Wednesday 16 December 2020

What Christmas Means to Me

I was searching for a blog topic recently and my son Mike suggested writing about my ideal Christmas. It was a good idea and I love this time of year, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it. My ideal Christmas has always been the last one I spent or the next one to come. In the end I decided to explore what I’ve enjoyed about Christmas in the past and how I’m feeling about this one, which is so different because of covid-19. I hope you enjoy sharing the journey with me.

Childhood Memories

My childhood memories of Christmas come to me as a series of disconnected snapshots or vignettes.

Hunting for the presents my parents had hidden away. Finding them in the suitcases stored underneath their bed.

Denshi board electronics set and Spirograph.

The wooden gifts my father made for me over the years: the castle my son inherited, the music box, and the fishing tackle box I wrote about decades later.

Standing outside Liverpool’s registry office on Christmas Eve in a blizzard at my cousin’s wedding.

Then there’s the year it was my parents’ turn to host the Boxing Day party for the extended family. It was so foggy no one could get home and aunts, uncles, and cousins had to stay overnight. This was fun for us kids, probably less so for the adults!

University Days

I studied pharmacy for four years at the University of Bradford. In common with many of my fellow students, I travelled home for Christmas, but there were plenty of opportunities to celebrate before we headed off.

I remember the day trip to London with a group of my new friends at the end of my first university term. We seemed to see more of the city on that one day than I would manage after university when I lived in the capital for three years!

I remember getting dressed up for my first year pre-Christmas Halls Ball, immortalised in my poem Contemplation 2:

Today, separated from you
by so many hours and tears
I found a picture of us
Do you remember when we laughed as loud
—when a dream was all my desire
and the girl in the red dress danced away
a night of them
as I lay in her smile and the sounds of her singing

In my third year in Bradford, my housemates and I hosted a pre-Christmas meal for a few friends. I remember good food, laughter, and games. Somewhere, there’s a photo of Sally dancing on the table ...

London Town

After graduating from university I spent three years in London, although I still went home at Christmas.

I remember shopping in London for gifts and ideas. All the Christmas trees, lights and street decorations, in Covent Garden and elsewhere. Treating myself to roast chestnuts and mulled wine from street vendors.

I recall going into work at weekends to hand-print batches of Christmas cards.

I remember making cuddly toys and other presents for friends. The cuddly toy rats were particularly popular. I made Pemberton the grizzly bear as a Christmas gift for one of my dearest friends. Pemberton returned to me years later after she died.

Gift wrapping has always been a huge part of Christmas for me. I remember sitting on the floor in my bedsit wrapping presents for friends and family. I took it very seriously and built boxes from scratch for the odd-shaped items that are so difficult to wrap.


Christmasses in the thirty-plus years I’ve lived in Newcastle have been rich and varied. My first memory is a pre-Christmas meal in the house I shared in Sandyford before I moved to Kingston Park the following year.

Family trips to Dobbie’s garden centre in Ponteland for lunch on Christmas Eve. Choosing one new tree decoration each to add to the collection.

The wooden pirate ship and dolls house I made for Mike and Emma.

Cross-country trips to deliver gifts to family in Carlisle. Shopping and lunch at Gretna Green.

The annual trek into town to the post office to mail boxes and packages to friends in the UK and beyond.

The excitement of receiving packages through the mail, and (less fun!) the long queues at the sorting office to collect those which came when there was no one at home.

Dressing the tree in space cleared amongst the customary household clutter. Green and red ribbon bows I made decades ago for our first family Christmas. Precious decorations from friends and loved ones over the years. Mike’s pipe-cleaner beast. The paper crown and plaster tree Emma made at nursery.

Christmas morning phone calls and messages to those far away. Coffee and toast for breakfast in a sea of wrapping paper. Cooking the dinner. Roast chicken, rather than turkey. Roast potatoes and parsnip, Brussels sprouts, carrots, sage and onion stuffing, cranberry sauce, and gravy. Christmas pudding and custard.

Buffet meals for a day or so after. Raiding the fridge for cheeses, cold stuffing, olives; whatever can be found. Chutneys. Pringles. Mince pies, two at a time with cheese.

Marty and Fran

Fran and I met online in May 2011. Of all the Christmases we’ve shared since then, none have meant more than our first, as we described in our book High Tide, Low Tide.

During our first December as friends, Fran was in a deep depression after spending most of the previous year in mania. She felt bereft, isolated, suicidal, and alone. It meant a great deal to her that she could spend time on webcam with me and my family over Christmas and New Year. We opened our presents together, and Fran kept me company in the kitchen on Christmas morning as I cooked dinner, my netbook perched precariously on top of the saucepan stand. Fran told me later it was the best Christmas she had ever spent.

In December 2013 Fran took me on a visit to Swan Hall, which is a large Victorian house which opens its doors to visitors at Christmas in aid of local charities.

Fran: Do you wanna go to Swan Hall with me?

Martin: Is that the Christmas tree house?

Fran: Yes.. It’s $5 but I don’t think they’ll charge for you..

