Tis the Season to – panic! by Jessica Rydill
TW: Contains stuff about death, old people and Christmas!
Christmas is not my favourite time of year.
There are inherent problems with Christmas for me. I don’t like forced jollification of any kind, and am averse to taking part in things (though I want to be invited).
I think Christmas is the time when the contrast between reality (yes, you know the one I mean) and the dream/aspiration held out to us by advertisers/social media/the world is greatest.
There is this deeply seductive idea that the whole family, or friends and neighbours, will gather round the table in their beautifully decorated home and eat great food and talk and go for bracing walks in the countryside.
Nowadays, it is much clearer that the Christmas holiday can be exactly the reverse, with family rows, too much food and too much telly. Plastic toys underfoot and children squabbling.
For most of my life, I spent Christmas with my parents. Latterly, it turned into spending Hanukkah with my parents, which is a long story, but my mother returned to being a practising Jew and my father did his best to help out, though an atheist.
After I got married at the advanced age of 45, my husband moved in with me and my parents, and Christmas carried on. We spent Boxing Day with his parents. My sister came to visit with her grown-up family, and we saw my husband’s sister and her family.
And then people started dying.
To back-pedal a bit, Christmas had not been the same for a long time. I have had, as they say, mental health issues for most of my life. Christmas has often been a flash-point for getting ill in one way or another.
But things really went off big-time over Christmas 1986, when my grandmother was in hospital dying after having a massive stroke. We went in to see her in hospital on Christmas Day. My mother was so good. The rest of us were just reduced to silence, because there was nothing you could say. My grandmother died on January 7th 1987, and my mother fell apart.
I could say so much at this point, but I won’t. And I don’t mean that it’s wrong to celebrate, or have fun, or anything else. It’s the darkest time of the year and we need all the light we can get.
After that, my mother never really wanted to celebrate Christmas again. She did, because my sister’s children were young, but mother returned to her Jewish faith, and Hanukkah had more meaning for her.
A few decades on, it happened again. Christmas is the time when you notice that people aren’t there. And when it’s supposed to be a happy time, it’s difficult if an elderly person in your family happens to be dying. In the winter of 2009-10, my father-in-law died of a brain tumour, having had his end accelerated by the Liverpool Care Pathway, which turned out to be an inhumane form of euthanasia followed by hospitals and hospices often without consulting either the patient of the family.
And then my mother died.
It’s a horrible thing writing that. It’s a club that nobody wants to belong to. Over the past decade, except for those who lost their mothers at a young age, I’ve seen my friends joining it one by one.
Grief is awful. I remember the feeling of earth-shattering terror. You know in a profound way that nothing will ever be right again. Of course, it is far, far worse for parents who lose their children. But it’s difficult to describe the feelings, and ten years later I find it hard to put them into words.
But I understood why my mother fell apart. Everything has gone. And the familiar places in your home town seem empty of meeting, and a cinema audience full of old people can send you howling into the street.
I’m not kidding about the howling. There are some things which are too private to write about. And some people cry quietly, but it’s the same.
What bugs me is people who talk about Scrooge, or about “season of goodwill” and so-forth. If you’re not a Christian, Christmas is a secular thing. If you’re an Orthodox Jew, Christmas can be an occasion when you remember the pogroms in which your ancestors were massacred.
A secular Christmas is fine, but it shouldn’t be a stick with which to beat people. Any more than a Christian celebration should be used as a pretext for complaining about other faiths, or irreligious celebrations, or whatever.
I’m going to quote Blake. An old college friend used to cite this: “One law for the lion and the ox is oppression.” I used to think this a bit suspect, but I think all Blake is saying is that you can’t expect everyone to live the same way. Some of us are oxen.
And Christmas is a time that some of us look forward to with mixed feelings, including dread. Because it’s the time when we can’t help noticing who’s not around any more.
About Jessica Rydill:
Jessica Rydill is a British fantasy author from the West Country. She was born in 1959. She studied at King’s College, Cambridge and the College of Law, working as a solicitor for 13 years. Her travels in Israel, France, Eastern Europe and Southern Africa have provided some of the inspiration for her writing.
Her first novel, Children of the Shaman, was published by Orbit in 2001, and short-listed for the Locus magazine best first novel in 2002. A sequel, The Glass Mountain, appeared in October 2002. Both books have been reissued by small press Kristell Ink Publishing, together with sequels Malarat and Winterbloom.
Jessica lives near Bath with her husband and her collection of Ball-jointed dolls.
Visit Jessica’s web-site at www.shamansland.com