I spell Xmas with two exes.
Friends invariably find my Christmas arrangements extraordinary. Both my son’s father (from whom I am long divorced) and my ex-partner (from whom I separated two years ago) spend the two days of ‘Christmas proper’ at my house.
My ex-husband no longer lives locally. Our son was very young when we separated, and it became a verbal contract that, for as long as he wished, he would not be denied Christmas with both parents. The days of Sean rising before daylight to rip open and summarily discard Santa’s bounty may now be gone, but this family time still matters to him. And so, our atypical Christmases continue.
We are able to do this because my ex-husband’s new partner is admirably accommodating of his desire to spend Christmas with Sean. My ex-partner, with whom I now enjoy a robust if frequently fractious friendship, remains single like me, so can choose to still spend December 25th with us. Crucially, he has always got on well with my ex-husband. In fact, his presence can help keep the atmosphere breathable for me when the four of us are under one roof.
For the last couple of years, Mum’s physical and mental frailty have prevented my parents from joining us. This was poignant in 2020, as it was the first Christmas in half a century (!) that I had not spent with my Mum & Dad. Ours being a family of snug proportions (I am an only child of only children), their absence was cavernous.
This year, however, I felt a sense of relief at our little group of four-plus-dog. No awkward elbow-knocking around the not-quite-big-enough kitchen table. No Dad bent grimly to the task of chewing through his festive fodder, his dislike for mealtime conversation casting an anxious, flitting shadow over proceedings. No Mum gazing in mild despair at underdone sprouts as they fail to yield under repeated prodding, then in open disdain at my ex-husband – whom she has never quite forgiven for addressing her in an impatient tone during a long-ago family holiday. It doesn’t take much to offend my Mum. Now she has Alzheimer’s, of course, she may no longer recall an affront suffered on Anglesey in 2011…
This Christmas was an altogether simpler affair. In previous years, I would retreat to the kitchen to escape the crush in my tuppence-sized living room. That I welcomed the distraction of cooking “The Dinner” speaks volumes. I bloody hate cooking, but the dynamics of several complicated relationships squashed onto one sofa was too much for me. I had to forfeit time with my son in order to gain some head space.
This time around, the living room was mercifully free of untidy towers of freshly unwrapped tat. We had space to flex our elbows with abandon around the table. And who knew that frozen vegetables and ready-made trifle are perfectly acceptable for Christmas dinner? I spent minimal time in the kitchen on December 25th, and rather a lot of time in my favourite chair with a glass of Merlot and a marvellous book.
Contained within an hour’s morning visit, time with my parents was a pleasure. My Dad reminisced fondly about his childhood Christmases, and how they explain his love of L.S. Lowry paintings. I’d never before considered the link, never questioned why he fills the bungalow with coasters, calendars and canvases of those famous matchstick people thronging red-bricked streets. Perhaps it is natural for there to be a certain uninquiring passivity in our relationship with our parents.
Dad was in an uncharacteristically garrulous mood and talked about his aunt’s terraced house in the back streets of Manchester: privy out back, waste ground beyond, and a towering gasworks chimney opposite. Every Christmas Eve, he and his parents would catch the train there, over the Pennines from Sheffield. Such happy Christmases, he recalled. It was a joy to listen. It was a huge relief to see him smiling.
For two days, then, I felt quite at ease in my Christmas bubble. There was no need to face anything unpleasant, no guilt at eating Cadbury Heroes for breakfast, no excruciating faux-jollity.
Having my ex-husband in my home is not without tension – we are exes for a reason, after all. Like metal, our personalities turn brittle under the high pressure and low temperature of our proximity. The caveats are so numerous, they fairly clatter and clang. Yet at the centre of the unwieldy contraption that has been our relationship over the years is our son, the pivot around which our arrangement turns.
I am fortunate. My marriage did not founder on lies or mistreatment. We were two people who tried, but were simply unable to be happy together. There is a saying which holds that couples who laugh together, stay together. Taken at face value, that could not be said of us – yet it is entirely thanks to that shared sense of humour that we can now share the same space, for the sake of our son. For as long as it needs to, the laughter chases away any lingering resentments.
Maybe friends are right to wonder if my boundaries are not being respected, if it is okay with me to let my past encroach on my present in this very tangible way.
The truth is, I don’t want to judge its okay-ness or otherwise. I rarely see the world in black and white. For all the sparkle and colour, Christmas is a very grey area. It involves making the best of a less than ideal situation. Besides, in my heart I no longer celebrate Christmas. I honoured the Winter Solstice a few days previously by lighting a solitary candle on my kitchen table and sitting alone in its glow. That was my time. A few moments of perfect stillness in the dark.
So many people face far more challenging family dynamics at this time of year. With my peaceful ex-mas, I consider myself one of the lucky ones.