Mum has always hated Christmas. The excess of it, the surprises, the people we are expected to see, the mess, the noise . . .
For most of our adult lives, my sister and I have not been able to understand her attitude towards it. Why, for example, would she insist on calling at the beginning of September to ask us our plans? Why would she need to know that early on precisely where we would be convening and who would be invited? Why would she need to know exactly what we, our partners and our children wanted as presents?
‘Don’t tell me!’ I would blurt out, trying to interrupt her before she reeled off a list of the gifts that were all ready, wrapped and waiting in her wardrobe before the first leaves had fallen from the trees.
As children, my sister and I would be shielded from much of Mum’s festive-based anxiety. We spent Christmas either down the road from us at our grandparents’ house, or at our uncle’s. Mum was presumably thus spared much of the shopping and cooking and decorating and anything else that caused her stress.
Looking back, Mum is almost invisible in my early childhood Christmases. I remember playing games and watching Morecambe and Wise in my grandparents’ sitting room. I remember the tree, dug from the garden every year, sitting in its pot, covered in coloured lights and tinsel. I remember my uncle wearing silly Christmas hats. I remember him and my dad telling jokes and doing their Goon Show routine as they did the washing up together. I remember the meal around the dining table, its size struggling to cope with the extra people and food. I remember my cousins arriving when I was 7 and 9 years old, adding an extra layer of excitement to the anticipation of Christmas. And I remember the table eventually admitting defeat as we and our cousins grew bigger and the four of us took up as much place and food as our parents and grandparents. That was when we decamped to my uncle’s much larger house near Winchester.
My aunt always loved Christmas. In temperament at least, she was Bob Crachit to my mother’s Scrooge. She was an only child, and freely admitted that she was making up for her own childhood in the Christmases she now hosted. Christmas to her meant fun and noise and laughter and lots and lots of people. It meant dressing up for a lavish Christmas Eve supper. It meant a house decorated in every room, Christmas music playing and the largest tree I had ever seen. It meant ‘tree presents’ as well as ‘main presents’, midnight mass in the local cathedral, and food, glorious food. If there weren’t enough beds for everyone, beds were found or made up out of whatever was available. We played charades, went for long, frosty walks with their dog, watched films on the big TV in the converted attic room and we drank champagne long before we were legally allowed to.
And Mum could not cope with any of it.
My happy reminiscences of time with my cousins is marred by memories of my mother’s black mood which would usually kick in some time late on Christmas afternoon. I have no doubt that an excess of alcohol was the trigger, but it was a mood which had been cooking slowly along with the turkey since our arrival on Christmas Eve. No one was ever prepared for the explosion; either for what would cause it or how it would be manifest. One year it was simply the fact that my aunt had cooked ‘too many potatoes’ which then built to a full-blown rant on how my aunt ‘always did everything to excess’. Another year it might have been a rage over something that was happening on the political stage, prompted by an innocent opposing point of view from someone else in the family. It could also have been the simple case that my aunt, unlike my father, grandparents and uncle, had not spent years living alongside my mother, and therefore had not understood that the best path to take was often the one of least resistance. In any case, we were in her house, so why should she put up with my mother’s behaviour? And so the rows between Mum and my aunt usually escalated, scattering the rest of us to the four corners of the house to play with presents, watch telly, wash up or nap until the storm had passed.
As my teenage years progressed, I became more and more acutely aware of the effect of Christmas on my mother. It was a flashpoint in the year that I came to dread. Her depression would kick in around the time my sister and I went back to school and would darken and deepen along with the shortening days. By Christmas she was often stuck in a mire of misery that no amount of coaxing could shift. Until a match was struck and the rage was lit.
As adults, my sister and I tried to make things right. We invited everyone to our own homes, taking it in turn every year to have our parents for the Christmas period. But this seemed to make things worse, particularly if we introduced new ‘traditions’ or cooked food in an unexpected way. We grew to dread having our parents for Christmas and would phone each other after every visit for a post mortem, tallying off the latest transgressions and disasters.
The last time I had my parents to my house for Christmas, Dad was already very tired from managing Mum and was complaining of a sore leg. They both had chest infections. Mum was on antibiotics and obsessing over what time to take them, following me around like a lost puppy, whining and complaining and driving me mad. It was not a good time. It was, however, a million miles away from what lay ahead. Unbeknownst to all of us, we were about to enter the most frightening time of our lives. Mum was sliding towards a period of high anxiety which would lead to a diagnosis of psychosis and subsequent admittance to a mental health wing. And Dad was brewing a hideous form of cancer in his leg which would eventually claim him.
Last year was our first Christmas without Mum and Dad. Dad had passed away that summer. My grandparents are long gone and my aunt passed away unexpectedly six years ago. And Mum had already firmly turned her back on the world by then. Christmas is now a non-event, something she can choose to ignore. She stays in her room, as she does every day, and waits for it to pass.
I understand now that Christmas, for a person with Asperger’s, is something close to experiencing all their worst nightmares at once.The excess of it, the surprises, the people we are expected to see, the mess, the noise . . .
The irony is, Christmas in my house is no longer the noisy, surprise-filled occasion it once was. I have teenagers who sleep in and are no longer so enamoured with playing charades. It is a far more predictable event: a time for hibernation, reading and long walks.
Mum would probably prefer it.