What I've learned from the ghosts of Christmas past

The tree is bought but not decorated. The first Christmas cards are ready to write. I am procrastinating by pondering how to create a Christian Christmas in a large, complicated family composed of lovely people of all the religions of the book, and none.

Like many people, as the preparations begin I return to the template of the amazing Christmases created by my own mother and father. There was a lot that was sad and troubled about our childhoods, because of the ravages of poverty and of serious mental illness. But Christmas was one of the things that was right. Every year it was amazing. This festival centred around the birthday of the holy child was a saving grace in many more ways than the obvious one.

PixabayChristmas can be bewilderingly complex.

On a clergy stipend, with a large family of five kids and countless dogs, cats, hairy Welsh ponies and a parrot to feed, we had almost no spare cash. Every part of a roast chicken was used in every possible way each Sunday through the rest of the year. One week, we even ate the pet rabbits. Somehow, though, money was always saved for Christmas, and presents for all of us, wrapped around a tree that was cut and gifted by a local farmer.

We would get up and consume the oranges and count the cash – one of every coin and a special sovereign in the year of the Queen's Jubilee that I still have – in our stockings that had been carefully put at the end of our beds in our shared rooms. Then we would wait. Yes, my parents were big on delayed gratification. First, there were not one, but two church services in my father's small, country parishes. Then we would get back and help my mother peel potatoes, lay the table, clean up and gallop those ponies that needed exercising around the stubbled fields next door, with the permission of the farmer of course. (In those days, ponies were not expensive to maintain. We often rode bareback, sometimes with halters only, and only wore hats after my sister and I nearly died from concussion. Our little herd actually made money for us by breeding incessantly.)

Finally we would sit down and tear through presents, which miraculously were always exactly what we each wanted. And then lunch. Christmas day was probably the only day in the year, through my entire childhood, when I did not feel hungry. Satiated like hardly ever before, we would then sit in front of the television and watch those wonderful shows – and laugh and cry and play charades and Monopoly. Then we would go to bed and count the days down to next year.

I would recreate all this if I could, but it would be impossible.

For a start, it would not be good to starve my family through the year, so everyone can better appreciate what it feels like to have a full tummy. And also, material goods are in such prolific supply that the incredible wonder of receiving something new, in a box, that is not second hand and has never been used or worn before, is impossible to recreate.

Likewise, the Book of Common Prayer is not really extant in our post-ASB culture, certainly not in this area of the Southwark diocese. Anyway, my husband and I will probably be the only people in our large family who would even be interested, if it was.

Yet there is much that can be done.

Our Christmas started two weeks ago, when one set of children, partners and grandchildren came over on the only day they could. It continues this week with more cups of tea and cakes with cousins, in-laws, steps and their partners. The tree goes up but few presents go around it. No-one seems that concerned with presents, although we give and receive small gifts of course. People seem more concerned with spending time together – time – the resource that in today's world is equivalent to what food and clothes and new toys were in my childhood.

Church is there still, but it is through school. The grandchildren love the Christmas services, the carols, the singing, the story of Jesus in the crib. And while not all the little ones go on Sundays, the Christmas spirit at school must be putting down roots of some kind of faith in a transcendent reality that will hopefully serve them well in adulthood at some point.

And children leave uneaten food on their plates. How is this possible?

Of course in years past, I have experienced my own share of those terrible Christmases punctuated by rows and despair, of unmet expectations and thwarted hopes. Of course I know that some, maybe many, will suffer such a time this year.

For example, from young adulthood I had two decades of being childless at Christmas. It was bad enough being childless through the year but being so at Christmas was especially painful. Going to church then was very difficult indeed and often I just could not do it. I found ways round it by spending the days with friends, or helping out at Christmas Day events for others in similar positions.

But for once I just wanted to dwell on the positives, from the glass-half-full perspective, made possible by having low expectations.

From our own, large, multi-faith extended family that goes across all the generations, from baby boomers to digital natives and beyond, my years of celebrating Christmas as an adult and a child have given me one certainty.

At the root of it is a story that even now, has the power to compel, fascinate and unite, to create a sense of grace and forgiveness that transcends the difficulties of the day, the fears of the year ahead and the disappointments of the year just gone.

And if I can manage to take the focus off myself, to continue to let go of the pain and suffering of the past, by focusing on this story, and on the human stories – and sometimes the ongoing suffering too – of family and friends, this Christmas can be another good one. We might have 'full tummies' these days, but spiritually, there is constant need for replenishment. And Christmas, even amid great difficulties in the world around, can still be a great opportunity to celebrate life, new and old – the wonder of seeing God in humanity, and humanity in God.

Ruth Gledhill is multi-media dditor of The Tablet and an editorial adviser to Christian Today. Find her on Twitter @ruthiegledhill