Christmas can be magical. It can also be stressful. Some love it, some hate it, many just endure it.
Personally I really enjoy Christmas, and nearly everything that goes with it. Both my hubby and I were fortunate to have happy childhoods in families that did Christmas well, so our emotional associations with Christmas from a young age are positive and secure – I realise this isn’t the case for everyone, but what I think what we’ve also learned to do well is reinforce and build on the traditions, rituals and factors that make Christmas happy for us, and adapt or drop those aspects that don’t work or bring stress/pain.
Please forgive a moment or two of nostalgia as I describe a little of our Christmases in the past; here we find the clues to how we make it work well for us now.
Some of my happiest and most vivid memories of childhood Christmas were in the preparation: decorating the tree together – the smell, the lights, the Christmas music in the background, unpacking familiar decorations that felt like old friends rediscovered; going carol singing; helping prepare the house for guests, and helping prep the food.
I loved Christmas morning and stretching out my legs to feel presents in a pillow case at the bottom of my bed. My Mum and Dad did not have a lot of money, but they gave a lot of love and thought with their gifts; my favourite presents were actually second-hand but lovingly restored and customized for me, or gifts I had wanted for a long, long time that they had saved up for.
They were all the more precious to me because I’d had to wait (or indeed had no hope that I’d ever get). I realise these are actually the only kind of presents I really remember now.
I remember the house full of friends and family – comings and goings, lots of noise and laughter, yet space to choose to do your own thing too. Always far too much to eat and that sleepy, full feeling in the late afternoon.
In the evening, just as that Christmas Day anti-climax feeling was beginning to set in, there was another little treat in the form of small gifts ‘from the tree’. These were always something practical and useful rather than toys or games, but it helped get us over that more fractious period of the day.
We had lots of rituals and traditions, so there was familiarity, predictability and comfort in these, even if they were sometimes silly – particular games to play, particular carols to sing, particular food to eat.
As circumstances changed and we grew up, Christmas evolved and adapted to absorb new partners, new children, different houses.
For many years after we were married and first had children, Paddy and I would travel many miles to have Christmas day with one set of parents, then journey on again to have boxing day with the other set of parents, alternating each year and carefully co-ordinated with siblings and their respective families too.
But the travel was a strain and drained energy, taking away some of the joy; now we had children ourselves, we longed to create our own new traditions, blending the best rituals from both sets of parents and have the magic of Christmas morning in our own home – to give our children the kind of Happy Christmas experience and memories our parents had given us.
It felt disruptive and a little selfish to break the pattern and claim Christmas for ourselves, but again everyone quickly adapted and soon we were settled into new traditions and patterns.
My Mum decided what was most important was that everyone made the effort to all be together, so we established an alternative Christmas day with all the Andersons gathering at her house on the last Sunday before Christmas. We’d play the usual games, sing the usual carols, distribute presents and then open them with much gusto, ‘oohing’ and ‘ahhing’ and “look what I got, thank you” (even with our agreed £5 limit – there are a lot of us when we all get together!). We’d have buffet style food to ensure we didn’t have two full Christmas dinners, and to make it all more manageable for Mum (my Dad had passed on by now).
With Mum’s death last year, we agreed it was important we continue to gather on this day – this year we’ll be hosting the Anderson clan gathering, as well as Christmas day at our house with Paddy’s family too.
Which brings us to now – here are some of the things we do that help us to navigate Christmas and emerge with our energy and sanity intact:
- We are clear on what’s most important to us, and what’s just nice to have – if things feel stressed it’s good to go back to what matters most and let go of the rest
- We share the load – Christmas is about ‘us’, not just the heroic endeavors of one person (our teamwork is that I take care of the house (cleaning, rearranging furniture, setting the table, clearing up), Paddy does the food; we shop, write cards and wrap presents together; we offer to help each other if one is looking stressed!)
- Preparation is as much part of Christmas as the day itself, and we make it pleasurable as well as productive (eg we book a day off together to do the Christmas shopping – armed with a very specific list, and have a nice lunch in town while we are out)
- We don’t reinvent the wheel – after-all we do Christmas every year, so we have captured our systems electronically for re-use eg a spreadsheet for Christmas cards (so we can do a mail merge and print labels which saves writing all those envelopes), list of people to buy presents for (with ideas) and standard items we buy every time (wrapping paper, labels, napkins etc etc). Paddy has an electronic schedule for all his food preparation.
- We pre book online grocery shopping slots for delivery the week before, and immediately before Christmas as far in advance as we can, and just add to the order over time. Let it all be delivered to us, saving time and the stress of busy supermarkets. If we do need anything last minute bits and pieces, it can just be a quick ‘laser’ shop – in and out, no messing.
- We use Amazon wishlists throughout the family to capture gift ideas and ensure there are ideas to cater for a range of budgets. We get the kids to review and update these on an ongoing basis through the year (it’s good then to see if a wish is a lasting one or not too!). We don’t have to buy through Amazon, but it’s a good place to capture ideas and minimizes unwanted gifts. We get the bulk of gifts online, which makes our ‘in town’ shopping trip much more relaxed and enjoyable.
- We manage the kids expectations on gifts, focusing on thought, creativity and non-monetary value. We also won’t buy presents for their friends – they save up and buy gifts themselves which helps them realise the true value of gifts.
- We respect our rituals and traditions, whilst allowing them to evolve – ie we don’t hold it all too tightly, but neither do we change without good reason.
- We disconnect from work completely over Christmas!
I’d love to hear about your own Christmas rituals, traditions and sanity saving tips – email or comment below.