The countdown to a simpler Christmas. Week 3 (and a bit): More beauty, less of a beast

My Fabulous Mother was fond of recounting, when I was growing up, her Greatest Success as a counsellor (though, now I think more about both counselling and confidentiality, I suspect this might actually have been her Greatest Success that was Also Appropriate to Share with her Children). This success occurred as follows. At around this time of year, or maybe a little earlier, one very overworked and underappreciated client spent some of her session ranting about sprouts. “I don’t know why I bother! They’re so much hassle, and nobody even likes them!” Mother, looking her directly in the eye with her head tilted just a little to one side (yes, I’ve been the recipient of a few of Those Looks myself) suggested calmly “Well, don’t do them then.” And with those five words, Christmas tradition and a source of major angst were both knocked down like the flimsy Ikea-bought gingerbread house they were.*

A gingerbread box with smarties covering it.
It is a good thing Ikea’s furniture is significantly better than their gingerbread houses. This deserted shack was all that could be salvaged from this year’s purchase. Still tasted good, though…

The Internet has been teeming with similar stories recently, as household after household have their bubbles popped and now face Christmas alone. Suddenly it is OK to look at what you would like to eat, rather than what you’ve always eaten in the past, or what you feel is expected. Pigs in blankets? Eat the whole pack! Nothing but eggnog? Well, at least it’s full of protein! All the trimmings but none of the turkey? Can’t say anyone would blame you! But these traditions, and stresses, and plans are all there for the sake of the people we love most in the world – or at least, are most closely related to. And the people we will be spending it with this year, if we’re not spending it alone, are one fraction of that same group – the people we love most in the world. So if we’re not doing all the franticness and faffiness for ourselves or the people we love most, who are we doing it for?

One clich├ęd beast is that it is all for the children. We must do everything, be everywhere, take part in every activity and contribute to every appeal because if we don’t, their Christmas will be less than it could have been. For those of you without primary school aged children, let me give a flavour of what I mean here. Even in these Covid-riddled times, with no End of Term disco or Christmas play/activity afternoon/assembly to squeeze in, we still had: a Zoomed introduction to Year 2 SATS; Viking Day (Muuum, I was the only one with a homemade costume! It was the Worst Day Ever!); Wedding Day (to celebrate Christian traditions. Because no other Christian traditions spring to mind at this time of year…); Christmas Party Day; Christmas Jumper & Santa Run Day (don’t forget the donation, just a quick dash into a supermarket as we have no doodle-free colouring books or un-nibbled mince pies in the house, naturally…); Christmas lunch (which had to be reordered separately to all their other school dinners, which was probably handy as it was about the only school dinner I actually managed to order in advance); breakfast with Santa (via Zoom, and only for The Cowgirl. The Paleontologist was furious when she found out, not because she missed a Zoom call with Santa, but because she missed waffles for breakfast); and finally, to top it all off, the flu inoculations, with a likely side effect of fever. Good thing a temperature isn’t something to be worried about, really. Oh, wait…

Christmas for The Children goes beyond school nightmares activities, of course. It seeps into everything, becoming indistinguishable from actions to appease my own Ghost of Christmas Past. These things that made Christmas magical for me, I try to recreate so that my children can also feel that magic. The beauty, the candlelight and singing and tranquility my parents somehow pulled off? Those are the things I would love my kids to look back on and smile at in years to come, as they still have that effect on me. But fighting to recreate a half-remembered and thoroughly idealised holiday that fits neither the temperaments not the needs of this household, in this time, in this place, destroys the beauty of my memories by trying to cram them into a stress-shaped handmade golden star gently spinning in the frantic storm of my passing.

