When Christmas is unbearably sad

ELLY VARRENTI
Last updated 10:54 23/12/2013
Sad woman

TOUGH TIMES: The author (right) with her sister.

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I have come to dread this time of year. As curmudgeonly as this sounds, please do read on and give me, and others like me a break. Please?

From the moment I see that first bit of tinsel perfunctorily adorning a shop window I panic. I cringe at the sweetly sketched bunch of holly atop my son's final school newsletter for the year. When someone inquires politely, 'And what are you doing for Christmas?' my heart catches.

It's not all bells and whistles, puddings and pressies, family and fun you know. For some of us this time of year is hard, really hard. For some of us whose families are, at worst irretrievably dysfunctional and at best, stoic and resourceful, this time of year throws into oh-so-high-holy-relief all that is damned sad and unfair.

But it's about the kids isn't it? It's for them we ruefully drag out the fake tree from under the house and discover that after a couple of Rieslings the infuriating task of unwinding miniature Christmas lights is not so grim an exercise in displaced anger after all.

And it's for the kids - my 11-year-old and my late-sister's 4-year-old - that my mum will still make her unsurpassable creme caramel and I will attempt a turkey stuffing.

I have even put up a festive-type arrangement on our front door. That's a first. I have sent a handful of Christmas cards - real cards, not weird virtual ones that sing and move - and have bought eight panettones and a case of Proseco for visiting friends, although they don't drop in nearly as much as I would like.

These days, dropping in unannounced is like dinner parties: passe. I love an open house. When did unscheduled hospitality get so problematic?

Our family is small now. Italians are meant to have extended, rowdy and magnanimous families but ours has become shrunken, disappointed and dispersed for one reason or another. I like a rowdy, peopled house. It's easier to dissolve loneliness and self-focus in a crowd and kids love benign chaos.

When I was a kid our family was bigger, looser and friendlier. You could get lost in all the food preparation, back-yard antics and relatives. I loved Christmas back then. But now I dread it.

When my sister got sick, any family get-together was a potential psychic bombsite. Her illness sometimes made her volatile and vile when family congregated. Such was her abjectness, her own feelings of lost-Christmas, because she used to love Christmas as a kid even more than I did.

We'd both wake up Christmas morning to fattened pillowcases at the end of our beds, full of stuff put there by Mum in dressing gown and slippers the night before.

We used to leave a biscuit and a glass of milk for Father Christmas and the biscuit would be gone but only half the glass of milk. Mum always hated milk so she must have swallowed hard that one night of the year just for us.

There were always books in our pillowcases, sure, but she used to mix them up with other exciting, useless stuff too.

My sister was generous with her gift giving. My neatly wrapped paperbacks and jars of hand cream always looked a bit inadequate by comparison. If she was going through a manic stage she used to spend lots of money on all of us and go about inadvertently ambushing Christmas again.

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But her acute political brain meant that even under the influence of prescribed (and non-prescribed) medications she could debate the best of them under the table. And her impersonations were sketch comedy gold, although they could dominate the rest of the day's less high octane proceedings.

Sometimes I'd drink more than usual to keep her close, while our mother would try hard to make things nice with her creme caramel and elegant table. My sister and I would end up laughing together a little too hysterically madly rolling cigarettes, huddled like naughty students beneath the garden brolly.

When my sister took her life three years ago it was like all fun had abruptly been decreed over and done forever.

How can we possibly celebrate anything, enjoy anything now that she is dead? Why bother going to the trouble of stuffing a bloody turkey, baking a freaking flounder or boiling a blasted pudding now that the worst has happened to my family. The worst has happened to a mother.

This year I have been convinced to take the boys to Christmas mass at our local church. The priest is a progressive, friends tell me, and apparently half the congregation don't believe in God but just go for the feeling of community and grace.

We will this year have a fully decorated, fully stuffed Christmas for the kids - and kind of for us too - because we have to. We must.

Anyway, I make a mean stuffing, that case of Proseco is top of the range and my 11-year-old is a fine comic impersonator, just like his auntie used to be.

- Daily Life

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