"I feel weird. I don't know why, I just feel weird." I said to my partner on the train home from work last night.
For a few days now I've felt like something is wrong. Like that unpleasant jolt when you miss a step in the dark, I feel displaced, and slightly panicky. I should be on top of the world - its Christmas, which is one of my favourite times of the year, I'm starting a new and exciting job in January, and, well, it's Christmas.
"But you love Christmas!" he said.
I do love Christmas. I love the lights, the way everyone says "have a happy Christmas" to strangers, the decorations, the food, the John Lewis advert, the general sense of breathless anticipation. Most of all I love that everyone comes together in real or makeshift families, and gives each other things they think they'll love, and eats together and watches their favourite films and has silly traditions.
We didn't celebrate Christmas as a family until I was 14. I grew up in a Brethren-style Christian "community" (read, cult) and Christmas was not something we "did". We didn't "do" television, jewellery, trousers on women, mixing with normal people - or birth control, apparently (I have five siblings).The first time we celebrated was the year after we'd left, and none of us really knew what to do. My parents hastily bought a fake tree and some pretty baubles, and we all put them up and Dad made a huge Christmas dinner. My siblings and I swapped presents and watched A Muppet Christmas Carol. It was great, I think.
Sometimes I forget this was the first one I ever had. I have no real memories of the winter holidays as a child, so I don't know what it's like to have believed in Santa, or experienced the magic that must be so wonderful for children at Christmas. For me, Christmas is embodied by the house where I first celebrated it. It was the symbol of our first integration with the real world. I was so bullied at my new school for being different that Christmas was the thing I clung to that made me feel like them. Sometimes I still feel nostalgic for the childhood Christmasses I never had.
The damage that resulted from living in, and then leaving, the community was all over me, a big scar. You couldn't look at me without knowing I was messed up, and unhappy, and confused. I left, I went to university, I was bullied again, I came home and there Christmas was, waiting for me, in that funny old house where we all had our own rooms for the first time. Think the Burrow (from Harry Potter fame). It was cosy, and safe. Our beloved dog, who died five years ago, loved Christmas. He joyfully destroyed the tree, rolled in piles of wrapping paper, stole chocolates and gleefully dashed from person to person, so happy we were all home where we belonged, with him.
"Do you think you feel weird because your parents sold that house?" asked my boyfriend. I immediately burst into tears. My parents sold the house a few months ago, and I never got to say goodbye to it. Every year since moving out I've been back to that house for Christmas. I've moved twelve times since then. Twelve times in nine years. My partner and I bought our first house together this year but it still doesn't feel like home. The only place that feels like home is that house where Christmas was. We put up our tree (a real tree, with real pine needles) but I sat and looked at it and felt empty and sad.
I think it's normal to feel a bit weird at this time of year. We build up Christmas to such a fever pitch of twee imagination and rose-tinted memories that it can end up feel disappointing and miserable. Sometimes, surrounded by a barrage of Good Will to All Men and Joy to the World and Christmas Cheer, we feel lost and alone, longing for a feeling we can't find anymore. It is so easy to get lost in all the doing and buying and rushing that we lose ourselves and the reason why we do all this anyway. Christmas is a feeling, more than anything. It is a unique but humanly universal feeling, of lost youth and joy, of people we love or loved, of places we belonged.
Then I remember that Christmas isn't tied solely to a place, or a person, or anything that's no longer here. Every year is a new year, and I guess what I've concluded is that, ultimately, what really matters is that we remember to come together with some of the people we love, eat some good food and tell each other that we love each other in our makeshift families and our real families, and have a little sing, then play charades and fall asleep in front of Elf on TV.
Have a happy Christmas.