Christmas, a time of joy but also of sorrow
Christmas is a funny old time, my Dad used to start saying around this time of year. By which he meant there was often very little amusing or remotely cheering about it.
As children, this remark passed completely over our heads. We were too busy rooting around under my parents' bed or diving into the back of their wardrobe on the hunt for our presents.
"Look," said my jubilant older brother, pulling out of a cardboard box a bright red typewriter that I'd included in a lengthy list to Father Christmas, "if that doesn't prove to you Santa doesn't exist and it's just them instead, I don't know what will."
Actually the fact you had to turn a knob on the top to get to individual letters and the keyboard was just a sheet of stick-on plastic had already rather blown a hole through the magic of Christmas for me...
As young working adults, though, my father's annual utterance began to grate a little. After all, I'd trekked into the office through the dark, icy month of December, and January, even bleaker, lay up ahead. A few days off work, parties, food, drink - why put a dampener on all that?
And then, one Christmas morning, a neighbour who was leaving after wishing us the best of the season suddenly doubled back, pulled me close to him and whispered: "Enjoy your Daddy this Christmas" and it wasn't just the Arctic wind buffeting the house that made me feel cold all over.
And the next Christmas, Dad wasn't there at all. And Christmas that year was a funny old time indeed. And in many ways it has been ever since.
If it's a time of peace and goodwill and gathering your loved ones close, then it's also the one day of the year when the empty chair is giant-sized, casting its long shadow the length of the dinner table, causing the candlelight to flicker, dulling the twinkliest lights on the tree.
It's the catch in the throat in the opening lines of a Christmas carol.
It's standing in a thronged Royal Avenue, feeling small and invisible and weirdly furious with yourself for bursting into tears because A Winter's Tale is playing in some nearby shop and you wish you were the age you were when you first saw David Essex trudging through fake snow and singing it on The Two Ronnies Christmas special, one little hand in your Dad's hand, the other in a big tin of Quality Street.
It's staring dull-eyed into the windows of shops - jewellers, electrical stores, clothes shops - and knowing that no one can give you the one thing you really want for Christmas. Just 10 minutes more.
Aye, it's a funny old time of year and, a few years into it now, I always think of those facing into their first Christmas without a loved one.
There are families we all know of - and feel that in some way we know, like that of murdered PSNI officer Ronan Kerr or the loved ones of beautiful, kind Michaela McAreavey, who this time last year must have been making final preparations for her wedding day.
Or Arlene Foster, who last week spoke so movingly of losing her father. And then there are the thousands of other families, whose devastating but anonymous private tragedies never made the news, who are gritting their teeth and determining to get through it.
That first Christmas I spent the early part of the day in some kind of rage, privately vowing to opt out of the whole thing while trying not to ruin it completely for everyone else. Friends were so kind, calling and texting, but still I wanted none of it.
In the early evening, my brother suggested a walk and the pair of us headed out into the gloom.
As we set off down the hill, quickening pace as a sleety rain pelted down, my brother said sharply: "I'm not promising I'm going all the way here..."
But an hour later, we were stomping down the side of the old church, striding fearlessly into the dark graveyard, pausing at the familiar headstone. It was a kind of a catharsis.
Moments later, we were heading home, talking about how Dad would think we were "two oul headers" to be out a night like that and how he'd never been a great man for Christmas in any respect, thinking it has become too commercialised.
His main contribution to the occasion was to cut some holly from the garden on Christmas morning, line it along mantlepieces and the dining table.
But he'd love the holly bush now. Plump as a pudding and resplendent with bright red berries.
Aye, Christmas is a funny old time of year.