My Friends’ Christmas tree


There’s a lot of talk of tradition at Christmas isn’t there?

The food, the shopping, the gifts, the visiting, the dreaded relatives…

But despite tradition, things always change. Usually without our consent. And some of those changes can be so jarring.

A friend recently asked me if I’d write a piece about loss and bereavement for Christmas. And something weird happened to me when he said it. I felt a block. I reflected on it on and off the past few weeks, wondering had my brain actually finally been emptied of words? Or worse, was it broken? Why wasn’t I flinging open my laptop to release the flow of unedited thoughts as I normally do?

Was I too sad myself? Did I simply not want to talk about death anymore? Did I just not want to write anything for public consumption anymore? (And in truth, nothing like a nasty dose of online bullying to silence one – albeit, it turns out, temporarily… but ya, that was definitely part of it)

It somehow felt just, too, big. Not too sad, just too big.

Plus, I’ve written about loss at this time of year before. About how Christmas has this uncanny way of shining a big spotlight on our loss-wounds. It pokes at them, relentless, reminding us of how painful it still is… how awful, even traumatic it can feel. Despite the healing we experience, and the caring we receive, and even the gorgeous hope that can follow.

And it does all this torturous stuff while playing cheery carols and sleighbells and offering us lovely tasty things to eat NOM and YUM – what a headwreck!! (note to self AGAIN, avoid Brown Thomas from Halloween onwards!)

I was thinking about this again (still?) as we drove to visit friends this evening. They have each other, two grown sons, and a beautiful Christmas tree – and of course they’re lucky enough to have us in their lives too!

(We are so so lucky to have them 🙂 )

We were admiring their tree and all the different decorations and better, the stories attached to each one. This will resonate with a lot of people I think – the stories, the big meanings we attach to small items. It’s a beautiful thing isn’t it? It turns a Christmas tree into a unique story of a family’s life – the gains, the losses, the giggles and celebrations. And the ritual of honouring all of it, every year.

My friend told me a beautiful story without realising it, as is often the case with her actually. Her younger son came home and she suggested he decorate the tree before his brother came home so that he (the elder) wouldn’t feel he had to do it – having never really enjoyed it – and so he did. And it’s stunning – I mean , I even look at that reindeer (near top right) OMGerrrrd so cute!

But then the elder came home and saw the tree all decorated – lights up, star up, everything perfect and visible…and finished.

Yep, you maybe guessed it, he was not happy.

Why did they do this without him? Why wasn’t his favourite decoration more readily visible? He’d have put it somewhere else! (Wait whuuut? He had a favourite decoration??) And, just, well, WHY?!

And I thought wow. How gorgeous is this. This family tradition that he didn’t want any part of – not in a nasty way, just simply uninterested – had become an important part of his Christmas ritual. It had seeped into him, unbeknownst to himself.

And woven into his unconscious fabric of tradition, when unintentionally taken from him, it really hurt. He missed it. It was more important than any of them realised. These boys are no longer grumpy, bored, teens. They are men that want to celebrate their sense of belonging to this beautiful family by being part of the symbolism that is unique to their Christmas. They have integrated their child selves, with their cute little cards and childish drawings (that reindeer again lads…), with their older selves.

And now they have come home for Christmas. They know that they will be parented again here, and always. That their younger and older selves and all ages and versions in between have been seen and noticed and remembered and cherished, and are symbolised on that tree. The wonky angels and the misspelled cards are priceless treasures on a living time machine. The pure love in their parents eyes as they excitedly showed us the handwritten messages from their 5 and 6 year olds…

They are lucky.

I know not all of us can, or want to come home for Christmas. But tradition and ritual is important to us. It can sneak up and wallop us in the heart if it’s missing. And if it is missing, what can we do? Well, maybe make a new one.

Do you want to make a new one? Do you maybe even need to?

After all, each family tradition we have was once something new that someone tried once, and it stuck. (Which reminds me of another story I want to tell ye maybe tomorrow now that my writer’s block has been cured). It stuck because it meant something, and we all strive to make meaning.

Maybe these 6 foot boymen children of our friends will maybe one day have their tree and their own disinterested bored kids. And maybe they’ll be sad that these kids don’t see them or appreciate them or care for their traditions and then suddenly, maybe, one of them will come home and want to adjust the positioning of their favourite wonky decoration. And the cycle will close and open again, the same, but changed. That’s life, and it’s just lovely to think about.

Happy Christmas to you all xx

Does restricting teens somehow give them freedom?

Girl with phone sally o'reilly

If you’re from Ireland, you may have heard of Knockadoon Summer Camps. They’re an Irish language summer camp, very popular, and just around the corner from me – well, practically, perhaps not quite literally…

Anyway, a friend of mine had her 2 kids there for the 2nd or 3rd consecutive year and I decided to pop over and meet them all, see how they were getting on. Maybe try and get some scandal re potential romances etc – y’know, the usual old-person-embarrassment rituals (they’re so tolerant of me these two!)

They had a friend with them who I immediately decided to adopt, no surprise there, happens all the time. They looked well, clearly happy and relaxed so I didn’t anticipate much in the way of complaints. And after the hilariously frenzied scrambling over their mom for clothes, shoes and food we went for a stroll to the beach so we could watch the hardy folk – my crazy friend included – go swimming in the icy water (slight, only slight exaggeration). It was a gorgeous day.

We sat on the sand, sipped our cold drinks, and soaked up the sun. I’m always amazed at how kids love coming here, beautiful as it truly is. I was allergic at that age. Nothing would have persuaded me to go to Irish College. Nothing. So what do these kids love about it so much??

I asked my burning question:

“Soooo what’s your favourite thing about coming here?”

They were all seasoned students who’d been there before. They knew what they were at, the lay of the land so to speak. Used to the rules and boundaries, the staff, the parties, the work, and the unpredictable weather.

I was expecting the answer to be something about the social life, the craic in the dorms, or maybe being away from siblings or parents or just being near the sea even, but no. The answer came quick as a flash –

“Not being allowed have our phones” said one. “YA!” Say the others – immediately. ZERO hesitation. “That’s the best bit. It’s actually really nice”

Wow! Did NOT see that coming.

They spoke about not “having” to check their socials, getting to sleep sooner and better. Not having it get in the way of conversations. All good. And I looked at their faces. They were so sincere, so excited and now that I thought of it actually – the two I knew did look a lot better and more rested than usual.

Wow again.

We know this to be true, we know we’re all better off without our phone being glued to our hands and eyes, taking us away from ourselves and each other every hour of every day. We know we don’t sleep as well as we would without. We feel it creeping into our souls – the intrusion, the comparison, the dissatisfaction, the tension, the stress, the arguments.

These are the things they noticed too, these wise teens. They guessed they mightn’t keep it up back in the ‘real’ world. But they got a taste of what they agreed was freedom.

We sat back and watched my friend swimming, their friends diving off the pier, a cute toddler making a tunnel in the sand as her excited puppy-friend wagged and watched.

I kept my phone in my bag.

And I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad.

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