lot. I don't remember Christmas being affected that year, though. I imagine that since I was on a gap year, I had more time to help out with baking and other things. She looks tired on this picture, but we were happy and hopeful of a better 2013.
2013: The remission Christmas.
2013 and Mum was in remission! (As of about April). From memory we were determined to make it the best Christmas ever (or at least I was...). I'm fairly sure I spent far too much money. I was at uni by this point but I know I came home as soon as term was over and spent a lot of time in the kitchen baking with Mum. I'm pretty certain we baked quite literally everything and anything we could think of. Thanks to my extreme wrapping practice from working in a Toy Shop, I remember spending an entire afternoon with Mum in the spare room wrapping everything and singing along to Christmas songs.
Mum went on a two week cruise down the Rhine to multiple Christmas markets with my auntie, too. They had wanted to do it the year before but had to postpone it (for obvious reasons). They loved it and it probably only fuelled our Christmas fever even more. I remember my auntie posting this picture on Facebook with a comment wishing good health in the following year. We all felt so hopeful, lucky and blessed.
2014: Mum's final Christmas.
I think on some level we all knew it would be Mum's final Christmas. She'd been diagnosed as terminal in the February and hospitalised once in September and again in November. I can't remember if there was another hospitalisation in between. We were well-practiced at gowning up, putting on plastic gloves, and giving air-hugs across the room. Things were a bit more rushed due to the November hospitalisation, but I don't remember us missing out on anything. Mum was better than she had been in weeks. After the second hospitalisation, she'd stopped chemo and I can clearly remember her being full of energy and life. You wouldn't have known she was sick if it wasn't for the headscarf.
2015: The first Christmas without Mum.
I don't feel Christmassy this year. I've tried to hide from it, if I'm honest. It reminds me of Mum and I don't feel strong enough for that at the moment. We're going to a family friend's house. We've known them since I was six weeks old and they're practically family, but we've never been to their house on Christmas day before so it's a new kind of Christmas for us.
Perhaps we'll make some new traditions this year - I don't know. I know we will laugh. I expect we will play cards and probably some board games. I imagine we'll watch a Christmas film or two. We will definitely eat some turkey. We will probably be happy (I hope so!). The room will be filled with sounds of family and friends sharing good times together and genuinely appreciating one another.
Mum won't be there in physical form, but I hope she's there in her own little ways. When I eat a sprout and remember how every year Dad tried to get her to 'try' one ("if the children have to try things, you should too!"), and every year she put it back on his plate because she hated them with a passion. When I'm too full for pudding, I'll remember how before she got sick, however full she might have been there was always room for chocolate. When we play Articulate, I'll remember how whenever her and Viv teamed up to play that or Pictionary, the rest of us wouldn't stand a chance.
Mum will be around on Christmas, I just wish she was around in person so that I could well and truly beat her at Gin Rummy.