Christmas Was Better in the 80s

(With apologies to The Futureheads)

This is the first year I’ve not put Christmas decorations up. I don’t hate Christmas, in fact I love it. As a child I adored the time of year. My birthday is two weeks before Christmas so the whole month of December would be an exciting time for me. I loved the cold crisp winter air and seeing random lights punctuate the darkness. Christmas in my house felt like something which had to be prepared for so I’d have a good run up of enjoyment; starting with an advent calendar, which in early years would have carefully illustrated pictures behind each door before evolving into ones with a slightly wonky festive design rendered in cheap chocolate.

My mum would make a Christmas Cake every year, it would be made weeks in advance and ceremoniously unwrapped at intervals so it could be fed brandy. She also made Christmas puddings which would be in china basins with muslin cloths before being steamed for hours. It took her years to secure the family recipe from my paternal grandmother but she eventually got it and I’d know Christmas was approaching when I’d see a tin of Mackesons stout in the kitchen and the biggest mixing bowl come out.

I was educated at two church schools so Christmas was always surrounded by carols which I found I liked more that Christmas pop — although I’d never admit that at the time. Away in Manager will still make me cry if I hear children sing it and my favourite carols (Hark The Herald and O Come All Ye Faithful) make the inside of my chest swell with a feeling I can’t describe. My senior school was attached to a cathedral sized church in a city centre so our carol services were immense and as a trumpeter I got to play alongside school mates who were from the Sally Army. Some Salvation Army kids learn brass instruments from a young age and absolutely rock at it so performing with them was always such a buzz.

The power of that music in such a huge space was at times overwhelming.

My Dad worked abroad a lot but just like Chris Rea he was always home for Christmas. We’d go out and select a real Christmas tree from the fruit and veg shop in the village and then he’d spend an inordinate amount of time engineering a way for it to stand just right in the bucket. He’d take a similarly long time to put the lights on so my sister and I would have to wait (im)patiently to do our bit. Once we were allowed to put the decorations on my Dad would put on a vinyl recording of Dylan Thomas reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales and we’d hang decorations whilst silently listening, my sister making sure she put a few chocolate novelties right at the back of the tree so we could sneak them off at our leisure.

By time time I was 20 I was living 170 miles away and was with the man who would be my partner for 19 years. We did some Christmases at my parents’ house but soon realised it was fun to find our own way. Some of my family traditions carried over; I always made a Christmas Cake (but never Christmas puddings which seemed a bit like witchcraft to me), Dylan Thomas was always on the CD player and when we did the decorations there were always a few tree novelties hidden near the back. I also went to church and those carols and hymns still retained their power with their descant lines never leaving my heart. I also started a few of my own traditions including making batches of Christmas Rocky Road and Peanut Butter Cups to share with friends and colleagues. They are only ever made once a year without exception.

Flat lay image of ingredients for Christmas Rocky Road; amaretti biscuits, chocolate, glace cherries, brazil nuts, golden syrup, marshmallows, butter and edible glitter.

I started my own collection of Christmas table cloths, crockery and decorations and if anyone I knew was alone at Christmas they were welcome at my home. One year when I was in my early 20s my husband’s best friend had his car stolen so he couldn’t get to see his family. I invited him over for Christmas Day and he stayed three days. In 2005 I had a child. We did one or two Christmas Days at my parents’ but then decided it felt far more special for her to wake up in her own house on the big day and we could go to see family after.

We moved into our ‘forever house’ in 2012 and Christmases started including a visit to Booths early on Christmas Eve morning to pick up the meat and trimmings I’d ordered. In the day my daughter and some of the kids from the road would hang out and make preparations for Santa’s visit and one year I made a short film about their Christmas plans.

Then we’d go to the late afternoon Crib Service which was packed with kids and their parents from our village. When you walked home in the dark it felt like Christmas had started. It was all absolutely magical.

In 2016 it all went away. About halfway through the year my husband told me he’d found someone else he wanted to be with so that year I lost the forever home, my marriage, my small family and even our dog. Seven months after my husband had left me, and two months after our divorce had been granted, he took our daughter and his new girlfriend to the crib service and I spent my first Christmas Eve alone.

It’s never easy working out how to co-parent over Christmas. My ex-husband’s workplace shuts down over the festive period so it seemed sensible for him to have our daughter on Christmas Eve and for me to volunteer to work over the holidays so my colleagues could take time off. This is an arrangement that has never changed. Both our families live at other ends of the country so going away isn’t really an option as our daughter quite reasonably wants to see both of us on Christmas Day. The first year post divorce I took my daughter down South to my family on Boxing Day for a few days but the following year it was my ex-husband’s turn and he took her on Christmas Day afternoon and I spent 10 days over Christmas completely alone — and whilst I got through it I knew I never wanted to do that again.

Outdoor Christmas decoration showing the word Merry appearing behind a large and high concrete wall.

The year I got divorced it soon became apparent that I couldn’t look after our dog on my own because of my long work commutes and the sudden lack of another adult being around. The dog was clearly unhappy so I reluctantly rehomed her with a pre-vetted family on a Saturday morning a few weeks before Christmas. After our dog was collected my daughter and I went into town and bought a twig tree and the most ugly, unchristmassy baubles we could find. It made a horrible day slightly more bearable.

