Christmas is the time to push back against all that bleakness... and remember those taken too soon
Composite memories of festive seasons gone by remind us how vivid they were, and how fleeting, writes Gail Walker
Wrap another rope of tinsel round that tree, pour another eggnog (whatever that is) and throw another yule log on the fire…
Yes, I have succumbed - and succumbed rather early and easily, I'll admit - to the Christmas season.
And, like Rhett Butler, frankly my dears I don't give a damn.
I suppose I have all those Facebook postings from friends to thank for my collapse into the festivities. You know the ones - normally sensible people standing faintly embarrassed in front of October-raised trees with their dog done up like one of Santa's elves. Here's Frank in a self-consciously ironic Christmas jumper, gently sweltering in the September heat.
Years ago, even the sight of a twinkly tree in a window would have drawn a chorus of disapproving tuts from an outraged citizenry. A Christmas tree?! In November?! The very idea?! And those who put up decorations in the garden, or fastened light displays on their roof were just... well... beyond the help of normal, decent people.
Perhaps we were just the children of post-war austerity parents, who viewed ostentation of any form as something to be frowned upon. Perhaps it is just something in the Ulster psyche - not a dislike of fun and frivolity, but certainly a wariness bordering on downright distrust driven by a bred-in-the-bone puritanism. "Putting a giant sparkly Santa on the chimney is all very well, but it is not what Christmas is about," we like to murmur under our breath.
But, somehow, all that is changing. Quite why I don't know, but it is all rather fascinating. It could be that, following a nigh-on decade of post-crash austerity, we have had enough of tightening our belts and indulging in strange economies to show how in touch we are with the zeitgeist ("Take out a Sky subscription. Nonsense, we just played The Minister's Cat for three days solid. Did the family come together and laugh? Oh, like hyenas ... ").
Or perhaps Brexit/Trump/And-now-Renzi has brought on a sense that we live in very... erm... unpredictable times and that we'd better grab whatever fun is going?
But I suspect that many of us have more personal reasons for going boogaloo. Round about the time I was at university, I recall many of us were rather obsessed with the idea of the "tasteful" Christmas. Lost hours spent crafting a wreath for the door, playing proper Christmas carols sung by boy sopranos at a muted level after a brisk walk though befrosted, deserted city streets, before settling down with the novellas of Thomas Mann.
Maybe in the evening we'd pour another glass of mulled wine and open the Three Colours boxset to finally get to grips with Krzysztof Kieslowski's artistic vision.
My word, they were miserable Christmases.
But I suspect there are bigger, more profound reasons at play as to why more of us are making the most of the season. As one gets older, the idea of Christmas takes a stronger - not a weaker - hold on the imagination. We don't really remember individual Christmases. Christmas 1992? Christmas 1981? Christmas 2003? Haven't a clue.
Yet, the collective memory remains sharp. Christmas Day Top Of The Pops, the morning phone calls from friends and relations, the fraught atmosphere of the kitchen as turkey cooking times were checked and rechecked, the church at midnight, your favourite aunt having "just one more" brandy, again and again...
Then there's your mum's Christmas tree decorations, the ones you've been gazing at since childhood. "Family heirlooms, my dear," she'll say, gazing upon her Liberace of trees. That Santa you made from a washing-up bottle and red felt and cotton wool in primary school that is still placed atop the piano, bedraggled and defiant.
A composite memory certainly, but a strong one nevertheless. Like those transparent plastic sheets that designers like to use, laid one over the other until all the Christmases become one and we realise just how vivid, how brimful of life they were. And how very fleeting, too.
From the vantage point of simply being alive, we look down over a landscape of empty chairs, of friends living overseas, of disappointments and regrets and hopes and fears, of fantastic surprises and astonishing good fortune and extraordinary kindnesses. We know life's twists and turns, and have some experience in navigating them.
Our missing were once there - and now they are gone. True, we have them in our memories, but we'd rather be having them at our heaving dining table, treating their every commonplace observation ("That's a lovely pudding. Very moist.") as pearls of wit and wisdom.
Where are the fake snows of yesteryear indeed?
So, I'd like to thank all those people with already lit trees in their windows winking at commuters making their way home.
The businesses who decorate farm machinery or cranes. The Facebook friends who risked mortification by posting up early Christmas pictures, those who decided that the season should be at least two months long, even the lunatics with a blow-up Rudolf floating high above their conservatory roof, for reminding yours truly that we live a lot of our lives in the literal and metaphorical darkness, grinding away at work and at life.
Sometimes you need to push back against that bleakness - even if your revolt against "reality" involves too many mince pies and Quality Street.
You want a reason to celebrate Christmas? January. The awful trudge through those short, dull days after the last bauble has been taken down and the last set of lights switched off.
Sometimes we need a little light to remind us, to show us the way - even if that light is sequenced LED lighting (Red. Blue. White. Green. Red. Blue. White. Green. Red… Make it STOP!).
And sometimes, we just need an opportunity to stop the predictable flow of our days. A chance to reflect on the exquisite beauty of small joys and goodwill, to cast our eyes once more on the sunny uplands, or the twinkling fairy lights. And remember... remember it all.