I am mainly writing this post for myself. If you find it helpful too? Bonus.
If none of this resonates, then I heartily congratulate you. You’ve cracked it. May you go forth and have yourself a Hygge Little Christmas.
But for the rest of us there’s something about Christmas that can bring out that certain crazy strain, despite all our best intentions to do things differently, to have that ideal, chilled, and fun-filled festive season we just know is possible.
Right now, it’s late November. Manchester’s streets are twinkling with lights, the German Markets are in full swing. I’ve got teary eyed at least once over Christmas Ads (manipulative swines). I’ve ‘treated’ myself to a Christmas edition woman’s magazine (a genre I typically avoid year round but can’t resist this time of year).
All is calm. All is bright.
It’s the time of anticipation, of endless possibility. The time when I can just think about what I might plan, but not worry too much about whether it’s done or not. Time – there’s plenty of it yet.
Fast forward to a few weeks later. I’m feeling distinctly bloated, tetchy and sleep deprived. The to-do list is still oppressively long. The magazines I bought a month ago are merely testament to all the home decor ideas and seasonal recipes I’ve not attempted. I’m already well into the Christmas booze and chocolate stash.
Ok. That might be a exaggeration. But I know that for many of us, by the time Christmas itself comes, the failure for it to match up to our expectations can leave us pretty narked.
So here are my twelve ways to avoid Christmas Martyrdom, and for having an Imperfect, Mostly Happy, Mostly Relaxing Christmas.
1. Imagine and savour the possibilities – but only for their own sake
Those magazines and cooking programmes can whet your appetite and get you in the mood. But think of them as mere titillations, as pleasure in their own right. Remove all expectations from yourself that you’ll do any single recipe, table arrangement or craft project held in their pages. Oh sure, you’ll imagine you will – and that’s great. Enjoy imagining that. But let’s leave it at that. Your job is to admire that croquembouche Nigella is magicking up – not to make the bloody thing. And if there’s something you see that you simple must do – ask yourself who you’re doing it for…
2. Do It For Yourself.
This is Gretchen Rubin‘s mantra. As you wade through list of ‘musts’ for Christmas, ask yourself if you get any pleasure from these tasks. A good friend of mine doesn’t do Christmas Cards (except for her Mum). She had only done it out of a sense of obligation and found it oppressive. When I wondered if I could pull off the same, I immediately felt a wave of guilt. Guilt is a surefire sign that I am doing something to meet someone else’s expectations, not necessarily because I wanted to. And when I’m compelled to do something out of guilt, then guilt’s old friend, resentment, soon comes along for the ride. And before you know it, the Christmas Martyr is making an early appearance.
And remember – this is not about being a self-centred troll. When I look after myself first, and have good boundaries in place, I become more resilient, more happy – and therefore more capable of helping others in a meaningful way.
3. Take time to notice the pleasure of the simple things.
Personally, I realised I *do* get pleasure from selecting and writing Christmas cards, and then seeing the satisfying stack of thick envelopes. I like trotting to my local post office and buying the stamps to get them off. Since I’ve realised this, I make sure I set time aside to do it, and see it as – well – something I am doing for myself.
4. Get out of your own head.
Bake, decoupage, jigsaw, meditate, do the ironing, go for a swim, walk the dog – whatever floats your boat. These are all ways to practice mindfulness. If your head is noisy and you’re frazzled, use these activities to detach for a bit and maybe notice what’s going on with your thoughts and emotional state – but as you notice, stay detached. Be your own objective observer. This is the first step to making sure you can manage your own emotional state (i.e. not go full crazy). You can’t change what you don’t notice.
5. Do less to get more.
If you are running around like a headless chicken trying to fit in all the jobs and all the get-togethers, well you’ll be too frazzled to notice and take pleasure in the simple things. They’ll simply become just one more box to tick on your endless list of getting things done. You’ll be a busy fool – with your body in one place, but your mind very much elsewhere. Beware the tendency to spread yourself so thin you’re getting no real value out of anything you do. We need to do less if we’re going to make time for the things and people that matter. First step to achieving that is to….
