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  • Emma Palmer

Reclaiming the midwinter

Updated: Aug 8, 2019

I've had it in mind for a while to write about reclaiming Christmas. I then realised that it's not Christmas I want to reclaim - and encourage others to do the same - but the midwinter itself.

What finally got me to put pen to paper was when a glowing mailchimp email arrived from a holiday let company I use from time to time. "Excitement's reaching fever pitch..." it read, with it's glittering photo of champagne on ice, champagne flutes, and a grandly-ribboned golden gift, against the gemutlich backdrop of a brightly-lit Christmas tree.

I groaned, and made the mistake of reading on: "as advent calendars reveal the last of their treasures and children count down the few sleeps till Christmas Day. Uncles, aunts, siblings and relations far and wide will be gathering soon to make merry over Christmas..."

I groaned again - I don't even have an advent calendar or uncles or aunts - imagine! How do I get by? - and would have thrown my phone across the sofa were it not for the fact that I seem to be in the (expensive) habit of breaking the screen of late, having never smashed one in the previous 20 years. Maybe it's my growing frustration at pro-natalism, completely unbridled at this time of the year. Or maybe it's the bewildered faces of the folk trapped and under siege in Aleppo, or the unprecedented Artic warmth, or Trump's upcoming inauguration, or, or - let's not go on, it is Christmas, after all, and we're supposed to be merry and jolly, right?

For me Christmas - or midwinter - isn't much about excitement. It's the exact opposite of that, in fact. It's taken me four decades and a bit to admit that to myself and others. No, for me it's about the loveliness of the fleeting, short days and the dark, dark nights (have you gazed at the moon this last week?) It's about witnessing the world pausing and renewing itself. I learn from that, mimicking the wisdom of nature and the other-than-human world in stopping and reflecting on what's happened, with a prayer for those who left this year, and looking to what next year might bring. It offers me the chance to quieten down, wrapping up warm as I go and admire the skeletal trees and bare loveliness of things. I love the uncanny sudden silence of the city early on winter holiday days. Or staying home and creating things, making gifts for others - my favourite form of midwinter giving.

I have a feeling for my ancestors more than ever at this time of the year, too; I find that the 'thin place' of All Hallows Eve stretches into the New Year. Maybe it's a memory - deep in our bones - of how the midwinter could be a time of scarcity and how life was for those who came before us. I can also feel intimidated by the elements at this time of the year: sudden storms, bone-chilling frosts, and even the depth of the azure sky on a clear winter's day. Winter is less cooperative than spring and autumn, eliciting a sense of awe and healthy respect. It's my favourite time of the year.

I love some of the social aspects of the season; gathering together, meeting, marking, and feasting, but for me that's only a part of the riches. A few family birthdays constellate around Christmas in my family and I keep a careful eye on the balance between going out and staying in, else I start to feel out of whack.

Since 'Other than Mother', a book I wrote about childlessness has been published this year, I'm more acutely aware than ever before of those who are unable to have children, or for whom it hasn't happened because of circumstances. What huge potential or actual triggers to be in the midst of an hyped-up, over-commercialised world filled with glowing images of idealised families, not to mention the poignancy of the nativity and a Christian festival centred upon the arrival of a blessed and revered new-born.

I feel very much for friends and family in this situation. It can be challenging enough being childless through choice at this time of the year, let alone by circumstance. I find the pro-natal, idealised projected image of the ideal family at this time of the year pretty sickening, particularly with those who are childless by circumstance in mind. The way the mainstream media portray perfect families causes harm, and as much harm to families as to those without them. It puts pressure on parents, it can disillusion those who can't have children, it demoralises those who've never been part of a happy family, very often for circumstances beyond their control.

Let's reclaim the image of what 'family' means in 2017 - in reality, rather than in media land, a myriad of different gatherings made up of people we're related to, friends, friends of friends, and people we connect with daily and become friends with online - a huge upside of social media and a lifeline for some. Thank goodness for the creativity and courage of the work of those individuals and networks supporting those who can't or don't have children due to circumstance and happen stance, as well as those who once had children (I'm thinking here of Ageing without Children, the Dovecote, Gateway Women, Lesley Pyne and others...)

And let's reclaim the midwinter in a way which makes sense to how we live and want to live, rather than someone else's idea of what an ideal Christmas might look like. This time of the year may offer us - if we can step away from the hype and gloss - peace, quiet, and space to reflect on where we are, how we are and who we are. Better still, we can make plans to join together with others reclaiming the midwinter and perhaps reclaiming what it means to be without child and how being without child is but one aspect- albeit a very important one for many people - of who we are and what we are doing during our brief time here on earth.

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