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Lying back into Steve’s arms, listening to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes around a beach fire as new and dear friends danced around in the sand under the starry sky, I smiled and started to think that perhaps Christmas could be okay again.
Then, out of the shadows, appeared a girl crying to one of our friends: “You have to come, quickly, your dog just killed another dog.” The animal I had been stroking just moments before had attacked a holidaymaker’s pet. It died on its owner’s leash. Chaos ensued, tears were shed, and the owners decided to use the beach fire as a pyre for their deceased pet.
Together we built up the flames, and the party became a funeral. For me, this wasn’t the first time that death had come at Christmas. Just three years ago, my Mum died on Christmas Day after years struggling with MS and repeated chest infections. Three weeks later, my Nan died too. The holiday season passed in a blur of tears, heartache, exhaustion and despair. It was the year it snowed heavily in England and while everyone played, I swept the street so the hearse could reach my home.
The following year, as Christmas approached, tunes played and decorations appeared whole months before the day –every bauble and festive scene a reminder of the previous year’s pain. Grief is always present, whatever the time of year, but those days of celebration – birthdays, successes, weddings and anniversaries – have a way of heightening the sorrow.
The big day
Christmas has always been a big deal in my family. My Mum was the youngest of six and every Christmas Eve for as long as I can remember, the whole family has gathered at Nan’s house to exchange gifts and celebrate the holiday together. It’s always been my job to dress as Mother Christmas and distribute the presents from around the tree. I couldn’t be there in 2009, but I went back the two years since – my Mum, Dad and Nan’s absence felt heavily in the heart. There are lots of children in the family so the mood was lifted by their joy, but it can never be quite the same.
This year I decided to stay away for Christmas – partly due to financial reasons, but also to try something different – to take a break from the traditions that no matter how enjoyable in the present will always be laden with loss.
Christmas in San Pancho
Two weeks before the day, a Christmas tree appeared in the plaza next to where I teach yoga. Gratefully, I realized the festive season had arrived weeks, rather than months, ahead of time. Steve and I had originally planned to spend it alone, perhaps treating ourselves to a luxurious stay on a tropical beach, sipping cocktails in a jacuzzi, but in the end we stayed in San Pancho – a place that’s quickly become a home. We’ve been in the village a month and already feel part of the community. The shopkeepers know our names and friends pop round daily. We even have a dog that likes to come and say hello.
Among our friends, we have the most chairs so it was decided that Christmas would be celebrated at our house with a pot luck lunch and secret santa exchange. What started as nine eventually became 30 and our roof terrace was filled with smiling faces, great food and a statue of baby cheeses.
Although I thought of Mum and Skyped with family, the sun and situation meant that Christmas became something different that day. None of us had our parents with us, our personal traditions were far away, and instead we were enjoying new connections and creating something fresh. It was unrecognizable from any other year.
The best Christmas yet?
Many people who joined us declared it their best Christmas yet, even with the exclamation mark of the dog’s funeral at its end. For me, I could never say that. It was one of the best days I’ve ever had but Christmas abroad felt incomparable to Christmas at home – they are totally different things. It’s what I needed this year and I enjoyed it wholeheartedly, but I won’t be missing the festivities at home all the time – no matter how painful the memories can be.
Ultimately, I was bought up to see Christmas as a time of family. Despite my parents and my Nan having passed, many members still remain. It’s hard for all of us, missing those who aren’t there, but we support one another and, like every other day, try not to dwell too much in grief. My Mum suffered with her illness for a long time, but she was never one to complain. She would smile and say things like “at least I’m not in a war zone”. Similarly, I may have difficult associations with Christmas, but at least I had an amazing Mum who taught me how to deal with that.
Life can’t exist without death, and that final breath can come at any time. It’s our job to make sure we ensure the ones we do have are worthwhile.
For Mum, who continues to inspire me every day.