One thing I have noticed about married couples is that they can bumble along together very nicely for most of the year while they are both preoccupied with their daily routines, but at Christmas, birthdays and other major holidays they suddenly notice those irreconcilable differences. Simple things like should the tree be real or fake? Do you send joint Christmas cards and if you do, should they have a picture of you both in your Christmas jumpers? Will there be a goose, or a turkey, or a nut roast? And, maybe, more importantly, will you spend it with his family, your family, alone together or none of the above?
Shane and I just got married, which means that this will be our first Christmas together as husband and wife. One tremendous advantage of having waited 32 years to get married is that Shane and I have had a chance to explore all of these Christmas options and to endure and iron out the tantrums and sulks that they throw up.
We do have the added pressure at Christmas of it being Shane’s birthday on the day, which means that everyone wants to make an extra fuss of him, which he absolutely hates. He doesn’t like opening presents, maybe because he is not a person who wants a lot of stuff, he has never owned a car, or anything remotely flashy, and he is pragmatic in a way that would make him fit beautifully in an eco community. All about the anti-consumerism. If you suggest to him that he might like a new jumper, he will tell you that he already has a perfectly good one, so why would he need another one? When we first met, his shoes were held together with black tape, but he reasoned that it did the job quite adequately. It’s the same with shoes, coats, scarves and even jewelry. If he already has a necklace, why would he want two? I find this impossible to compute because I have actually lost count of how many coats I have and I still look at new ones all the time. Sometimes I get it right, like the time I got him a first edition of JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, but usually birthday presents and Christmas presents get added to a pile and given to charity.
For many years, I have tried to have two cakes, one official Christmas cake and one official birthday cake. But the last time I did that and presented the birthday cake to him on stage, he smashed it to pieces and threw bits of it everywhere.
Which brings me to the second added pressure which is that for most of the last 30 years, Shane has actually been working very hard in the lead up to Christmas, performing with The Pogues and totally Christmassed-out by December 25 and in no mood to even think about creating a jolly atmosphere. So it is left up to me to be festive.
I can’t imagine what it must be like if you are one of those people who starts decorating the house at the end of November and who must have a tree in every window and the place transformed into an explosion of lights and holly wreaths and baubles and mistletoe and who wonders if their Christmas taste is on-trend every year. If your partner is dead against the decorating, it must generate tremendous tension, particularly if you are into entertaining and having visitors. And worse still, if your partner has opposing taste like he loves the more-is- more bling and you want it Scandi-minimal and if you fight about it. Luckily, there is no conflict for us, as Shane and I are both equally lazy and left to our own devices might do absolutely nothing, not even a tree. But neither are we opposed to beautiful things, or pretty decorations, if someone else wants to do them for us we are very happy to admire them, and indeed we really get a kick out of it.
The way that we planned our recent wedding in Copenhagen was to basically ask ourselves ‘What is the least amount of effort we can get away with?’ Which is why I am wearing the ring from the Halloween brack and Shane has a ring that my sister gave him. But when my mother and sisters got together and made flower crowns and a beautiful bouquet and a cake, we were absolutely thrilled and extremely grateful because the whole thing was so beautiful, and showed such devotion.
But even if you are not bothered about the accoutrements of the occasion, for most of us there is something deeply emotional about Christmas, something that kind of creeps up on you, whether you like it or not, and it niggles at you and makes you feel like you might be missing something. Turkey or no turkey, here is a need to connect, especially with those people that you feel closest to, maybe because it is so much a part of the culture that we live in, the idea of Christmas as a time for families to come together and to have a big feast and celebrate and be cosy. It represents belonging and togetherness and it is an opportunity to demonstrate how much we appreciate each other. Which is why for our very first Christmas together, more than 30 years ago, Shane and I wanted to not only be together, but to also be with both of our families, because we both treasure our families.
This meant eating Christmas dinner in my parent’s house in Cork (where they obligingly provided a nut roast for him) fitting in a few rounds of charades (which is obligatory in our house) and then persuading a very dear friend to drive us all the way to Tipperary to Shane’s family home, a thatched cottage in the countryside, with a huge open fire, where a wild party was in full swing, with music and singing and dancing and where I met his family for the first time and we were allowed to sleep together in the smallest single bed you have ever seen, under a picture of Our Lady.
