Christmas unchained


14 Dec 2022

More paper chains and less time tied up in knots may just be the key to a successful and peaceful family Christmas.

Christmas shopping. I step out of the glaring sun into a frosty, air-conditioned wonderland surrounded by plastic snowflakes and blue and silver baubles. Some of the larger baubles have words inscribed on them: ‘Joy’, and ‘Hope’, and ‘Peace’. Peace on earth and peace to all men. But perhaps not peace to any of the mothers.

So often the feeling of Christmas is the feeling of falling short of the impossible benchmarks I set myself. I try my best but I can’t escape it. Something about Christmas fills me with dread. I look at supermarket mince pies and a stone forms in my stomach. Christmas trees twinkle from shop windows and I clench my teeth. Tinsel makes me break out in a rash.

It’s hard to explain. Christmas is beautiful and fun. It’s exciting and lovely. I don’t hate Christmas, not at all. It just makes me really, really anxious. And when I feel anxious, I avoid things. I was the same with school assignments. I don’t want to think about it until it’s an emergency and then I really don’t want to think about it.

Christmas Day is the annual test of motherhood. The kids are going to remember this for the rest of their lives. If I get it wrong they will be traumatised. In my head, it’s all up to me to make Christmas magical for everyone. I can’t even. I’d rather not think about it.

But while I’m busy not thinking about it, I’m also hard at work overthinking. I don’t want to give a gift. I want to give the perfect gift. Plus, every gift has to be precisely calibrated to be of equal loading with the gifts everyone else is getting. I don’t want to bring a plate. I want to bring something impressive and practical and nutritious and mouth-watering. 

I need to remember that God is not the one pressing me to achieve these unrelenting standards.  Perhaps if I spent more time in prayer I would know this, know it deep in my bones. But my mode of operation tends to be to not pray, to reassure God that ‘I’ve got this’ and then to crash and burn spectacularly.

I should take action. I should make a spreadsheet. Do people do this? Is it possible that the answer to all of my problems is one click away? Why have I not thought of this before?

After a fruitless shopping expedition, I open Excel, all ready to change my life forever. And then I discover that I have done this before. On many other occasions, I faithfully put together a file called ‘Xmas.xls’ or ‘Christmas2015.xls’ or ‘festivespreadsheet2012.xls’. I type in details using various techniques and formats, even pie charts, and then I abandon it entirely. I completely forget that it exists. Why am I like this?

It’s time to share the mental load. I call a family meeting. I can just see it. My six children and my husband gather together with me and a sheet of butcher’s paper around the table. Everyone will enthusiastically discuss plans and step up and streamline tasks and then it will develop into a deeply theological chat about the meaning of Christmas and the supreme mystery of the Incarnation. I really like that family-meeting-in-my-head. It makes me feel so accomplished. Unfortunately, it doesn’t play out like that in real life.

In real life, one of my twins is sitting on the table. It makes sense. She has worked out that the centre of attention is located there, so she’s claimed it as her birthright. The other twin is working against the design of her chair in every way possible. Straddling it backwards, climbing, tipping it onto two legs. At one point she slings her ankles over the top of the chair and dangles her head over the seat, giving herself an upside-down view of all of our footwear.

The middle two children are fighting. They both want the same seat. There seems to be nothing in particular to recommend this contentious chair over any of the others except that ‘he always gets his way!’ and ‘she got to have it last time!’.

The teenagers are full of good ideas, but that’s the problem. They have so many ideas. They are adding work. There is so much we could do. More and more ambitious Christmas plans are added to the butcher’s paper which is fast running out of room. We would need three months to accomplish this Yuletide extravaganza. This was not how this was supposed to go. This was never the plan.

I stare, bewildered, at the complicated mess of notes. Luckily for me, my husband comes up with the goods. ‘We have a great list here kids. Everybody pick one or two absolute must-have favourites. You will be in charge of making sure that thing happens.’

It was surprising some of the activities they picked. They weren’t the most flashy or expensive. None of them were the things I usually stress about making impressive. Can we make paper chains? Sure. Can we sing carols with our uncles and aunties? Absolutely we can make that happen.

Maybe the secret to peace at Christmas time comes from budgeting our energy. What are the important traditions? Double down on these. Put in the effort. What is extra? Phone it in. Go store-bought, cut corners, skip it entirely.

And what do I do with the extra time? I take a minute to remember that I’m not in charge and pray, pray, pray.

Of course, failing that I could make a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet. Yes! Why have I never thought of this before?

Kate’s novel, Tuesday Evenings with the Copeton Craft Resistance (by Kate Solly) is available in bookstores from December 27.

This article first appeared in Madonna magazine Summer 2022-23 edition. Click here for information on subscribing to the magazine from which the daily reflections are taken.

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