2012. Christmas with Mum. You’ve been told to act normal, so you’re singing while you bring the coal but now you’re singing solo. There’s still just as much food, just as much drink, but no matter how full you stock the cupboards, something in the kitchen is missing. The tree is up, the lights are on, but you walk in on Mum struggling to light the fire herself. She turns and rolls her eyes and laughs, cracking a joke about needing a man about the house. The joke falls cold. The front door has been left open, and you sweep the snow back outside. There’s an empty space at the table, but no one mentions this. The turkey is dry in your mouth. You pull a cracker with your brother and he wins. This time there’s no chuckle and ruffle of hair from Dad as he passes you his own paper hat. Mum tuts and gives you hers, but it’s not the same.
2013. First Christmas with Dad. It’s been the same year but everything is new. He’s still living in his best friend’s spare room, and as they cook they joke about how it’s just like being back at university, but with better wine. Dad gives you a glass, handing it over with a wink, and tells you not to tell Mum. You don’t mention that there’s so much you don’t tell her now. You eat roast potatoes from a bag and store bought green beans, pigs in blankets fresh from the freezer burnt to crisps around the edges because “the football highlights are on, I bloody forgot to check the oven!”. The tree is smaller, and Dad apologises about there being less presents this year. You want to tell him it was never about the presents, but you just smile and hug him tighter than usual.
2014. Christmas at Mum’s. There’s a new name under the tree, just one present addressed to the newcomer. Cautious teenage eyes follow Mum as she fetches the present and gives it to her recipient, followed by a kiss. The empty space at the table has been filled, but no one mentions this. You walk in on him lighting the fire, and he cracks a joke about how your mum has said she needs a man about the house. The joke lands cold. The fire is slow to light, and the warmth eks slowly from the room. Your dad calls, and you tell him about the newcomer. Dad has nothing nice to say about him, but his swearing makes you laugh. When Mum asks what’s funny, you shake your head. You’re unhappy, but she doesn’t have to be anymore.
2015. Christmas at Dad’s. The new house smell still hasn’t dissipated, and half the rooms stand bare save for mountains of cardboard boxes. On Christmas morning you slide around in your socks on the polished wood, and heat milk over the stove for hot chocolate. You share bacon sandwiches while sitting on cushions on the bare living room floor, Christmas carols leaking from the tinny radio. Dad wraps a blanket around your shoulders while the turkey is roasting, and you duet Christmas songs for the first time in three years. Mum calls, and you tell her about the overcooked carrots, and she sighs and says Dad could never get them right. She wishes you a Happy Christmas and when you say it back, you think maybe this year you really mean it.