I’ve always had a fairly complicated relationship with Christmas. My father left when I was two. He always promised we’d spend Christmas together, but he never came. There were fun and loving Christmases with my mum and brother, David. We had very little money, but my mother would manage to fill pillowcases with presents, and we’d have a tin of Quality Street and a little tree. My mother would cook a roast dinner and we’d watch movies together.
Christmases with Corky Ballas, my second husband and dance partner, and his family were a big deal – the tree, opening gifts, playing games and singing songs. Those were quite thrilling Christmases, but not what I was used to. Later, when I had our son Mark, and Corky and I were working as professional dancers and competing, we missed about five Christmases because we were away for months at a time. Mark would stay with my mother, and I felt huge guilt about it. As Mark got older, I realised that you can’t replace that time with a child – the time when Christmas is at its most magical. They’re times I’ll never get back and I regret that.
Then for many years, I barely celebrated Christmas at all. In 2003, my brother took his own life. David, who was 44, had been depressed for a few weeks, but we didn’t know how unwell he really was – and we didn’t know much about mental health. It happened on 5 December. Most people spend the month getting into the festive spirit, but after that I dreaded the anniversary of his death, and the idea of celebrating Christmas without him was too painful.
Because we had grown up without our dad, David was more than a big brother. He was very much the protector of the family, the one who stood fast behind me, and then suddenly he wasn’t there. There was no way my mother or I could enjoy Christmas without him. That first year, I couldn’t believe he wasn’t there, eating treble helpings of Christmas dinner and working his way through a box of chocolates. After that, my mum threw away all her Christmas decorations. In the years afterwards, Christmas felt like something we just had to get through. We always set a place for David at the table, but it felt indescribably sad.
The turning point came in 2018. I was in a pantomime for the first time, in Liverpool. Instead of dreading December, it felt exciting. Mark and his wife flew over from the US to watch the show, and we had an early Christmas dinner at my mother’s house – lots of guitar-playing, games, and Mark singing and dancing with my mum. We raised a toast to David, who had helped my mum raise Mark while I was away all those Christmases.
It was during that December that I got to know Daniel Taylor, another cast member. We would go out and Liverpool would be glittering with lights and people celebrating. I liked Danny, and for the first time I felt I wanted to get into the festive mood, although it still felt painful. David and I grew up in Merseyside, and Liverpool was a place that my brother loved – everywhere I went was a reminder of him. But the city was such a beautiful place to be at Christmas, and I was falling in love with Danny. On the day itself, he joined me, my family and friends for lunch at a hotel in Liverpool and it was the happiest Christmas I’d had in many years. It felt like a switch was turned on – I realised that life moves so fast, and we should embrace the time we have.
Since then, my mum and I have celebrated Christmas properly – we put a tree up, and decorations, and my whole aim is to make sure that we have a special day together. Danny is joining us this year, but even when it is just my mum and me, there is a feeling of warmth and Christmas spirit that we haven’t had since David died. We still always set a place for David at the table and although it’s always emotional, it feels less sombre.
Christmas is a celebratory time, but that can heighten people’s feelings of loneliness and sadness. It’s important to check in on people who are alone at Christmas, because it can be an incredibly difficult time. The loss of my brother never goes away and things remind me of him daily. It’s not as if that special Christmas changed everything – life doesn’t go from feeling all that sadness to suddenly being all great. But it gave me permission to feel that it’s OK to celebrate Christmas, even if David is not here.
As told to Emine Saner
Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.
Shirley Ballas’s autobiography Behind the Sequins is out in paperback now