A Christmas like never before

Christmas for many of us is about familiar traditions. But then there is a year when everything changes – births, deaths, marriages, depression, moving away from home… we look at the first Christmas after life-altering events

Suzanne Phelan: “Find a friend or family member you can talk to. You’re not alone.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

Suzanne Phelan: “Find a friend or family member you can talk to. You’re not alone.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

 

...after confronting depression
Suzanne Phelan

“I’ve struggled at Christmas for as long as I can remember. It’s an enormous amount of pressure, not just to enjoy yourself but to have an amazing Christmas, an M&S Christmas.”
Phelan spent 10 weeks in St Patrick’s Hospital from March to May 2014 being treated for depression. “It was around the Christmas [before] that I got really bad. 
 
“I’ve watched all of my friends get married over the years, move on and have babies and they’ve started to have their own Christmas and I haven’t reached that spot. And that’s what had kind of got to me lately. I don’t mean any disrespect to my gorgeous parents, but I’ve had the same Christmas for 39 years.”
 
Phelan worked as a nurse for 17 years until she gave it up last year. She sings with the Dublin Gospel Choir, and Motown group, the Dionnes. “People that know me will find it bizarre that I found it difficult to socialise. And that’s really why I got sick. I couldn’t hold the mask up any longer.”
 
She was first put on anti-depressants at 25 and saw a therapist for many years. “It was social anxiety, nervous about going out, about meeting new people. Deathly afraid of what people would think of me, but covering it up.” “In the hospital, it came out that a lot of it stems back to the fact that I was adopted at three months old. So the coping mechanisms that I had were probably in place from that age. No wonder they started crumbling at the age of 37 or 38.”
 
As Christmas 2013 approached “it all got too much. I wasn’t talking to anyone. I was in bed the whole time. I’d stopped going to work. My friend George (also a nurse) rang and said, ‘I think it’s time you had an admission’.”
Her psychiatrist saw her the next day. “At first I was almost giddy because something was happening and it was almost exciting in a weird way. I worked in the hospital as a student nurse so I was familiar with the place, but when I was admitted and they started searching my bags for scissors and locking doors behind me, that’s when it sort of hit me.”  After an initial disquieting experience, Phelan settled into a ward. “The kindness and the love, immediately when I arrived on that ward was incredible.”
 
When Phelan left the hospital she felt empowered by a new routine and a new understanding of her depression. “They talk about a ‘wellness toolbox’ so you know what to do if you start to get sick again – taking your medication, seeing your therapist, doing things you enjoy and having a routine.
 
“What I’d like to get across is that for me it was a very positive experience and not to be afraid of it. One woman who was in with me had a big problem that it was called a mental hospital. I said, but that just means ‘brain’. That’s how stigmatised it is.”
 
Phelan cannot remember the details of the Christmas before she was admitted. “I can’t even remember whether my brother was home. I might have blocked it out.” 
But the first Christmas afterwards had a new lightness. Her brother, his wife and their new baby Luke came over from Edinburgh and her nephew “couldn’t have come along at a better time, on a very selfish note. We sat around the dinner table and stared at him while he burped and smeared carrots into his face. He was just the greatest thing ever.”
 
Phelan tells me about a part of her treatment called Radical Acceptance. She laughs at the lingo. “If you know you can’t change [something], you have to accept it. And sometimes you have to accept it a 100 times a day.” 
Last year, her friend George said, “Christmas is coming up, what are you going to do?”  “I have radically accepted Christmas,” Phelan replied. “That’s all I could do. That’s what I have to do again this year. This year I have a new acceptance for it.” For anyone who feels overwhelmed this Christmas, she says: “Find a friend you can talk to. Talk to a family member. If that fails ring Aware, ring the Samaritans. You’re not alone.  “Aside from the expense of it, the pressure of it, you’ll see posts from me on Facebook on Christmas Eve from the pub,” she says, laughing.
 
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...after being reunited with a child
Lassane Ouedraogo

Ouedraogo came to Ireland in 2007, seeking asylum from political unrest in Burkina Faso. He spent most of his first six years here in direct provision in Hatch Hall, Dublin. This will be his first Christmas in Ireland with his son (11), who arrived four months ago.
 
“My time in direct provision was like being in an open prison. You don’t have any connection with anybody, you are put on the poverty line.” There were few signifiers of a festive season. “Often, the only thing they will do is change the menu. They will have something different that you never have, different to the food you eat. That’s how you feel it is Christmas.”
Ouedraogo is from a Muslim background but he still enjoyed Christmas celebrations at home. “At Christmas, New Year, Eid, Ramadan we will all associate, we get drink, food and goat and lambs and cake. We dance til the morning.”
 
He spent his first Christmas out of direct provision in his new flat alone. “I just watched TV. Nothing special.”  How will his son feel about his first Christmas away from home? “He will be sad. He doesn’t understand the reality of things here. I was a little bit down myself because he was saying he wants to go back home.” Ouedraogo has simply asked him to be patient. “You know everything will come with a certain amount of time, not all at once. He said, ‘Yes, I understand this.’” 
 
