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Tanya Sweeney: As I cherish my first Christmas as a mother, those childhood memories come flooding back

As she prepares to celebrate the festive season with her baby Isola, Tanya Sweeney finds old family moments coming vividly back to life

Festive firsts: Tanya Sweeney and her baby daughter Isola
Festive firsts: Tanya Sweeney and her baby daughter Isola

By Tanya Sweeney

This time last year, I was eight months pregnant and the absolute antithesis of festive cheer and goodwill. I was huge, sore and exhausted beyond anything I could have imagined. "They're more hassle on the outside than in there," people would remark, referring to my massive bump. I didn't believe it for a second. I was barrelling towards burnout at work, and giving the onslaught of festive parties a wide berth.

My partner and I did a half-hearted 'just us' Christmas, celebrating our last year as a duo. Ergo, lots of sleep and snogging as though it was all about to be taken away from us (which, in the end, it sort of was).

Worst of all, I was sober this time last year. I looked on as friends filled their boots with fizz and cocktails. I took morning meetings with people who would chug Club Orange and complain about their festive hangovers.

I made a vow to myself to be pretty much sozzled for the next Christmas season, when I would get my body back to myself.

Except as any new mother will tell you, it never really works out quite like that. You find yourself on an entirely new plane of exhaustion and stress, and the hangovers simply aren't worth it.

But there's a payoff: Christmas looks very different, for the first time in a very long time. After spending 'single girl' Christmases in Australia, Asia, the US and London, I'm now where I never thought I'd be: spending Christmas as a parent.

This year I feel like I'm back in the Christmas fold. Because adult Christmas and actual Christmas, let's be honest, are two very different things.

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Christmas isn't just about children - it's about being someone's child, too. I've had eight years of Christmases without my mother, and it often meant slinking off to someone else's family celebrations for Christmas Day (my father is still hale and hearty, but like any right-thinking person, repairs to the sun for the festive season), or downplaying the whole day with fellow 'Christmas orphans'.

Two weeks ago, my partner and I sat and watched RTE's Late Late Toy Show, with our nine-month-old perched on my lap (past her bedtime, but she was sick so routine went out the window). Isola is so young that we might as well have been watching The Battle Of Algiers, but every so often, she could cock her head towards a particularly kinetic dance routine and give it an imperious appraisal. "This is it from here on out," I thought. "We'll be watching this, every year for the next 10 years. She'll be bouncing on the sofa and begging us for every single one of these dolls soon."

Usually, I'll do an ironic watch of the Toy Show for about five minutes, but this time, I actually teared up while listening to youngsters like Sophie, Sophia and Ella as they enjoyed their star turn. Motherhood has broken through into parts of my heart that have lain dusty for a long time. Empathy, I think it's called. If my friends ever saw this particularly weepy tableau, they'd barely believe it.

This Christmas has also made a jumble of old memories resurface. There was the time I nearly broke my back when I cartwheeled with excitement into a door frame (there was a brand new My Little Pony involved). There was the other time when I dived headlong into the Christmas tree, likely inspired by Tom & Jerry - a moment that resulted in my poor dad, clad only in his paisley Y-fronts, wrestling in vain with the fallen spruce.

So much wrapping paper. So many cotton wool-topped nativity models. So many half-eaten carrots, mince pies and half-glasses of brandy carefully misarranged by the fireplace.

It was only years later that my parents told me about their own memories of those Christmas Eves, as the servile engineers of this great Santa charade. One nip of brandy for Santa, three nips each for them. As it was the one night of the year that it was completely guaranteed that we'd stay put in bed, they'd even manage to hold parties with the neighbours and we kids were none the wiser. It wasn't even that big a house, but if you can't be obedient on the 24th, when can you?

Keeping up the magic of Christmas was a ceaseless task for my parents, and they certainly had their fun, too. But the work… so much hard work. Hunting high and low for the year's must-have toy. Santa's grotto visits. Remembering to get gifts for teachers. A kids' trifle for us picky eaters.

It's all ahead of me, as I keep hearing time and time again. Which is why we're giving ourselves a year of grace. There will be no glitzy Christmas tree packed with baubles and tinsel, mainly because neither of us exactly want to spend the next four weeks guarding it like some kind of giant Jenga. We'll be giving the buying of pricey gifts a swerve too, which seems near sacrilegious to some.

This not buying of presents doesn't fit in with everyone's typical idea of Christmas: excess, merriment, fevered consumerism, sentimentality, generosity. The way this Christmas lark goes, you splash out on the people you love, to show them how much you love them. So you can only imagine the side-eye I get when I tell people that we're not going to waste what money we have on presents that our baby will outgrow anyway.

The way I see it, there is only a finite amount of time before all of that changes.

I'm already girding my loins for future Santa letters full of requests for pricey bikes, scooters, gadgets and gizmos.

I'll resurrect the Christmas traditions of yore in the years to come - the brandies, the nativity sets, the musicals - but as new parents, we are likely to hold our fire, fiscally at least, for this year.

All that said, I won't be going the entire Scrooge this December. It would be lovely to capture some moments for posterity, if only so our family can have them for the future. We will take the baby to Santa for a photo opp (she likes men with beards, although we're secretly hoping for a wailing snap that can be used as embarrassing ammunition in future years).

More than anything, we will be celebrating getting to this first milestone. It's been an exhausting and exhilarating year - truly, parenthood is the hardest possible path to happiness - and in many ways we are just glad to be still happy, healthy and, for my partner and I at least, still talking to each other.

I know there are many families whose little ones didn't make it to this first Christmas milestone. They'd give absolutely anything to be showering a baby with presents, photo ops and the trimmings of the festive season. More than that, they'd give everything they own for my complaints of chickenpox and sleepless nights. I think of them often; all that they've lost, and the cruel shortness of the happy times they had. I think about how awful this time of year might be for them - all the gaiety, and the celebration of family and children. For them, I'll hold my little one extra tight and hope I, and they, are lucky enough to enjoy many Christmases to come.

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