Having a German parent resulted in me having two Christmases each year when I was a child.
The first began with me shivering with excitement rather than cold during a family walk after dark on Christmas Eve. We returned to the festive chimes of our Weihnachtspyramide and warming smell of Adventskranz candles, and our large Nordmann fir, boughs heavy with homemade decorations, dropped needles that pricked through our socks, and nestled presents that we opened in delight in the coloured radiance of it’s tiny bulbs.
Feelings of gratitude and nostalgia are replaced with anger and aversion towards our second Christmas that began the next morning with a nauseous car journey to my grandparents’ house, where the order to stand during the Queen’s speech felt as dated as the decor.
The drinking would begin on arrival as if family engagement wasn’t possible without bottles of artificial happiness that my grandmother desperately tried to withhold. But even in her own home, she was disdainfully dismissed by misogyny and alcohol dependency and soon drunk and rowdy adults overshadowed everything.
Amongst the chaos, I unwrapped presents from those whose kindness towards me was dependent on my silence about my grandfather’s paedophiling, that glazed eyes failed, or didn’t want to see. The gaiety was as fake as the white, plastic Christmas tree sparsely decorated with baubles, that stood in the room where children were sexually assaulted.
After I disclosed my grandfather’s crimes against me, these extended family Christmases were replaced by smaller gatherings at home. But although the sexual assaults had stopped, the normalising and minimalising of them hadn’t.
The persistent, predatory paedophile, endearingly referred to as ‘fath’ or ‘the old man’ surfaced in anecdotes and conversations in my presence as if he hadn’t repeatedly violated me over many years. I gave up complaining as it elicited further abuse with comments like ‘it was a long time ago’ or ‘why are you so affected?’
Curiously, the German name for ‘grandpa’ had also migrated from the continent and had stuck firmly to the family nonce, so it was ‘Opa’ that appeared on the handset when he called with Christmas wishes. Although he was no longer welcome in our house, he was still very present.
One Christmas, worried that a close Kiwi friend would feel sad and lonely so far from his family, I invited him to celebrate with mine. His reply was transforming and liberating. Thanking me, he explained that he was looking forward to spending the day alone; he would go for a jog, treat himself to some nice food then settle down to watch movies. In fact, he was grateful that he wasn’t ‘having ten people over’ like some of his colleagues.
His words surprised me but shouldn’t have done. Because I’d spent many Christmases alone in a bare hotel room whilst travelling, without even a Christmas card to open and I hadn’t felt the least bit sad or lonely.
In fact, there were many things about Christmas that I really hadn’t missed; overeating utra-processed food that I’m unable to resist, the oversized paper hats sliding down my face adding to more cracker detritus destined for landfill, and especially the 70s Christmas hits blasting me back to an era of lax societal attitudes towards child sexual abuse.
This realisation released me from painful family Christmases and dragging decorations down from the loft to join many in my multicultural neighbourhood who don’t celebrate Christmas.
Although I used to have two family Christmases, I’d rather have none than be pathologised as if I’m the problem, have my feelings ignored as if I’m worthless, and my pain minimised so child sexual abuse can be conveniently swept under the carpet rather than holding anyone to account.
Like actors in the Christmas tv adverts, my relatives can pretend they’re a normal, happy family, but I’m not going to; jolly Christmas hats and jumpers don’t stop abuse.
As I’m now estranged from my family, a Christmas with them is no longer a choice. But as I always get appreciated invitations to spend the day with others, spending Christmas by myself is always a choice and something I’m quite happy to do.
Last year I spent Christmas alone but wasn’t alone in doing so; both of my neighbours made the same decision. But my isolation wasn’t due to me being worthless or too sensitive, but because I spoke out about abuse, held my head high and stuck to my principles. And I celebrated that.
I absorbed nature’s courage during an Arctic walk with my neighbour, nourished my body with wholesome foods the earth had grown for me, revelled in love and laughter during phone calls with friends, and basked in the purity of clear bath water. By rejoicing in my tenacity and drawing on the paramount strength of the truth, I could delight in the warm security of my heavy duvet at the end of a happy Christmas.