On the first Christmas without her beloved sister, murdered journalist Lyra McKee, Nichola McKee Corner remembers a ‘bright light in the darkness’, a source of inspiration and hope, not just at this festive season, but every day
Dickens' iconic character Ebenezer Scrooge has become synonymous with miserliness and a wanton disrespect for the holiday season. Many fail to acknowledge his complete transformation following the visits of the three ghosts on Christmas Eve, which led him to proclaim "I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year" and, if we are to believe Dickens, Scrooge was true to his word all the days of his life.
Like every year before now, this year we were bombarded with the annual feast of adaptations of the Dickens' classic. Yet, as we faced our first Christmas with an empty chair, the chair that our wee Lyra sat upon just last year and every year before that, the comfort that this classic formerly brought was replaced with a profound sense of emptiness and sadness that we never could have imagined.
Scrooge's three visitors almost seemed to mock us from the television screen; we desired a visitor who we knew would not be making an appearance this year; we desired a visit from our dear Lyra.
For the first time in 29 years, we were faced with the absence of our Lyra at Christmas and the much-loved classic, seemingly unnoticed in the background, transported me into an unexpected state of reverie. I remembered the joy and magic of our first Christmas together when she was a baby, my son Andrew's first trip to see Santa with his beloved Aunty Lyra, the pleasure Lyra took from choosing meaningful presents for everyone she loved and how her generosity never quite managed to match her bank balance, her taste-testing our nieces' and nephews' home-baked Christmas creations and reacting as if she had never tasted anything better just last year, before mischievously photo-bombing the group of tired-out children.
I remembered all 28 Christmases one after the other and it should have brought comfort, yet it only deepened my desire for the presence of my sister, even if it might only have been an aethereal visit, at best, and, for the first time in my life, I felt jealous of Scrooge's hauntings amid great despair.
Because of the actions of others, we were robbed of our 'Christmas Future' with Lyra and, unlike Scrooge, we had no power to change our 'Christmas Present'.
But something deep within me must have been triggered as the third ghost disappeared, for, in that moment, I felt the sting of our great loss and the pangs of jealousy and desire subside and suddenly it occurred to me that the transformation that Scrooge experienced in response to the ghostly apparitions was something our Lyra never needed; it occurred to me that she had always held "Christmas in (her) heart and kept it all the year".
Our Lyra was the Spirit of Christmas in action every day of her life. It is true. Right up until her last day, Lyra's love for others and her generosity of spirit were the driving forces in her life and, over the last eight months, our family has repeatedly witnessed this spirit in others.
Since Easter Thursday, we have experienced a generosity of spirit that we never would have imagined possible. In response to Lyra's murder, we have been repeatedly overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers.
From the postal service who were able to deliver the simply addressed cards to 'Lyra's Mother, Belfast', to those who arranged the wide range of tributes across the globe, we continue to be thoroughly blessed and supported in our dark days by the kindness of strangers - people who, too, keep the spirit of Christmas in their hearts all the year.
I would need the whole newspaper to name them all, but want every one of them to know that not one of them is forgotten.
Nor have we forgotten the tragic fact that our house was not the only home that had an empty chair for the first time this Christmas. Many families have suffered great loss akin to our own in the months that have passed since Lyra was stolen from us and we have been very mindful of this fact.
For although their loved ones may not have attracted stories in the papers, or murals depicting their smiling faces, their loss is every bit as great as our own and their lives are equally as important and as special as Lyra's is to our family.
As the titles rolled at the end of the festive favourite, my solemn reverie was broken and I began to wonder why people were stuck on Scrooge's miserly past, rather than viewing his transformation as a source of great inspiration.
As my thoughts unfolded and unexpected connections were made in my mind, it became quite clear to me that the story of transformation that we witness annually in A Christmas Carol was not "just a story" for Lyra; Lyra believed wholeheartedly that people could - and did, in fact - change.
Her acceptance of others, despite their histories, is a testament to this fact. Lyra accepted people for who they were when she met them and did not judge them through the coloured lens of the choices they made in the past.
It became quite clear to me that Scrooge's character had been labelled by his past since 1843 and, more personally, that our Lyra truly embraced Dickens' belief in the potential of humans to transform by choice.
In spite of our shattered hearts, broken spirits and empty chair, we know that Lyra continues to be a bright light in the darkness and believe that her short life should be viewed as a source of inspiration and hope, not just at Christmas, but every single day of the year.
I believe that, if we did this, we would see a positive transformation in our society and that we could finally be able to say without reservation, or restrictions, just as Tiny Tim observed in Dickens' last lines: "God Bless Us, Every One!"