I told my friends that my daughter and I had come up with UnChristmas. She’d do the full traditional thing with her Dad and UnChristmas with me. We developed it each year and we quickly stopped having the Booths roasts in favour of curries, steaks and Chinese food for Christmas dinner. Our decorations embraced the ridiculous and absurd and everyone thought what we were doing was a triumph.

It kind of was in a way; it was fun for both of us but I also think it was the actions of someone whose heart was completely broken. Someone who had lost something they loved very deeply inside and which had always felt part of them.

Quirky glass baubles on a white backgound in various shapes including a robot, a rocket, a soy sauce bottle, a slice of bacon and a microphone.

Most Christmases for me work like this now: Christmas Eve on my own. Christmas morning on my own. Christmas Day afternoon with my daughter. And now increasingly my daughter finds other things to do over the days following Christmas. She’s in her late teens now and last year she spent half a day with me and the rest of the time either with her Dad and his partner, or with her boyfriend.

During the pandemic year when no one was allowed anywhere I (legally) went to my support bubble’s house (remember them?) which was the first year I’d spent Christmas morning with anyone for years. Whilst it was nice, the morning started off with my support bubble’s house mates calling him into the living room for presents and stockings. I wasn’t included because I didn’t live there and so I sat in the spare room next door listening to the laughter of people exchanging and opening presents and I didn’t actually receive a present at all that day. It was an exceptionally odd experience and I’ve since talked to my counsellor about how sad I’ve felt when I’ve not received any presents on Christmas Day (it’s happened twice in the past seven years). I feel a sense of shame about being bothered about having presents to unwrap but my counsellor assures me that liking having presents isn’t a bad thing (and she told me she loves getting them).

This year I agreed to co-run the Christmas weekend away with the National Trust volunteering group I am part of which took place at the start of December. Inside I was absolutely thrilled to be able to do it. It involved me and a co-leader shopping for and preparing an entire weekend of meals for 13 people at just £15 a head, including a full Christmas dinner with two extra guests. I embraced the task like a woman who has just been released from a long stretch in Christmas prison. I made two types of festive bakes and a Christmas Cake, I made homemade decorations, I prepped things for others to craft into decorations at the bunkhouse, I brought my array of table cloths and table runners and my entire basket of decorations. I made place settings, table presents and a festive playlist on my phone. I wrote Christmas cards for everyone and my co-leader organised a Secret Santa.

And then whilst all the volunteers were out working in woodland on the Saturday, we made Christmas dinner for them all, beginning with mulled wine and ending with flaming puddings. I then delivered the pub quiz I had written which everyone really enjoyed despite some very obscure questions on my part. I saw everyone having a lovely time and it was lovely because I was having a lovely time too.

That weekend I shone.

Part of a long table laid for Christmas meal with a red table cloth, place mats and Christmas crackers.

Since my autism diagnosis nearly two years ago I’ve been learning a lot about myself. I’ve learnt that I don’t mind spending some time on my own but I don’t do well living on my own and whilst I can’t change this situation it’s really not ideal at all for my mental health. I’ve also learnt that in some situations I can shine when I’m doing something I’m really passionate about. It could be talking about my work or taking photos, or it could be entertaining people for Christmas. I’ve also learnt that when these things are taken away from me I really, really struggle.

This year is the sixth year out of seven that I will have woken up in an empty house on Christmas Day.

(And at the time of writing tomorrow is my birthday but the postal strikes have meant that I’ve not received any of the cards or presents sent to me by my family).

In the past I have tweeted and been open about spending Christmas alone and how that isn’t really anything I particularly enjoy. I have however embraced and celebrated UnChristmas as a way of making the best of what you have and I have shared my learnings about how to cope if the Christmas you get isn’t the Christmas you want. I’ve tried to be practical, pragmatic and generally upbeat so others who have the odd unexpected Christmas without the people they want around them can take heart.

But each year it gets harder and harder for me and this year I’ve struggled to keep going. In October I adopted a rescue dog. I’d thought about it a lot over the past two years but didn’t want to commit until I knew how my future working pattern would pan out. I made the decision to do it because ongoing working from home means I’m around enough to look after her but also because I am very worried about waking up on Christmas Day alone again this year. And before you say it, I know she’s not just for Christmas. She’s made me leave the house for long walks in the fresh air every day that I’ve been with her, even when I’ve been feeling very low.

A friend has suggested that if this Christmas is a write-off then I should spend it working out how to make next year different. As an autistic woman I find making friends very difficult and I genuinely don’t know how have a Christmas where I’m around people. Everyone who knows me well knows how chronically lonely I am, but everyone also has their own lives to live. I don’t own a car and I need to be in or near my home town on Christmas Day so my daughter can see everyone she needs to see but I’ve also got to the point where seeing Christmas happening around me and not being included in any of it is making me feel like I don’t exist or matter.

I know there will be plenty more people out there who have Christmases like me but it’s very hard to be open about how painful this time of year can be when everyone around you is in their gangs having fun. It’s often easier to stay away from Instagram and pretend that everything’s fine.

I’m afraid this is an article with no answers and I don’t know whether that means there aren’t any for me right now or if I’ve just not found them yet even though I’ve been searching for a few years. At least I’ve been completely honest about it now… And if you’re alone this Christmas, you’re not alone in that.



Media Archivist and Researcher | Freelance Photographer | Tech Lover | #ActuallyAutistic | Writing mainly about autism and mental health.

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Miss Emma Gibbs

Media Archivist and Researcher | Freelance Photographer | Tech Lover | #ActuallyAutistic | Writing mainly about autism and mental health.