Martin: I’d love to! Christmas starts here!

We were on a video call as Fran arrived. I imagined she would end our call and take photographs to show me later, but she kept me on the line and even introduced me to the people on the door. “This is Marty, my friend from England. Do we need two tickets?”

Recent Years

Recent Christmases have been blessed by time spent locally with friends.

For the past two years, I’ve taken part in the wonderful Jingle Bell Walk in support of the Chris Lucas Trust. I have warm memories of us gathering with the other walkers outside Newcastle Civic Centre and then walking along Northumberland Street to Monument, down Dean Street, under the Tyne Bridge and along the Quayside to be met at the finish by Santa and his reindeer beside the Millennium Bridge. Dancing and singing along to Disney’s Let it Go!, then a quick drink in the Pitcher and Piano before heading home.

Drinks upstairs at the Charles Grey pub, then standing at the crowded doorway for the countdown to the Newcastle’s Christmas lights being turned on. Singing and dancing in the street to the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, which will always remind me of that day.

Christmas shopping in Morpeth with Aimee. Calling on her just before Christmas so we could open our presents together.

Opening presents with another dear friend in our favourite coffee shop. The gratitude journal she gifted me last year is still very much in use.

Christmas 2020

Many of the moments and traditions I’ve come to treasure have had to be set aside or postponed under the shadow of covid-19. The UK government plans to allow up to three households to meet indoors between 23 and 27 December (see the official guidelines) but my family and friends have decided it’s safest not to meet until the new year at least. That means no cross country drive to visit family in Carlisle, no Jingle Bell walk (it was cancelled anyway), no trip into town with friends to see the lights, and no opening presents together in person.

I’ve not shopped in Newcastle as I usually would have done. (I have only been into town twice since the start of lockdown in March.) Everything I’ve bought has been sourced online or in my local shops. Fran and I agreed not to ship gifts to each other this year. Instead, we ordered online and had the packages sent directly. We will meet on webcam on Christmas Eve as usual. Aimee and I have exchanged three gifts each by post, which we’ll open together on a video call, and will save the rest for when we can meet safely in person. I’m doing the same with other friends. It will still be special, just different.

My Ideal Christmas

At the start of this post, I said that my ideal Christmas has always been the last one I spent or the next one to come. Having looked back now over the years, I’d say the one I spent last year — Christmas 2019 — was a near-perfect blend of moments spent with family and friends at home, in coffee shops, restaurants, pubs, and bars. This year can’t be like that but it can still be ideal in its own way because we’re all making it work in different ways.

For some people, celebrating Christmas at the proper time will be paramount, but for me, it’s fine if Christmas doesn’t all happen on December 25, or even in December at all. Christmas for me is less an event and more of a celebration of closeness and connection. In the same way that Fran celebrates her birthday month rather than just the day of her birth, we can celebrate Christmas 2020 during December and into the new year.

What Christmas Means to Others

I asked Fran what her ideal Christmas would look like.

My ideal Christmas is where I get to spent time with my friends, and decorate my apartment so I can make my home warm and inviting. And have good things to eat — not too fattening! And get lots of pressies! Oh, and Netflix shows!

I smiled, because despite covid-19 restrictions, she is able to realise her ideal Christmas this year, and that makes me happy.

Over the years, a number of guest writers have written for our blog on seasonal themes. I’ve chosen three to share with you here.

How I Unplugged the Christmas Machine and Created Stable Holidays, by Julie A. Fast

Season’s Greetings, by Roiben

Let It Go: Reducing Holiday Triggers for Your Child, by Tricia

I’d also like to share Carolyn Spring’s Christmas Is Optional.

My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson told me, “Christmas is important to me because I’ve been a psychiatric inpatient over Christmas before, so I like to fully enjoy it now I’m better and at home.” Aimee ran joint blogmas and vlogmas posts on her blog I’m NOT Disordered last year (a herculean endeavour, to create written and video content for each day from December 1 until Christmas!). I’ve contributed to her Christmas posts in the past, including my Christmas wish list last year and a Christmas Q&A back in 2017. This year, Aimee is running a blog series on the theme of recommendations. You can follow, starting with the introduction in which Aimee talks more about what Christmas means to her.

What does Christmas mean to you? Is it a joyful time, or something you survive rather than enjoy? Does it bring good memories or recollections you’d rather not revisit? What would your ideal Christmas look like? We’d love to hear from you.



  1. Because I'm a cooking Hobbit, making confections weeks before the big day is paramount to Christmas here. I love arranging cookie/candy trays for family and friends. This year has been particularly difficult due to the Covid outbreak. Sneak trips to the grocery for ingredients, a busy kitchen and delight when a recipe unfolds in perfection. Missing my extended family and children's visits is going to be rough this year. Anyone want a cookie tray? Merry Christmas to all.

    1. Awww it sounds like you are making a very lovely Christmas despite all the restrictions. I can almost smell the wonderful aromas of your kitchen. Merry Christmas to you and those you hold dear, from me and Fran