When I was a kid, right after my birthday in October, I’d start getting excited about Christmas. That constant optimism that there was something bright on the horizon was how I coped with my dysfunctional childhood. I learnt to savour every good, tiny moment, too: reading my way through a pile of library books, chips steaming with vinegar eaten straight from the paper, watching cartoons in the orange light of the electric fire. I knew those happy moments could turn in the tick of a second, so I sank down deep, hoarding them for sustenance during the colder, darker times.
My high-pitched excitement about Christmas, accompanied by a choir blaring “Buy, buy, buy” and “Christmas is a time for family” from the telly, must have been unendurable for my mum. From the earliest age, I knew every penny was accounted for, our benefits calculated to be exactly enough to survive. But Christmas, magical Christmas, seemed to have different rules. On that day, there would be presents, sweets, and Mum would definitely be in a good mood.
Of course, there were no different rules, only the impossibility of trying to conjure extra money though the number in the benefit book stayed the same and the gas bill was overdue. Conjuring a good mood in the face of those realities must have felt impossible, too.
The money worries, the conspicuous absence of any family or friends, Mum’s desire to make good from nothing made for a volatile Christmas cocktail of bursts of childish joy and domestic explosions
The thing about Christmas is that it highlights everything you do and do not have. The money worries, the conspicuous absence of any family or friends, Mum’s desire to make good from nothing made for a volatile Christmas cocktail of bursts of childish joy and domestic explosions when everything was upended and then put shakily back together in time for the Queen’s speech.
Still, we always had some nice food, bought late on Christmas Eve in the hope of it lasting longer, a few presents, a stocking. Even then, I understood we’d have to sacrifice in the coming months for what we had. I understood I should suck the joy out of every good bit of that day.
In my thirties, I started spending Christmas alone. Evading the inevitable question, “What are your plans?” and declining “Christmas orphan” invites from close friends. I wasn’t an orphan, I had a family, just an incredibly complicated one. Instead, I stayed home alone, eating sausages and mash, watching box sets. It was lonely. It was peaceful. It was the right thing for me. I was grateful to be able to give myself the gift of mental wellness, the continued chance to make a better life.
This year, I spent most of December on a writing retreat in Ventspils, a coastal town in Latvia. I lived in a gingerbread house with six other writers and took walks through snow storms to the grey, freezing sea. I learned about the Baltic Way when approximately two million people joined hands, an unbroken chain spanning Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, to protest the brutal Soviet occupation. Looking backwards, even while I marvelled at where I had found myself, I wrote about my childhood, staring out at a 20ft twinkling Christmas tree in the town square. Eating borscht in local cafes, I read about present-day UK poverty: the threat to women’s refuges, street homeless dying of exposure, children with rickets. A very Dickensian Christmas indeed, except this is 2017 and how can this possibly be happening?
This year, I’ll spend Christmas with my fiance and though I’ll no doubt maintain my tradition of a panicked weep when I realise dinner won’t be ready till midnight, I know I’ll feel loved, safe and happy. I won’t be able to forget the people who are just getting through Christmas. I wouldn’t want to. Perhaps it’s right that they shouldn’t be forgotten.
This year, I will be grateful for someone I love to share the day with, nice food and warm house. I will savour every good, tiny moment for myself and for the child I was, because I know they are a true privilege. I’ll try not to get caught up in the usual spendy Christmas giddiness or assume people have the money for the endless rounds of presents, drinks and dinners. I certainly won’t imagine everyone is looking forward to Christmas. I know only too well it can be a raw, bruising time, even when “all that is in the past” and you’re safe, warm and well fed. I’ll make extra efforts with folk working in shops, cafes and bars, who are likely exhausted, not earning much and want to feel festive, happy, appreciated, too. I’ll never ask, “What are your plans?”
While researching Lowborn, I’ve spent some time talking to foodbanks. This Christmas, over one million people will need to turn to a food bank for support. That number is shocking, but maybe a little abstract until you start thinking what it’s like to be properly hungry for even an hour, what it feels like to be surrounded by the idea everyone else has full fridges, how it feels to have to refuse your child anything, let alone food. An abstract number until you think about how overwhelming, lonely and hopeless that must feel. Abstract until you realise that is happening to someone in the next street from you, maybe even the next house to you.
I make a list of things to take to my local food bank: canned food, pasta, pulses, UHT milk. Because I remember well enough that “non-essentials” are the first things to be given up (we had a period of washing everything – clothes, bodies, hair, the bathroom, dishes – with Fairy Liquid), I’ll bring as many toiletries, sanitary towels and tampons, nappies, chocolate, books and toys as I can afford. I’ll do the same in January, February and beyond, and set up a regular monthly donation to the Trussell Trust, because it’s through those new-year months that families are really paying for Christmas and that’s also when food bank donations typically go down, too. In the UK in 2017, poverty is not just for Christmas.
I’m not virtue-signalling here. I’m well aware it’s a luxury in itself to be in a decent enough place to make these choices. What’s happening is so much bigger than this and, even as I list them, I feel how painfully meagre these things are in the face of one million people going hungry. But it’s what I’m able to do right now and, like those good, tiny moments that sustained me to adulthood, like the joining, hand to hand, of two million people, I want to believe enough small things can make a difference.
This blog is part of series written by Kerry Hudson as she researches her new book, Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns.