The Stories In My Life: In A Christmas Letter, Rosie Jackson subverts stereotypes with a tale of flawed, fallible lives
Rosie Jackson's A Christmas Letter does not indulge in familiar fantastications of Christmases Past, Present or Future, nor overflow with Christmassy stereotypes but, subverting it all, rises to a different level, ringing true to some elemental and beneficent grace that indwells our flawed, fallible lives.
There are stories, read long ago, which live on in the backrooms of the mind, becoming perennial furnishings of our mental lives, refusing to fade even after the passage of decades. In this column, every month, I shall share one such story with you, a story which has nourished my inner life and which deserves to be unpacked and aired in the hope that it will bring you the same pleasure and insight that it brought me.
With Christmas in the air, for my December column, I’ve chosen this lovely, life-affirming story called A Christmas Letter by Rosie Jackson. A story that does not indulge in familiar fantastications of Christmases Past, Present or Future, nor overflow with Christmassy stereotypes but, subverting it all, rises to a different level, ringing true to some elemental and beneficent grace that indwells our flawed, fallible lives. I read this story almost two decades back in a British Council New Writing anthology and remember being very moved by it. Googling the author, I learnt that Rosie Jackson lives near the village of Frome in Somerset, that she offers writing workshops and is rated ‘a fine, fine writer’ and ‘an excellent editor’ and ‘worth her weight in gold’, as the endorsements phrase it. With all of which I am inclined to agree.
The story addresses us upfront. Although the original form is that of an annual letter, we in this age of social media can perfectly adapt it to our times. We are quite familiar with the grand happiness-and- success-pageant parading constantly on social media. The author puts it brilliantly: ‘You know the sort I mean. All those happy families. Wives who’ve had hits as business execs… Supermen husbands who leap from building fairy-tale conservatories to summer hiking in the Pyrenees…’
Ideal lives, unalloyed happiness, dream holidays, achiever kids, perfect marriages, oh yes, don’t we know it all? Triumphs to be aired as a newsy Christmas letter – or in our times – a Facebook post. But how well she phrases this element of our social instincts: ‘It’s not that I think they’re lying, the writers of these glorious solstice epistles. Just that the spirit of Christmas has carried them away – tinted and inflated their memories till there’s no room left for anything but exultation, jubilation. I mean, the children they have – did you ever meet such paragons, such virtuosi… Surely the world wouldn’t be in such a mess, if it had these model citizens in it?’
But how about someone direly honest, accounting for a year in which everything went wrong? A disastrous year in which the script went haywire, the plot went missing and the events proved sadly unfit for either glam window-dressing or glossy travel brochure or thumping CV advertisement? Just a life messily, inelegantly, failing and out of control?
For our protagonist it all begins, most ironically, on Valentine’s Day, when her husband tells her he is in love with someone else and that their marriage is over. He moves out soon afterwards, leaving her and the two children. Their 18-year-old daughter Samantha – called Sam in the story — resolutely assumes the mantle of morale-manager to her downcast and over-stressed mother and decides to enroll them both in dancing classes. But rather than rejuvenate her mother’s spirits, poor Sam gets involved with the dancing coach and by the time the classes end and the affair crosses its expiry date Sam is heavily pregnant – much to her harried mother’s shock and dismay. As if this isn’t complicated enough, a third crisis erupts with the painful discovery that 10-year-old Thomas, her son, has turned klepto. They make this discovery during a pre-Christmas home-visit of husband Mike who has come loaded with gifts, doubtless as a guilt-assuaging gesture from an inadvertent Santa, as also a tactical bad-news-breaking gambit.
For he has come to tell the kids that he cannot have them over for Christmas because he is going off on a holiday with his girlfriend. She has all along assumed that the expensive gadgets and toys in her small son’s room are atonement gifts from his guilt-wracked father, but when Mike denies any knowledge of those, the dreadful truth dawns on them that their little son has turned into a shoplifter. Although estranged as a couple, they share an aching parental moment of intense misery as they realise how their ruptured family life has impacted their children. In that poignant moment, there is a gentle re-bonding in a shared sadness. The child confesses to stealing the things when questioned, and the stolen objects are returned. Meanwhile Sam, undaunted, has decorated the house for Christmas and is equally upbeat about the future. She plans to have the baby and then join the university and prove herself a competent professional as well as a successful single mother. Her father, before leaving for his holiday, is full of generous encouragement and confidence in his daughter’s ability to pull it off.
Their Christmas as a dysfunctional family nevertheless includes all the symbolic ingredients: the heavily pregnant mother expecting her baby any time, the little thief — like the one crucified alongside Jesus but who was promised a place in Heaven, the transgressing Santa with his guilty gifts. This is the holy family which evolves through suffering to experience forgiveness of a sort, to know peace with the given situation, however troubling, and quiet goodwill even for those who have trespassed against it.
How memorably the story ends. ‘I think this year has finally taught me what Christmas is about. Not seeking perfection, but accepting where we are and what we have. Making peace with those parts of ourselves that fall short, loving the bits of our children that fail – Sammy with her reckless belly, Thomas with his quicksilver hands. I even feel compassion for Mike as he turns on the golden sands of Tenerife to bronze the other side and has a pang of homesickness, wondering what we’re doing now…’
And this is ‘no seasonal sentimentality’ as the author bashfully murmurs at the end. To her admiring readers, it is the very essence of Christmas.
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