It had all the ingredients for the worst Christmas ever. Sudden heartbreak, a mystery inflammatory pain that rendered me incapacitated, an enforced house-move, and being poor on the scale of Mr. Micawber. Around Christmas 2002, my then-boyfriend had suddenly and mysteriously ditched me [for another woman, I later found out] days before my birthday, and to preserve my own sanity I had to move out of the house we'd shared; I spent my birthday camping out on the sofa at my brother's house, bursting into tears every time I used his crap vegetable knife, because I'd had a much better set of knives at my old house. People are always saying glibly that one of the upsides of heartbreak is that it makes you lose weight. What they neglect to mention is that nobody notices your body, because they're too busy pitying you for the dark bags around your eyes, and the ashy grey tone of your skin from all the sleepless nights.
It was in this frame of mind, desolate and destroyed, that I made the two hour journey across to my parents' house on public transport, to arrive before the buses stopped running on Christmas Eve. "Guess what!" my mum said excitedly, when I arrived with the sum total of my possessions in a wheeled suitcase. "We're not having Christmas dinner this year!" As is her wont, my mother had arranged to cook a Christmas celebration meal at a community centre for local asylum seekers. My first thoughts in response were not charitable. I would like to say that I thought, "Yes, I would love to help my fellow human beings, whose needs are so much greater than mine, at this, the most wonderful time of the year." Not at all. My thoughts were more sort of along the lines of, "At this time of need, even my own mother is abandoning me."
I took a dramatic swoon into my sick-bed. A pain like a vice was running up and down my abdomen, and it was hard to breathe, let alone get out of bed long enough to watch It's A Wonderful Life. But on Christmas Day, I refused to mope any longer. That man had done me enough damage; I wasn't about to let him ruin Christmas as well.
"I'm ready, mother," I announced, rising phoenix-like from my pit. "Put me to work."
And so we went to the Community Centre, carrying large pots of stew and rice. Outside the doors, diverse sets of people were milling around: migrants from Iraq, Iran, from the former Yugoslavia, from Rwanda and Sierra Leone. So few of them would ordinarily have celebrated Christmas, but because of the public holiday most statutory services were closed, and every single one of them was hungry.
After we'd eaten the meal, the exploits of a traditional British Christmas were expanded to the group. Charades was too difficult to explain, and quite frankly is too painful to play even with people you know well, and so we opted for musical chairs. None of the asylum seekers had ever played musical chairs before, and I forgot the pain in my belly long enough to enjoy watching the sight of thirty grown men, from all corners of the globe, elbowing each other out of the way to get into the chairs as the music stopped.
After the music ended and the game was won, we danced and played musical statues; I learned to dance with a guy from Africa, and joined in a circle dance taught to us by another guy from the former Yugoslavia. The spirit of Christmas came alive with the combined efforts of people who had never celebrated it before; and I went home with a warm glow in my heart, ready to face the New Year with a flickering glow of faith in the strength of humanity.