One way to make Christmas a thing of beauty is to make it all for God. The carol services and soaring soprano descants and the infant Jesus being borne to the crib at Midnight Mass are things of beauty, of mystery, of joy and worship and wonder. There is peace on the face of every one of those faithful worshippers, who have struggled more than ever this year, and now laugh in relief as they wish everyone love and joy and go home to sleep for a week. There is beauty in the people who come to church every year, in those who come every week, in those who come every day. There is beauty in the reaffirmation of faith and the deepening of commitments, making church-going just a little bit more normal, just for one day. There is soaring beauty and joy there. And there is such a beast to: the beast of expectations, of seeing the finished result of a service and imagining it was as easy to put together as it was to participate in; of settling in to the familiar and forgetting that even the familiar must be practiced and reworked and takes more effort than dragging a wheelie bin through a hedge backwards, just as those secular reworkings of cooking the dinner and decorating the house and searching, again, for the list of addresses you swore last year you would put back in a safe place takes time, and energy, and emotion. And through it all you have cancelled dreams and last minute positive Covid tests and phone calls from people expecting decisions it is not yet possible to make. For me, some of the greatest beauty in the season is held in the familiar worship, recreated anew every year; and some of the greatest beastliness can be found in what it takes to make that worship possible.

Maybe Christmas is for Good? Anyone with as bad a taste in cheesy heartwarming films as I have will have seen many, many different incarnations of the story (probably) initiated by A Christmas Carol, where someone who thinks only about money discovers the error of his (and it does seem to usually be his) ways, discovers the Magic of Christmas, and opens his heart to joy. In Nativity that joy means accepting the past and embracing self-belief. In A Muppet Christmas Carol it means supporting local businesses and realising that money can be used for good as well as ill. In Love Actually it means acknowledging and embracing those around us who get us through, even though this hurts sometimes. In A Christmas Story it means doing your best to fulfil your children’s dreams, even if they break their hearts (or their glasses) in the process. In Christmas Vacation it means destroying everything around you in order to discover that the things that really matter are not the lights, or the eggnog, or even the Christmas Bonus, but are rather the people you share those horrific, hilarious moments with. And the list could, of course, go on, and on, and on. People with their priorities misplaced get them corrected by the magic in the air and the movements of Father Christmas, and renew all our faith in ourselves, humanity, and the world. These are tales that place goodness at the heart of Christmas, and yet in themselves create impossible expectations and unliveable ideals that contribute, in part, to the reason that this season causes more divorces than any other in the year.

Christmas is about individual traditions and collective memories. It means working to help those who are lost or abandoned by others or the system; it means finding beauty and hope in lights in your neighborhood or the local parks; it means worshipping and glorying in individual acts or communal praise; it means finding the perfect gift that will be used and treasured and remembered for years to come; but it doesn’t mean all of these things, all together, all of the time, for every person. It is not about outdoing others, or overdoing excess, or doing every single thing that makes your memories sing every single year. I hope that this year, for all the darkness many will face in the days ahead; for all the food that will be thrown away in one house while next door starve with no access to fresh supplies; for all the people who tore their families apart working out their original Christmas bubbles and cannot see anyone at all now to fix the deep-running pain; I hope for all the hurt we have faced this year, it may just give us the chance to re-find the beauty and magic of Christmas in a way we haven’t had for decades before this. And, in the very, very long run, I hope that will be one of the real blessings of 2020.

A garland on a staircase which has actually been hoovered! Wrapped around the banisters are Christmas lights; in the corner is a washing basket and a bookcase.
A handmade garland; reusable advent calendar, Christmas lights on the stairs. This is what my home looks like all year round in my dreams.

*I also very happily followed this advice in my own cooking until my Mother-in-law, who is equally marvellous but has a couple of significant blind spots in the area of Green Vegetables, introduced The Paleontologist to sprouts a few years ago. In doing so she accidentally discovered the one, lightly-steamed-with-no-added-flavour or-they-don’t-count, green vegetable she is not only willing, but eager, to eat…

Advertisement

The countdown to a simpler Christmas. Week 2: eating, drinking and being merry

Food and I have a complicated relationship, as I may have mentioned just once or twice before. That relationship goes even more haywire at this time of year, as it does for so many other people – and so many other relationships, come to that. When so much emphasis is placed on consumption in general, and the consumption of food to distress in particular, how can we change food and drink and merriment to keep the fun and add in a healthy measure of simplicity?

