’Tis the season to be merry! To race around the shops, or the internet, buying your loved ones presents. To blow up the family WhatsApp group with plans and promises of who’ll bring what. To Instagram pictures of your tree while getting stuck into the Baileys.
Except life isn’t a Hallmark movie and some of us will be dreading Christmas – particularly the perennial water-cooler question: “Are you going home for Christmas?” That well-intentioned query that implies that we all have a home – and, indeed, a family – that we’d want to return to.
I estranged myself from my parents over a decade ago, in my mid-twenties, when I finally understood that our relationship was beyond repair. That I would not be able to live a stable, happy life it I didn’t take that final step. It was one of the hardest times of my life. I had effectively lost my parents – and all that that entailed, both good and bad – but I didn’t feel entitled to grieve or to ask for support.
I know first-hand how isolating and painful this time of year can be, so it was no surprise to me that a report, published by Cambridge University and estrangement support charity StandAlone, found that 90% of the estranged people they surveyed found Christmas to be the hardest time of year. Perhaps this is inevitable when every film, every advert, every magazine article seems to reinforce the idea that how you are living your life is wrong. More shocking is that the charity’s earliest research implied at least five million people in the UK have made the choice to no longer be in contact with a member of their family, so go through this every year.
I always knew that I was not alone, but I never imagined there might be quite so many of us. It made me wonder now how many people I have met in my life might have been going through a version of my own seasonal hell themselves. I have stopped lying about my situation now and I cannot tell you the relief I feel, and the kinship when someone tells me they too have made that difficult decision. That, yes, Christmas without family might be painful, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than Christmas with them.
When asked over the years about where I’d spend Christmas, I always stuttered out vague answers and eventually found it so uncomfortable that I simply started lying. The truth seemed like an impossible taboo to break, even with people I considered friends. Family estrangement is all too common, but very rarely spoken about. For most people, it’s an extremely painful, but absolutely necessary, decision, but one that still comes with a sense of shame or stigma, no matter how valid the reasons. That was the case for me anyway.
On the few occasions that I risked honesty and explained my situation, I was frequently met with horrified disbelief: “It can’t be that bad? Come on – blood is thicker than water,” or, “But Christmas is time for family. Don’t you feel like getting in touch?” As though a date in the calendar, a tin of Quality Street and some tinsel could fix the unfixable. Far worse, though, were those who responded kindly but with embarrassment or pity, forcing me to jolly up my lonely Christmas for their sake.
One of my happiest Christmases was spent frying myself a big steak in a Buenos Aires apartment while listening to true-crime podcasts
The thing about Christmas is that it highlights everything you do and do not have. The Christmases of my childhood were not just about excitement, but the money worries, the conspicuous absence of other family or friends, and mum’s desire to make good on nothing. This created a volatile Christmas cocktail that, in our house, resulted in bursts of joy and small, domestic, wine-fuelled explosions. Crying and plate-smashing. Everything upended, then put shakily back together half an hour later in time for the Queen’s speech.
In my late teens, I decided I hated Christmas, that memories of stomach-twisting anxiety superseded my memories of wrapping paper and visits to Santa. Then I fell in love and decided that perhaps it was safe enough to celebrate with my new partner and her warm, open family, and started to enjoy it a little.
After we split in my early thirties, I often had invitations to friends’ families and I did try a few times – but I found that being around another family, feeling out of place and too eager to please, was exhausting and made me feel sad. It would take me until New Year just to recover. Besides, I wasn’t an orphan; I had a family – just an incredibly complex one.
Eventually, I did find ways to make it work. I spent them alone, doing exactly what I wanted: eating sausages and mash on a houseboat I rented on the Thames, bingeing on a This Is England box set, taking a long cycle ride through the deserted streets. One of my happiest Christmases was spent frying myself a big steak in a Buenos Aires apartment while listening to true-crime podcasts. My one rule was to never drink a drop, lest booze swell my own emotional overspill.
I’m married now and my husband and I will stay home and eat our way through a lot of cheese and I’ll Skype my godkids. I’m grateful for our Christmases together and new, happy memories: our first, baking a pumpkin pie in a saucepan lid in a tiny, borrowed Highgate studio with no kitchen; our second, running out into the sea in Lisbon after coffee in bed; and, this year, slow dancing to White Christmas in Tesco’s veg aisle. But, truly, I’m even more grateful for those hard Christmases spent learning to find happiness for myself and realising the strength that could be found by living on my own terms.
Those years alone have been a gift that keeps on giving. I hope that, if you’re not with your family this year, you know you are not alone at all and that one day you might look back on these Christmases with real happiness and gratitude.