I know I’m not the only person who finds the weeks and days leading up to Christmas difficult. It amazes me that some people are in their absolute element organising, planning and carefully wrapping gifts weeks ahead of the big day.
I’d love to be that person but this year, once again, I’m chastising myself for being so rubbish at doing Christmas.
With just one week to go I’ve barely bought any presents, written not one Christmas card and as usual left everything to the absolute last minute.
I am a procrastinator and find planning anything very difficult. I just can’t grasp how to put things into a helpful, organised sequence of events. I live in the moment which sounds like a happy go lucky way to be, but it really isn’t and I’m constantly apologising for disappointing people.
But I do manage to decorate a tree; I love Christmas trees. I love their hopeful, optimistic promise of a happy new year and whenever I decorate a Christmas tree I’m transported back in time to my childhood.
Nostalgia strikes hard with its bitter sweet arrow to the heart.
Christmas triggers the pain of nostalgia like no other season for me. Anyone who grew up in a culture celebrating Christmas will have early memories of this event and the associated family traditions and trinkets.
Many of us will have inherited Christmas decorations and kitsch souvenirs from our parents; objects that somehow hold stories about our past. These often banal ornaments hold the narrative and the context of our own personal history and authentic past lives.
Each metonymic object is part of our own personal cabinet of curiosities – it’s an aide memoir that reminds us who we are and where we’ve been.
The objects we inherit from our past remain relatively unchanged over time – they may be a little frayed, faded, chipped or bashed about – but they’re inherently, atomically, the same thing that they’ve always been.
Unlike us. We’re not the same thing at all.
Our skin regenerates every 27 days, our bones regenerate every 10 years and our hair has a life span of 3-6 years depending on our gender.
This means that by the time we celebrate our 50th birthday we’ll have lived in over 600 different skins, grown 5 skeletons and brushed about 10 different heads of hair – all our own.
For a long time it was believed that the brain was one area of the body that couldn’t regenerate, that damaged brain cells simply die never to be replaced. But the good news is that simply isn’t the case- neurogenesis, the formation of new brain cells, is also ongoing throughout our lives. By the time you’re 50 you’ll have replaced all the neurons you were born with in your hippocampus – that’s the part of your brain involved with learning and memory.
So, unlike the baubles and other souvenirs that remain unchanged on our tree for years we’re more like a familiar Christmas carol sung by a thousand different choirs; always the same but somehow different.
I grew up with a mother who was born on Christmas day and she had the voice of an angel. She went to church to sing not pray, and Christmas carols were her favourite – she sung them all year round. So, as a child every Christmas morning was spent in church listening to the melancholic songs that made me feel sad and excited at the same time. I’d will myself to believe in Jesus, lip synching to the carols far too embarrassed by the sound of my own voice to actually join in. But I treasured this special time together; then we’d walk home to peel the potatoes.
Forward planning and the inability to understand time beyond now has always been problematic for me but it’s especially hard at this time of year. Expectations (mostly mine) are high and each passing year the bar seems to get raised another inch by subliminal forces. (mostly social media)
Christmas takes a lot of planning and action but it’s hard to take action when the thought of it makes your stomach churn and for me the anxiety begins on November 28th.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, before my mothers 50th birthday, she took her own life. Just like that she was gone and Christmas would never be the same.
The word, and presumably the concept, of nostalgia has its origins in Greek language; NOSTOS: a return, ALGOS: painful and it describes beautifully that painful sense of longing for the past.
The phenomena of nostalgia has been appropriated and exploited by 21st century advertisers keen to give our sensitive emotional interiors a sharp poke. We no longer have to wait years for an object to write it’s own narrative, we can simply buy into a marketing campaign and project someone else’s, more attractive, idea of Christmas onto it.
When the first two lines of ‘Oh Little Town of Bethlehem’ can reduce you to a sobbing wreck it’s difficult to sit through school nativity plays and advent spirals with any form of composure. But thanks to considerate marketing executives we no longer need to actually feel the pain of loss, we can just buy something that looks nostalgic and enjoy the aesthetic thus bypassing any need to mine our emotions or feel anything.
Sadly none of the Christmas decorations from my childhood have survived so now it’s simply the ritual of decorating a tree that’s symbolic. My memories are crystallised in the new baubles, angels and stars that dangle innocuously between the past and present symbolising both the pain of loss and my steely optimism for the future.
‘Oh Little Town of Bethlehem’ will be even more painful this year for different reasons but forever the irritating optimist I wish you all the very best this holiday season and into the new year!