So Ouedraogo is conscious of giving his son a happy Christmas. “I’ve already received three letters from him to post to Santa. He wants a tablet, his friends have this. My worry is will he be happy with what I can afford. I don’t have money to buy a tree. I have a very wonderful Irish friend who gave me Christmas decorations after last year. I will put them up for the first time to make it a bit different.”
 
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... as a married couple
Claire and Alan Murphy

Claire and Alan Murphy got married on September 4th this year. They’ve been together for over three years. 
“We spent our first Christmas as boyfriend and girlfriend separately and I think from then on, ever since we got more serious, we’ve split the day. This year the morning will go to my family and the dinner will go to his family, and we swap each year.” 
 
It took a little adjustment for Alan’s family, to the idea of not having him at the dinner table. “I spent one year at Christmas in Australia. It wasn’t the first time I wasn’t there, it was just the first time that I was in the country and went to other people.” 
 
But doing it any other way didn’t make sense to them. “We were living together and spending every other day together so to split up on Christmas Day would’ve just seemed really weird.”
Do they miss the way things are done in their own houses? “I’ve a lot of nieces and nephews so I miss having them around when we’re having dinner in Alan’s house,” says Claire. 
“My mam used to always make me chilli con carne for Christmas dinner so the hardest part was having to have Christmas dinner because I never really liked it.”
 
Adapting to another family’s traditions is part and parcel for newlyweds and Alan says, “as much as we’ll make our own, I know that I’ll want to bring some of the traditions that I had into our own house. 
“Like there’s tradition around Santa that my dad always had to go in first and he would turn on the lights and he’d check that Santa actually came and we’d wait outside. That’s a tradition I’ll always want to keep.”
So how will their first Christmas as a married couple differ? “I am particularly excited about this year because it is slightly different,” says Claire. 
 
“I know it sounds silly but you’re officially a family, and I know that really nothing has changed since you got married except there is a big dress hanging up in your wardrobe and a pretty new ring, but you do feel that you’re more of a family together, and I’m not just bombarding in on Alan’s family for dinner. I’m part of their family too now, and I think this is the first year where I’ll properly feel like that.” 
 
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...since losing a child
Angela McHugh

Events have occurred in the last few years of McHugh’s life that most of us would consider unbearable and yet she is sitting in front of me, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, and telling me the story. She has always immersed herself in the beauty of Christmas: the gathering of friends, the elegantly wrapped presents. Family and tradition are vital to her. This Christmas, she has a sense that a hard-won joy may be returning.
In 2012, when their eldest boy Max was three years old, Angela and her husband Steve decided to have a second child. It was not an easy decision. The last few years had been harrowing. In 2009, Angela’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and in 2011 her mother had died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. 
 
It was a difficult pregnancy but she was excited on that day in May 2013 when the contractions began. “I remember walking into The Coombe and looking at my watch and it was 10.40am. I said, ‘In 12 hours I’ll have her.’ I knew I was having a daughter, and we’d already named her Kitty after my mam.”
 
The doctors quickly realised there was something wrong. The baby’s heartbeat was very low. “They put me to sleep. When I woke up Steve was sitting on a little stool at the corner of the room and I looked at his face and I said, ‘She’s dead, isn’t she?’ and she was.”
 
Kitty had died due to a catastrophic placental abruption. “She was buried in the old part of Glasnevin graveyard and it was a beautiful sunny day. We buried her under a tree. “I knew nothing I would do would ever replace her so all I kept saying was get me past Christmas, because the first of anything . . . I remember the first Christmas after I lost my mother and my first birthday after I lost my mother, that’s the thing with firsts – you build yourself up to them so much – and the run up to everything is so much worse. Christmas morning we did Santy with Max and drove to Glasnevin.
 
“You cry bitterly and you know it’s just another day without her, but life has a habit of going on and you can either go with it and make the very most of it or you can lie under it and I couldn’t do that to Max . His memory of me as a mother can’t be this angry, hurt, sorrowful woman.”  That Christmas, they had dinner in her sister Kathleen’s house which “took over as the homestead when mammy died. After two days we would normally have gone home, but I burst into tears. I couldn’t leave. I needed that cocoon of my family for longer.”
 
After Christmas, Angela and Steve decided to try for another baby. During this pregnancy, Angela’s father passed away. “I couldn’t grieve Dad because I was so scared of the baby inside me if I let myself get too upset.
“The pregnancy was awful, scary. I half lived in The Coombe. Ben was born by Caesarean six weeks early. He was a little fighter and he was gorgeous.”
 
Angela believes Christmas has not been the same since her mother died. “I think once a mother goes out of a house, you do everything that you can to make it as special as it is but it’s just not the same. Then with Dad gone, I used to say to Steve ‘I’m an orphan’ and he would say, ‘It’s impossible to be an orphan in your mid-30s married with children’.” 
 
“This Christmas, I have such a different feeling. Maybe it’s our new house, that my mam and dad are so a part of, because without them we wouldn’t be in it.  “Maybe it’s the fact that Ben’s first Christmas was a bit of a blur because I was just so scared for him. But this year I think finally the fear is starting to abate. Christmas morning will be as hard as ever. Christmas was such a huge thing always in our house that we’ve had to make new traditions with our own children. And I think I’m so lucky that I have my two boys. 
 
