Louise O’Neill: The empty seat at the table becomes more apparent when everything else remains the same

Louise O’Neill: The empty seat at the table becomes more apparent when everything else remains the same

I estimate that this is the fourth Christmas column I’ve written for the Irish Examiner, and while I haven’t looked back at the others, I have a sneaking suspicion there are certain similarities between them all.

I can’t help the repeated rhapsodising — I really do love this time of year. I like the short evenings, the dark drawing close around your body.

I like a crackling fire and the kind of woollen knitted jumper which wouldn’t look out of place on a Swedish crime drama. I love a new winter coat, clear night skies scarred with stars, and frosty mornings, your breath smoking into the air like a dragon.

And I love Christmas. The yelps of ‘don’t come in!’ when my mother is wrapping presents, her arms half covered in sellotape and metallic bows.

Christmas Eve will arrive, and I’ll be dispatched to deliver presents to the neighbours, a bottle of whiskey for an elderly friend, a chat with a retired teacher about my career, a hug from my childhood best friend, her own children running around in circles, delirious at the thought of what Santa will bring the next day.

When I arrive home again, my mother and sister and I will change into matching festive onesies and eat some pâté (handmade by a good family friend) while we watch The Muppet Christmas Carol and wait for my father to finish work. (Only the butcher is as busy as Santa Claus on the December 24.)

The same ancient stockings are left out, even though both my sister and I are in our thirties now. We wish our parents a good night and tell them we’ll see them in the morning. It is, as the kids say, very wholesome.

I am lucky, I know. (Because of that, I try to give back — volunteering for, or donating to, my favourite charities.

This year, I will be supporting West Cork Women Against Violence, Alone, St Vincent de Paul, Cork Simon, and the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, amongst others, and I would encourage you to do the same if you can afford it.) I’m all too aware that Christmas is often a difficult time for many people.

It can be almost unbearable for those recently bereaved, or for those who are alone in the world. It is a terrible time, mourning the breakdown of a relationship you had such hopes for.

If you are estranged from family members or mired in toxic familial dynamics, the thought of spending a meal together must be exhausting, to say the least.

We know that incidents of abuse are heightened, exacerbated by excess drinking.

What of children growing up in homes where violence is prevalent, alcoholism and drug addiction, with little or no money to spare for toys? Or the children who are homeless, living on the streets or in shelters?

What about those in direct provision centres, so very far from their countries? The people who will spend Christmas in hospital, either because they are too unwell to return to their homes or because a loved one is? The parents staring at a shopping list with dread, wondering how on earth they are going to find the money to pay for it all? The desperation and fear and despair, all because of the pressure that Christmas be joyful, ‘it’s the most wonderful time of the year’, after all.

We’ve been bombarded for decades with films and songs and increasingly emotionally manipulative ads for department stores and as a result, we have certain notions about what Christmas ‘should’ be like. It’s disappointing when it doesn’t live up to those ideals.

Despite my aforementioned love for the festive season, there have been two years when I wished I could fall asleep at the end of November and awake in the New Year.

The Christmas of ’99, just two months after my uncle had died, was a quiet one. My sister refused to open her presents and my parents and I unwrapped our own in silence, murmured thank yous with each one.

I was thin, then. Not from starvation, as it would be in later years, but from a non- existent appetite. In a photo taken, I am pale, my shrunken body in pink gingham pyjamas, staring at the camera blankly.

Waiting for it to be over.

Seven years later, in 2006, I was in hospital with an eating disorder that December. The kindly attempts at jollity, the wilting tinsel draped across the nurses’ station and the old-fashioned carols on the intercom, only made me feel worse.

I can’t believe this is my life, I kept thinking, as I stepped on the weight scales to see if I’d be allowed home for a few days to see my family.

This Christmas will be the first one without my Grandmother. The first one without her smiling face, gamely attempting to pull crackers with my younger cousins.

The first one without a card under the tree, her careful handwriting on the envelope, a note tucked inside.

Now, with only four days to go until the day itself, I keep looking around me to find her, as if she is only hiding, as if this has all been a terrible mistake and of course she is coming back.

It seems inconceivable that she won’t be there, for she has always just been there.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote that, ‘the only constant is change’.

To live is to face change, whether positive or negative, and I’ve always believed that fighting it is a waste of energy.

But so much of Christmas is predicated on the idea of consistency — tradition, ritual, deeply engrained habits. It is a time of year where resisting change is not just expected, it is actually celebrated and because of that, it’s difficult to deal with grief, loss, the greatest transformation of all.

The empty seat at the table becomes even more apparent when everything else — the decorations, the music, the food — remains the same.

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