It's a tradition: our columnist with his daughter Niamh on their annual day out at Christmas

Paul Hopkins: Why it might just be the best Christmas of all

As we get older our memory can start to play tricks on us, as in, say, our memories of Christmases past. We might like to think we remember them all but I guess what we are really remembering is the ‘idea’ of Christmas, as an ideal with all its attendant joys and, yes, sorrows. The idea, simply because the memory of each and every Christmas is difficult to recall.

The rituals that are a constant of each Christmas are remembered in a kind of cluster: the giving of gifts, the going to church, the coming-together of families, or the year the turkey turned out to be foul.

That 5pm slump when some of the party fall into a wine-induced slumber. Parents exhausted. Children high on the hype and too many presents. Grandparents yelling at empty rooms to turn the music down, music that speaks of snow and reindeer and chestnuts roasting; Mariah Carey still giving it loads, while we lie inert calling out for more mince pies from whosoever happens to be in the kitchen, having a meltdown.

This year Christmas will be different. It has been an unprecedented year and Christmas will follow suit as we all endeavour to abide by the health guidelines. Family gatherings will not be as large, no hugs or kissing under the mistletoe, far fewer coming home from abroad. Covid-19 too has brought a particular poignancy to the Empty Chair at Christmas. There is always the Empty Chair at Christmas. This year there are so many more.

There were all those years when rearing three children when their Mother and I welcomed some 20 people to Christmas dinner. How we or rather she — for it was always she who did all the work — managed to feed an army and get through the day still standing that I to this day find admirable. Her boundless energy and generosity of spirit was my Christmas gift.

Fifteen of those 20 people have in the intervening years gone from us and two of the remaining five — my sons — will not be home this year from America. So, my Christmas Day will see just their mother and me and our daughter. (Her husband will be in and out of our house but will actually have Christmas dinner with his own parents.)

There will be no visits from friends for Christmas drinks, no popping across the road to neighbours, no having my grown-up daughter in Christmas pyjamas going next door to see her oldest and dearest friend as she visits her parents.

It will just be the three of us so... and Ruby, my daughter’s rescued dog. But what more do we need? We have our health which in this time of the coronavirus are riches money can’t buy. We have a real tree so the house is filled with the scent of pine needles. There is no shortage of food and we have warmth. There are so many without just those basic needs — food and warmth. There are the homeless, the abused, the poor in spirit, the lonely. Many with only their ghosts of Christmases past for company.

It will be a different Christmas for me, not least because it will be the first in a long time I will be sober.

“That is the best Christmas present of all,” my daughter says as she squeezes her arm through mine. We are strolling through the park. Children in their winter woollies feed the ducks, giddy with the thoughts of Santa coming. Young couples ahead of us, lovers locked in hushed tones. Christmas engagement rings. Old people on benches, lost in familiar, old overcoats, their lived-in faces lost to thoughts of Christmas past.

“That, and my baby,” my daughter says. I have never seen her look more beautiful. Glowing. Expecting her little girl any day, a baby so longed for. A child at Christmas. A miracle.

She hugs me close, each a harbour against the wind.

My phone pings. A text from my youngest son. “Dad, let’s talk and catch-up over the weekend.”

I have not heard from him in nearly a year. He’s the kid who doesn’t keep in touch. Texts and calls to him can go unanswered.

“That would be great,” I text back.

I look at my expectant daughter. I look again at my son’s text.

It will be a different Christmas for sure, I think. But it might just be the best Christmas of all.

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