Absent from our hearths but not our hearts

It’s two days until Christmas so it’s time for my annual Christmas blog post. The theme for this post changes each year but the topic of memories is often part of it. I’ve written previously about how warm and happy memories of holidays past can lift your spirits. Memories also bring friends and loved ones who aren’t with us this year close to us for a moment. These folk may be absent due to the restrictions the pandemic has imposed on gatherings, or they may be gone in a more permanent way. Either way, we miss them.

This year has been a somewhat sobering one for me as four of my friends died before their time during 2021. Two were people who became good friends since I came to Northern Ireland, another had been a friend since high school, and the fourth was Debbie, the Australian woman who was my first penpal. We started writing to each other when we were eleven years old and spent a summer together in Australia after I finished high school. We also spent time together when she and her husband lived in England for a couple of years. Although we lived across the globe from each other, in many ways we grew up together, and, after fifty years of friendship, her early death to cancer left a hole in my life.

Sorrow and sadness are not part of our concept of the Christmas season. Grief and heartbreak are incompatible with the jollity expected of us throughout December. But we can’t ignore the pain of loss, nor do we want to forget those who are gone.

In Northern Ireland where I live, many people visit loved ones’ graves to tidy the plot and place wreaths on them during the Christmas season. When I first arrived here, I found this a depressing tradition amidst the boisterous parties and frantic shopping that is typical of the season. But I’ve since realised that it’s comforting to take time out to remember those who are gone. The peace of the graveyard affords time and space to savour cherished memories.

As Christmas rolls around each year, we can’t help recalling holidays past, can we? Every year I think back to Christmas when I was growing up in my family home. In our small house we had a pair of wreaths, with electric candles set in them, hanging in our front windows; their flames glowed red and welcoming as I returned home each evening. A pint-sized tree stood on a table in the corner of the living room and tiny, knitted striped stockings hung on the rocking chair beside the tree. The room was decked with holly and tinsel. Of course, I remember the people who were there too: my mother and my grandparents, and aunts and uncles who visited. All of those people are gone now but they still live in my memories.  

In my house in Northern Ireland, my love of Christmas is evident. The living room is festooned with decorations, including some I brought with me from my family home in Toronto. These cherished items from my past include a set of brass bells on a bright green braided rope that a Dutch aunt brought with her when she emigrated to Canada after the Second World War, colourful and fragile tree baubles that belonged to my mother, and even the rocking chair and miniature stockings that sat in our Toronto living room; the rocking chair was crafted at my grandfather’s farm in Western Canada long before I was born.

Each of these items evokes the person who made it or gave it to me. When I look at them, they bring back happy memories that warm and comfort me. And by weaving the items into my present day celebration, they become part of it, linking past and present and keeping alive in my heart those who are not with us now.

I hope you also have fond memories of your Christmases past with friends and loved ones to cherish, and I wish you new, wonderful memories with friends and family this holiday season.

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About Dianne Ascroft

I'm a Canadian writer and author, living in Britain. My first novel, 'Hitler and Mars Bars' was released in March 2008. More information abo
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