6. Forget your to-do list. Make a ‘not-to-do’ list.
How realistic is that ever-growing to-do list? And what are all the things you also have to do as part of everyday life that aren’t even on that list (laundry, cooking dinner, ironing, detangling lights, replacing bulbs, making packed lunches)?
Forget the endless list. Think priorities.
For me this means knowing what must get done for life to not go terribly pear-shaped (dusting shelves or gutting the kids’ rooms do not belong on this list) and then knowing what’s going to make me personally feel the happiest if I do it (throw a Christmas party, go mad with the fairy lights). Whittle that list down – and be completely realistic about what can get achieved within the limited amount of time available to you. Then whittle it down some more. Treat this as an exercise in deciding what you are not going to do.
7. Empty out a cupboard.
I know, I know. It’s Gretchen talking again and she can certainly get a bit over-zealous about orderliness. But in this one she’s right. Never underestimate the amount of crap that Christmas brings into your living areas – all sorts of stuff that doesn’t have a place to live. So I’m not suggesting you scrub and order all your kitchen cabinets (unless, you know, you’re “2. Doing it for yourself…“) but clean out one decent storage area close to where everyone seems to congregate and dump stuff, and you’ll thank me. All that stuff that can clutter up, and then you have to shove it to one side so you can actually get to your pine scented votives and light them of an evening. If you have an empty cupboard or set of shelves, you can just dump the stuff there.
8. Be at one with Mess.
No I am not contradicting myself. I am saying that one empty cupboard can help you feel slightly less chaotic – but it’s not a panacea. There will be stuff. There will be glitter. There will be sticky counter-tops and pine needles and stray ornament hooks. Sure, you can stay on top of all of that with endless cleaning and tidying, but see a) 2 and b) 5. You know that book you got last year, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying? It doesn’t apply at Christmas. Unless you want to create a special draw for your cookie cutters and kiss them good night each evening – if this would make you happy, then have at.
9. Beware Premature Christmas Bingeing.
I’m not talking about food here (well, partly). I’m talking about how soon you go Full On Christmas. I’ve banned Christmas Films in our house until December 10th – that’s because one year we started in late November and by December 15th I felt overstuffed and listless at the very thought of watching Elf, and that’s just not right. Of course, ‘premature’ is a relative term. One of my family members has her tree up by the end of November, much to the gobsmacked bemusement of the rest of us. But she gets loads of pleasure from it and her delight is sustained through to January. Me? In many matters I have a compulsion to binge and then regret it. Some people can eat 1-2 squares of chocolate and then carefully put away the bar. I can’t. So better to hold off until I’m ready to go for it. Pace yourself, Palmer.
10. Get outside and move around a bit.
Yes. I am going to be one of those irritating people who tells you that going for a walk can solve anything. It can’t. But it can definitely reduce your stress, help you get perspective, and also may help (moderately) with some damage limitation to your waistline. If you can manage to elevate your heart-rate a bit, all the better. See how you go. Try and commit to this at least once a day. (Note: It can also be a very good way to escape people when you’re feeling over stimulated/irritated by them).
11. Beware day-time drinking.
Oh yes, that cheeky bucks fizz with breakfast seems like such an indulgent, festive thing to do. But this is Christmas Day, and chances are you can’t follow up that tipple with a nice nap. And remember, the solution here is not to just keep on drinking. Before you know it you’ll arguing over Brexit, accusing the kids of being ungrateful little sh*ts, and/or crying over the fact you forgot to buy the brandy butter.
12. Remember you are not responsible for everyone having a jolly time.
I have a preternatural ability to suck the joy out of a social situation by fretting over whether everyone is having a good time or not. Take any typical extended family, throw in lots of rich food, booze, overtired children, and (enforced) togetherness in enclosed, often overly heated and noisy spaces, well that right there is a recipe for drama. It’s not my job to prevent dramas from occurring. It’s my job to not participate in those dramas by swooping in to rescue and smooth things over. Remember, no one can make you feel or do anything – only you are responsible for how you feel and act. It’s your choice. It’s everyone’s choice.
So there you have it. How well I will adhere to these tactics time will tell. If I manage to grip on to a few of them, chances are I’ll achieve an Imperfect, Mostly Happy, Mostly Relaxing Christmas, and this seems a feasible goal. (Any additional survival techniques are gratefully received).
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!