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Pain Chronicles: Despite it all, we Deserve to Have the Christmas we Choose

Pain Chronicles is a monthly(-ish) column from Caroline McDonagh-Darwin about coming to terms with living with a chronic illness. It will include funny stories and brutal honesty, with some thrown-in chats with her mum Shaz, and other friends too, along the way. 

Trigger warning: This piece contains the sudden death of grandparents, covid death and discussion of bereavement. Please take care.

If you live in the Northern hemisphere, Christmas comes in the middle of winter. The long nights, the cold weather, the having to leave the house while it’s still dark outside. 

Pain and fatigue often get worse in the cold (as well as the warm, which is why I much prefer Autumn!), and worsening depression and anxiety rear their heads in the form of seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

I’ve a rather personal bone to pick with winter as well. In 2017, on Christmas Eve, and entirely unexpectedly, my nan died.

Instead of chopping sprouts and lining baking tins with goose fat despite having a vegetarian granddaughter (something I only found out that sad day), we spent the day speaking to a young policeman and waiting for our chosen funeral director.

That year, Christmas Day itself was rather, shall we say, subdued. 

Add in the fact that my late grandfather who died of covid was born on the 14th December, and losing my job while having a broken foot last year at the very start of advent, and the season has the potential to be not a very merry one for dear old Caroline. 

There was very little that any of us could do to instil some Christmas cheer in 2017, and that wasn’t anybody’s fault. There are things you cannot control and you have to work with them. Christmas had always been a big affair round at nan and granddad’s, and then it suddenly just wasn’t. 

I don’t think anyone would blame me if I had a Scrooge attitude by this point, but I don’t. I fully don’t blame anyone else if they say bah-humbug and just get a takeaway and eat it in their PJs. We’re entitled to that choice, everyone can be as happy or as miserable or as indifferent as they want to be. 

My choice is beauty. Christmas is about the only time you can cover your house with sparkle without people thinking you’re weird (although that doesn’t stop us the rest of the year). You can have far too many fairy lights and a tree in your living room. And we love that as a gem in the middle of the dark and the cold.

In 2018, and every year since, we’ve done what we could. Certain things are still unavoidable, and 2020 was particularly hard in my grandparent’s house without either of them for the first time, under lockdown conditions after a sh*t show of a year.

But we had decided that we wanted to at least make the house pretty, and so we did.

The Christmases we had in this house as children were huge family affairs with as much Christmas pud as you could shove down your gob and present piles taller than the grandchildren they were for. Classic decorations framed the room year after year.

Christmas is often something that you look forward to, being unable to sleep from the excitement on Christmas Eve, and waking your parents up at 6am and wondering why dinner is so far away still.

I don’t know what happened to those old decorations, possibly they’re still hiding in the loft. But I’ve spent so much money on new decorations, you wouldn’t believe it.

Things have happened since my last big family Christmas – both of my grandparents have passed, a global pandemic, my mental health and physical health have both worsened, and all of this comes to a perfect storm in December. But I’ll weather the storm and take the 25th as the gorgeous and sparkly eye, because I choose to.

As far as I can control things, I make Christmas special by making it look fantastic.

The house looks like a grotto – every year we buy more decorations on top of the ones we already have, we take about a week to get all the glitter and baubles in their perfect place, we put two sets of lights on an already fibre optic tree. 

There are so many Swedish-style gnomes in the living room that there’s a risk they may mutiny and next year they’ll be in charge of the festivities. A swan bauble and a stag bauble hang at the bottom of my tree to represent my grandparents, always facing each other, because then they’re still a part of it.

I plan for a good Christmas, along with all the extra planning that takes due to both my disability and my mum Shaz’s. Wrapping of presents can’t be crammed into one evening like when I was (vaguely) healthy. 

We account for Shaz’s food intolerances and my vegetarianism and the fact that nobody can spend all day prepping food like my nan used to do. The cost of living means that present stacks are smaller, and there are no children at Christmas anymore for us. Winter contains all of the ingredients for a miserable time at the end of the year.

But as far as we can, we pick the Christmas that we want – and we’re all entitled to do so.

My particular choice is beauty, it’s light, and it’s the thing that I look forward to in December. It’s the thing that then gets me through January and February till the daffodils start to push through.

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