As an experiment one year, Shane and I spent Christmas in Thailand, just to see what it would be like. The hotel, where we stayed, had laid on a traditional Christmas dinner, turkey and ham and mince pies, served out of doors in tropical heat and the entire place was festooned with banners and Santas and fake holly. It was sort of thrilling, but also very alienating, because we missed our families and, really, roast turkey works better in a cold climate.
For the most part, as I said, we were on tour for the weeks leading up to Christmas. And when you are on tour, you have catering provided. In December, they start serving turkey and ham with cranberry sauce and stuffing every night. It is one of the loveliest Christmas experiences I have ever had, the absolute devotion that goes into tour catering puts Michelin-starred chefs to shame. But, by the time the tour ends, you are pretty well stuffed, and considering a detox and you don’t know how you will face another roast potato.
Because The Pogues are best known for Fairytale of New York, this was always the highlight of the shows, Shane and Kirsty MacColl duetting and waltzing together, and the audience waving lighters as the fake snow was unleashed all over the stage. When Kirsty MacColl died suddenly in a tragic accident in 2000, it was in Christmas week, and it was devastating for Shane and the band, but it also left an indelible sense of sadness on the song, and Shane has never felt the same joy about singing it since she died, which is ironic because it has turned out to be his most popular song and every year it seems to become more well known. It was written in the first year that we got together, and it was done as the result of a bet. Elvis Costello, who was producing The Pogues, bet Shane that he couldn’t write a Christmas song that wasn’t cheesy, and Shane won the bet. What always strikes me as poignant about the song is that it is about a couple who have both been destroyed by addiction, and by mental health issues, and Shane and I were both struggling with these in real life, and in the early days we really did feel like the characters in the song. I remember one day being arrested on Oxford Street on a Sunday morning, still in my pyjamas and being taken to the police station to be strip searched, feeling very much like the woman in the song who ‘could have been someone’. And while Shane was not a gambler, he was definitely self-destructive and his strong empathy with the characters had come from real experiences of being in the ‘drunk tank’ and of being in trouble with the law, as well as perhaps from a sense of optimism, of faith and of hope for the future.
The Christmas gigs, and, in particular Shane singing Fairytale of New York, always had a huge element of apprehension and anguish for me, watching from the side of the stage, as Shane was feeling the pressure to perform and would often be so self-medicated that we wondered if he would make it through the song without falling over. Because of that, the relief and the high when he did make it and when he really nailed it was so extreme that by the time we got to Brixton Academy, which was usually the day before Christmas Eve and the most cathartic for everyone involved, we were so emotionally dredged, we would collapse in a heap in the hotel, wondering if we would ever get up again. Many a Christmas Eve was spent just in a superhuman effort to get ourselves on a plane, so we could be with our families, with more of a sense of a come down than a build up to Christmas. Hearing the song being played on the radio every year is strange because I still feel moved by it, even after all this time. And I know that it would be absolutely unbelievably painful if something were to happen to Shane, and I had to hear it everywhere the way Kirsty’s family have to hear it. For two years, Shane and I had separated because it had become too hard for me to live with him, and it drove me demented, so I can’t even imagine what it must feel like for them.
Last year, Shane turned 60 and it was his father’s first Christmas without his mother, Therese, who died in a car crash on New Year’s Day, so we decided it was important to do something really fun and really nice and to bring our families together. So we hired a pub in the countryside where they let you bring your own drink and run your own bar, and we had a proper party for several days with lots of musicians, the highlight of which was Shane being given a genuine 1916 rifle by Glen Hansard, a totally unexpected and completely original present which completely blew him away (luckily not literally).
This year will probably not be as adventurous. It will be our first Christmas as a married couple, and we have elected to spend it quietly at home just because we can. There is a tree, because the Sunday Independent insisted on it. And there is a bit of tinsel. But what we are lacking in decorations is being more than made up for in the enormous feeling of love and support that we are getting from everyone we know and even from many, many people that we don’t know. And, perhaps, that is the thing that we all long for and look for at Christmas, that sense of connection that you can’t possibly buy, but that is priceless beyond measure.
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