I’ve never really been a very festive person, not in the traditional sense anyway. For starters, I grew up in Nigeria. Pine trees don’t grow in tropical countries, the closest thing to snow was the frosting in freezers and it’s practically impossible convincing a kid that Santa exists in a world with no chimneys. The traditional western Christmas only existed in TV and Christmas card illustrations. We had our own Christmas traditions. An annual trip to the village my father grew up in, Christmas barbecue and fireworks, lots of fireworks. For as different Christmas for me growing up was to Christmas for me today in the UK, one thing stays a common thread for both myself and anyone else celebrating the festive season around the world: Family.
No Christmas traditions, western, Nigerian or otherwise, mean anything without family. Nothing is or has ever been more important to me than my family. They are my primary reason for existing. Seeing any of them smile fills me with joy and knowing any of them may be anything less than happy absolutely breaks my heart. I literally live my life so my family can enjoy theirs. The exact specifics of why our families/loved ones are important to us individually will differ for each person on the planet but the end result is the same. The whole reason the experience of celebrating the end of the year is so powerful in our consciousness as a society is the fact that it’s an experience we share with our family and loved ones. Well apparently, not if 2020 has anything to say about it… at least in the UK.
This year has already tested our limits psychologically, emotionally and intellectually. The prospect of a “normal Christmas” already seemed bleak months before anyone had even considered putting up a Christmas tree. As the UK began showing signs of a second wave of Covid 19 and a month-long “soft lockdown” being deemed necessary, Christmas celebrations began to look like an unaffordable luxury. And then it happened: The illogical but hope-inducing announcement that families would be allowed to celebrate the days before and after Christmas together. Strict restrictions would still be in place but it was enough to uplift the spirits of a whole nation. Like many others, for me, it marked the first time I would be able to see some of my family in a year, and I began uncharacteristically getting excited about Christmas decorations, wrapping paper and roasted turkey. Then just as quickly as that euphoria had been sparked, it was abruptly snatched away. Apparently, the risk was indeed too great after all to have the relaxed restrictions over the Christmas period, and in fact, further, more intense restrictions were imposed on a third of the country. The cynical, logical parts of my brain tried to focus on how we’d all been scammed into spending as much money as humanly possible on a Christmas we now weren’t allowed to have. But what really hit me was the stark realisation that I would most likely be spending Christmas alone for the first time in my life. All my plans for the holidays had been hinged on only one thing: I would be spending Christmas with my family like I did every year. But aside from my uncle, none of my family lives locally to me and the restrictions for the Christmas period meant it would be unfeasible or even bordering on illegal to do the one thing that is guaranteed to give me joy: spending time with my family. And for the first time all year, every painful, frustrating, stressful and emotionally tasking thing I had fought so hard to keep at bay came pouring out. I had survived the year on the basis that when all this madness was said and done, I would get to see my family again. And because of this, the only time I let my guard down was for the hope that I’d get to see them a little earlier for Christmas. Big mistake. In all of 2020, nothing regarding this stupid pandemic had brought a tear to my eye. On Saturday the 19th of December, at approximately 9:30 PM, I put the phone down on the last family member I needed to cancel Christmas plans with, shut the door to my office and cried till I ran out of energy. I then went to bed in the hope I’d sleep off whatever pain was left and wake up ready to start putting it all behind me like I always do. But this wasn’t over.
I woke up the next day, went through my morning routine as normal and ended up at my desk ready for the day. Slowly I realised I’d completely forgotten a whole part of my family. I’d been so emotional about my first family, I forgot about my new family. My fellow brothers and sisters with long-term injuries, lifelong conditions and the other “vulnerable” people with whom I share so much in common. The people who would be most affected by the sudden increase in restrictions over the time of the year most prominently dedicated to just being with those you love. I normally don’t like people looking at my life situation and telling themselves “if he can go through that, I should have no complaints about my situation”. But now the shoe was on the other foot. Thinking of those who would be hit much harder by these restrictions forced me to re-evaluate what my situation really was. It wasn’t a case of “Their problems are worse than mine so I shouldn’t complain about my problems”. That’s what I don’t like other people doing with me. It was more “If I can accept some situations are worse than mine, then surely I have things to celebrate that people in those situations don’t”. So, I acknowledged everything that had upset me so much and accepted them as things I shouldn’t take for granted going forward. But then, also acknowledging everything I needed to celebrate and not take for granted right this moment. All of a sudden, not having my family around turned from a horrible situation to simply a different situation. Not being able to celebrate the holidays like I had planned provided an opportunity to try and celebrate them in a different way. Because, I have care staff who would be around and one family member who lives locally, so I wasn’t actually going to be alone, just with different people from what I’d planned. Christmas was still going to be on the same day regardless. And gifts could still be exchanged. So, I decided to make lemonade. I just had to figure out a way to enjoy Christmas with the people I do have around. Before I knew it, I had made a very different and unconventional plan for how my Christmas Day would go. I could very well have just decided to just pretend it was any other day and just been fine with that. But I’ve learnt over the years not to pass up opportunities to surround myself with positive energy.
So how have I spent Christmas? Well, I’d already bought gifts to give my care staff whenever they came in for their shifts, so I decided to be more proactive with it. I put on a Santa hat, jumped in the car with one of my carers and drove house-to-house delivering some of their gifts to them. I had an offer from another one of my staff to have her mum bring in some Christmas food, which I gladly accepted. So I had a Christmas meal with my staff, courtesy of her mum. And then, the one family member who was around came in with his partner for the rest of the day and we just had a calm quiet evening chatting, exchanging gifts and watching a movie. Now, it could very easily be argued, this has been a much less exciting Christmas than I’ve had in over a decade, but I choose to see it as simply a different approach to MY Christmas which I now know would be equally as fulfilling as anything I could have planned.
I also do not for one second take for granted that I am unbelievably lucky to even have those options at my disposal. What I do know is, regardless of the situation, even if it’s difficult, I can choose to look at my current situation and choose to dwell on the negatives or the positives. And if I can’t find the positives, I can either look harder or proactively try and create them. Again, it’s easier said than done for many people in many situations. But it is something to never forget is always an option. I could go into further detail on the smaller, more minute actions I took to achieve this for Christmas 2020, but that’s a whole other conversation. I will say though, I could never have done any of it if I didn’t try.
Never let anyone make you feel like there is no hope there will always be external factors, but in the end, you control how things around you affect you and by how much.