Merry Melancholy

Merry melancholy. I’m shamelessly stealing these two words from a writer friend who sent me a message earlier in the week, and this is how she signed off. How right she is about the discordant juxtaposition of sadness and joy at Christmas and New Year. In another message, someone else put to me this way: “So much crashes in around us at this time of year.” Emotions do press together more closely right now, and much as we would love to be able to timetable happiness, seal the season from sorrow, it cannot be done. For those of us with a few years under our belt, it’s a given to feel a mite melancholic at some time over the festive season, and you’re almost guaranteed to quietly spring a leak here or there.

Back in January, I missed out on Burns Night as I had to travel unexpectedly to Ireland. Just a few hours before the Burns supper I was due to attend, Flora, the host, sent me an email recalling a particular Burns night we’d had in 2015. It had been a big gathering: Dad and Ken were both there, so too were Mum and Cormac, Sarah and Eóin, Áine, David and theie family, and in her email Flora told me she missed the fulsomeness of that crowd. She quoted Wordsworth: “Those days and all their aching joys are now no more,” and then she said, ‘We shall toast you and them all with Lagavulin tonight.’ She had, I think, perfected the balance of glancing to the past, feeling sad that Dad and Ken were no longer with us, that the past could never be recreated. Then she firmly looked forward, committing herself to the creation of new memories. And now, this Christmas, she too has joined the rollcall of those we’ve loved and lost, those we toast and remember.

Tonight, I attended a children’s mass full of joy and happiness and a group of little ones enthusiastically singing the loudest rendition of Silent Night I have ever heard – it could well be my Christmas highlight this year. There was not a trace of melancholy to be found in their unsullied hope. But the stone walls of churches hold the same contractions we hold, and I felt it this evening. They flip from celebration to sombre gravitas in a matter of hours. They are places of such extremes, of bottomless sorrow that can seem endless, and of joyous hope and happiness that feels as if it can never be broken or undone. The laughter and love of weddings and the cheering carols at Christmas, to the torment of loss at funerals where congregational grief is heavier than one can describe. All that sadness and joy is absorbed into the quiet of church walls, no weight too great for these buildings to hold, the spectrum of feelings – from elation to desperation – is sent up and out the spire where that love-pain dissipates into the air to be breathed back in and somehow heal us. I wish you all a healing dose of merry melancholy this Christmas.

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