Christmas is about memories, of course, or at least Christmas essays like this one going back to Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales are about memories, the warmer and fuzzier the better, like a sweater against the chill. Christmas may be for kids, that old truism, but it's also for adults and our memories of our own childhoods.
Our traditions the same meal, the same decorations, the same gifts (socks again!), the same TV (the Queen, bless 'er!) are all efforts to hold on to the past, to deny the passage of time. It's deeply reassuring that everything is the same, and we work hard to keep it that way pulling out the old decorations, struggling to make the ancient lights light, the venerable plastic tree stand straight even while complaining that Christmas isn't as good as it used to be (too commercialised, no good films on the box, no snow!).
It can't be, of course. The Christmas we remember is every Christmas, the good bits at least, the best presents (my first Action Man), the best films (The Poseidon Adventure). This Christmas can't hope to compete with all those Christmasses past.
But all this ritual, this tradition, so blurs the distinction between one year and the next that it runs the risk of blunting our more particular Christmas memories. It's the difference between memory and nostalgia the former is specific, personal; the latter, general, generic in a way that allows it to be shared.
I've been thinking about Christmas memories lately because my young son is just starting to form his. This will be his fourth Christmas but it's the first year he's started to get excited about it, to know what's coming, because he remembers last Christmas. We're staying home for the holiday this year, not travelling to assorted family as usual, because we're hoping to establish a little tradition of our own.
When I told my mother this by way of explaining why we weren't coming to my parents for Christmas she was understanding. She and my father had decided not to go to my grandmother's for Christmas when I was three or four for the same reason, she said a little piece of family history I didn't know, didn't recall. It brought home to me the strangeness of these last few Christmasses with my son very vivid ones to me, that he'll never remember, and it made me think of my grandmother, my father's mother, with whom we spent my first few Christmasses in Wales (I literally had a child's Christmas in Wales, a couple in fact, yet can't recover a single detail of them).
My grandmother came to us for Christmas one year near the end of her life, in the midst of her own struggles with memory. She had Alzheimer's and had been in a hospital for a year or two at the time. My father brought her home on Christmas Eve, and for an evening at least, she was her old self, or close to it the tree, the cards, the tinsel, all of it I think somehow filling the gaps in her mind. But the next day the magic was all used up. Those vestigial memories of Christmas melted away. In confusion, she struck out. She waved a kitchen knife in my mother's face. And some time that afternoon my father decided to drive her back to the hospital early.
He asked me to go with him for fear she might try to open a door and leap out of the moving car. It was a terrible journey, through the late afternoon darkness, and in a pouring rainstorm, made all the more dreamlike by the absence of other cars on the roads. Nearing the hospital, my father must have hit a puddle, or drifted towards the edge of the road, because a sheet of white water flared up the side of the car, and my grandmother started screaming. Like a child, I might have said before I had a child, but now I'd say more like an animal in terror. She was saying something in Welsh, which I don't speak, and only later, after my father had led her back on to the ward, and come out to the car, did he tell me that she had been screaming about seeing Jesus Christ. That she thought he'd come for her.
It was the last time my grandmother left the hospital, though she lived there another 10 years, and in a sense her last Christmas, too. Which, is why, grim as it was, I want to remember it, because it was also my last one with her. None of us remember our first Christmas; many of us won't remember our last. In between, it's easy to recall the good times, the gifts, but memory itself is a gift, even the memory of what we lose.
Peter Ho Davies is the author of 'The Welsh Girl' (Sceptre)Reuse content