This time last year, as I unwrapped the snowman and put him on the mantlepiece, I wondered where he’d be going next time round. We were Sale Agreed on our old house but hadn’t found somewhere new yet. I tried to picture what the new mantlepiece might look like, in the new living room, in the new house, but I couldn’t.
I put the fireplace candle up (the one we don’t light anymore, after we accidentally set fire to a garland) and wondered if the kids were thinking what I was thinking. I put the wooden train on the hearth, and my daughter said, “This is the last time we’ll do this here,” and that answered that question. I put the garland up, winding fairy lights through it, and three sad faces looked on. “It won’t be the same,” they said, in their different ways, and I reassured them it would be different but just as good. Even if I couldn’t quite picture it myself.
There were lots of tears last Christmas – theirs and mine, my husband the only one who held it (and at times, us) together. People move house all the time and it’s no big deal. Something that’s kind of a pain – the house hunting, the mortgage application, the packing, the unpacking – but not something that brings four-fifths of a family to tears, sad to be saying goodbye to the old house.
“Is it that the kids are moving school?” people asked sympathetically, but no, we were moving even closer to the school. And it’s just a house, it’s just a house, it’s just a house.
But a house is more than a house, and they’d never lived anywhere else. It wasn’t just a goodbye to bricks and mortar, nor was it goodbye to a chunk of childhood, it was a goodbye to an entire childhood, or at least the only childhood each one had ever known.
The two games of rounders they’d played on the green at the end of the summer took on epic proportions – suddenly it was something they’d done every summer’s night ever. The occasional cycle around the estate seemed like something they’d done all the time. Summer holidays would be different. Trick or Treating would be different. And Christmas would be different.
And I get it – I moved house when I was 13, a move from Cork to Dublin that left me devastated. If I was younger, I imagine I’d have moved on quicker, slipping from old friends to new friends the way younger kids do. If I was older, I’d have had more control over staying in touch with Cork friends – perhaps travelling on my own to see them. This was of course long before mobile phones and Facebook and WhatsApp, so the only way to stay in touch was by letter. I managed this for the first four or five years, and after that, things slipped away.
(Side note – I recently discovered that someone I follow on Twitter is an old friend from my childhood estate in Cork, and my husband watched bemused at my excitement on realising who she was. It struck me though, that as someone who grew up in Dublin, someone who still bumps into people he was in primary school with, he doesn’t know what it’s like to lose contact with every single person from your early years, because of a house move over which you had no control.)
And after Christmas, as we packed up the snowman and the fireplace candle (still not lit) and the wooden train, and three sad faces looked on, I tried to imagine unpacking again, but couldn’t picture the when or the where.
And now we’re here. A different mantlepiece in a different living room in a different house in a different place. But we’re still watching Home Alone and Nativity. And we’re still eating Heroes and Celebrations. And we’re still arguing over board games. And we’re still eating melted butter toast, and we’re still in pyjamas at midday.
And we’re together. And of course now it’s clear as morning frost: home is more than a house, more than bricks and mortar, more than a place. Home is together, under a roof. And at this time of year, home is melted butter toast and a snowman and a fireplace candle (still not lit) and a wooden train.
Happy Christmas, from my home to yours.