“I went to my GP recently because I was feeling very alone. I think I only started grieving properly after Ben was born. My GP said to go to a meeting with Féileacáin. He needed me to see that there were other people out there. It definitely helped. People tell me now even just concentrate on the two healthy boys you have and stop thinking about her. That’s like telling the wind to stop blowing.”
 
x

..away from home
Ernest Cantillion

Cantillon is the owner of Sober Lane pub in Cork and Sober Lane D4 in Ringsend. “Last year, I moved to Dublin for about six months. I’ve always lived in Cork so it was my first time living away around Christmas.” 
Chatting with his staff, he realised how many weren’t going home due to cost or distance. “Amongst themselves they had arranged to meet up in each other’s houses to make sure no one was alone for Christmas. And we had a lot of international customers, like people who work in Google, and they weren’t having Christmas dinner. 
 
“So we said on St Stephen’s Day, we’d have Christmas dinner for anyone who wants to come. When we originally threw out the net we meant it for people who couldn’t make it home for Christmas and then Focus Ireland got on to us. 
 
“We said, we’re giving out turkey dinners so anyone who wants that can come. Then Age Action groups got on to us and said, there are a lot of old people in your neighbourhood who’d have nowhere to go. “I think we had 65 or 70 people. We asked for two things – people could bring desserts and small token presents so that everyone who comes could get something to unwrap; socks or whatever.”
 
People went for different reasons. “Some people were lonely, some people want the novelty, some people were there because they couldn’t afford Christmas dinner or had nowhere to have it. 
“We had way too much food and presents for the people who came so we had three big black bags full of presents and hundreds of desserts. We brought them all into Brother Kevin in Capuchin Day Centre. We did it for one night. He feeds people every day.”
 
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...creating new traditions
John Lambert

Cosy family fires, Christmas films, eating yourself into a coma, in a cosy cocoon, is very much a Christmas for me,” says Lambert. So despite living near the Forty Foot, he was never interested in the Christmas Day tradition of jumping into the bracing Irish Sea. 
 
But in 2011, Lambert decided he would try something new. “After a deluxe Christmas breakfast put on by my mum, I got a lift down to Sandycove. It was crammed with people in Santa hats.
“Everyone gave a big cheer when you sploshed in. I came out and someone gave me a flask of whiskey. I remember talking with the other strangers that were drying off, chatting in that giddy overflowing way about how great it is.”
 
Lambert is mindful that the routine of Christmas can alter swiftly. His dad died 10 years ago on St Stephen’s Day. “When people say ‘what a time for that to happen’, in actual fact, the whole world going quiet and you being left to your own devices is actually an okay time to remember someone you love.” 
 
Lambert’s brother Paul had a daughter, Emily, in 2012. “That’s just transformed Christmas for us now. It’s wonderful. That was seven years of getting used to Dad not being there, and getting used to that whole new reality. It’s that bit easier each year.”
 
The family are marking his father’s anniversary this year in a special way. “We’re doing a book of Dad’s writing on places around Dublin. Dad was the editor of the Irish Press for the 1980s. He was an amazing writer, obsessed with history and always able to tell an engrossing story about wherever you were.” 
 
The book is going to print soon. “I’ve been going around taking photographs of all the places.  “So I’m kind of in that headspace at the moment, going where Dad was.”
 
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...after a separation
Patricia Knuttel

Ten years ago, after a 30-year marriage, Patricia Knuttel separated from her husband. Her three children were grown up by then, but Knuttel’s home continued to be the place where they would gather for Christmas dinner. 
 
“When they were young, I loved Christmas and I loved the surprises and wrapping the presents. I liked making it nice for them. And then when they leave home and have their own children, I still wanted to do that.”
Last Christmas was the first Knuttel has spent away from her family. Her new partner, David, asked her to join him for Christmas at his home in Cumbria. 
 
“I missed them. I realised for the first time how difficult it is to separate from your family. I felt so so guilty.”  But she was glad that she did it for herself. “We had a lovely Christmas because it was just two of us. It was a very easy day because normally I cook for 13 people.”
 
Knuttel says that the traditional family Christmas was an anchor for her in the difficult times immediately after her separation.  “I was really depressed, not about him but about my life. I thought, ‘What have I done?’ But I’ve got over that now, I don’t even think like that any more.” Her children and grandchildren gave her much needed support: “I needed my family around me.” 
 
“I remember for my 60th, they got a photo shoot with all the grandchildren and I wrote on one, with all of us in it, ‘Our Family’ – that it was still there even though the relationship had gone. You need to keep certain things the same. It’s a security thing.” Over the years, Knuttel and her ex-husband have become friends. “I saw him driving just near where I live and I stopped the car and I said, ‘Come in and have a cup of coffee’ because one of the grandchildren was there with me. We get on better now than we ever did.” 
 
And she will once again spend this Christmas with her new partner in the UK.  “I feel easier about it this year now, not so guilty. Well, I still feel guilty,” she laughs.  “I’ve got hampers for each family – little hampers for the grandchildren.”
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