The first Christmas after The Vicar and I were married was bloody awful memorable, to say the least. The Christmas traditions of my household were birthed in grief, distraction and anger. My side of the family were facing our first Christmas after the death of my father. The Vicar’s side were bearing his brother being on active service overseas, at a time that the media delighted in reminding us all of the danger faced in those long-lasting desert conflicts. Parents were facing handing over control of Christmas to their children, still young enough that the most common question either of us faced was whether we’d be “going home for Christmas.” Mix all of this together, season with the pressures of being a clergy household at a rather busy time of year, spice up with a slightly overbearing and very clear on the Right Way To Do Things grandmother, and you had a recipe that was always fairly likely to send us all over the edge.

The thing that kept me focussed, excited, feeling festive in those dark and dreary days, was food. Planning it, preparing it, sharing it. It started with buying the BBC’s Vegetarian Christmas magazine, pouring over its suggestions on the top deck of a steamed-up bus dragging its way past still-unfamiliar buildings to the not-yet-quite-home village we were living and worshipping in. It grew to become my sanctuary. Food preparation became my escape from people when I couldn’t face any more interaction. Everyone but The Vicar was unequivocally and unconditionally banned from entering the kitchen for any reason at all, on pain of having their eardrums blown. I demonstrated, to myself and all others around me, that Of Course I Was Coping, thank you very much – because would someone who wasn’t coping be able to produce a spread like this?

A table full of all kinds of food - some home made, some shop bought,
The tradition of a Christmas Eve buffet in this household developed over some years, and now forms the basis of All Food Eaten for the following week at least.

From those roots grew something beautiful, yet something that controlled me as much as I controlled it. I love cooking. I love sharing the food I have made, nurturing and nourishing and showing the love I can’t express through the hospitality I can. I love the creativity of trying new recipes and the generosity of planning a menu based on the diets and personal preferences of those I am caring for. But underlying that hope and love is still the conviction that if the food isn’t right and the booze isn’t free flowing, our guests will not feel loved, I will not feel in control, and the snowflake-and-robin-filled house of cards will come crashing down around my ears.

I am not alone in showing love, joy, one-upmanship and control in the creation of a perfectly crafted fortnight of food and drink that is available at any point; of snacks and treats to binge on until nobody can move without groaning. Sharing food is a way of sharing the things we cannot say. Back in the days when we were allowed to share more than thermometers and fear, my full time students would produce a communal Christmas buffet on the last day of term. As (almost exclusively) mothers themselves, bringing in food kicked them into autopilot and allowed them to revel in generosity. They would get up at 4am to start preparing a spread that would bring tears to my eyes. Overflowing heaps of white bread and cheese sandwiches met vast vats of curry and rice. Over shared food came shared music and a breaking down of divisions that had grown deeper and harder as the term had progressed. The shared need of both seeking sustenance and seeking to provide for others showed similarities across boundaries and life experiences that could not be seen in the rigidity of classroom exercises and the now-familiar patterns of who would succeed, who would step forward, who would retire behind uncertainty or sullen non-communication.

A buffet in a classroom - lots of homemade food in the foreground, and a smartboard and images of authors on cupboard doors in the background.
Taking pride in sharing food and experiences – the spread put on by my students a couple of years ago, that fed not only everyone in the room, but also everyone in the staffroom with the leftovers…

Eating food we do not need is as much a waste as throwing food away before it can be consumed. But it is also a joy, a way of opening up that is not achieved through sharing space and spoken experiences alone. In a year that we are all cutting back, cutting down, simplifying, questioning, how do we prune away the unwanted and the dead wood without cutting away the heart altogether? For me, the answer is not in the food and the drink, but in the honesty and openness of admitting what they represent. Sharing, hope and joy are all things I want more of, not less; and if that means cooking a little too much and ending up with a tummy that sends me to sleep in the middle of the afternoon, then that is what I will live with. But fear of rejection, lack of control, needing to prove myself and my place in the world? Those are things I need to leave aside; those are things that will not be granted by feeding the five thousand, however hard I try; and they are not things that are worth killing the planet for.

The countdown to a simpler Christmas. Week 1: Advent

In my mind and in my fantasies, Advent is a time for making memories, dancing from one perfect moment to another with well-fitting coats and knitted scarves and big smiles as we visit Santa, pick greenery, sing carols and romp together in the snow. The house is clean and shiny from top to bottom; all the de-cluttering jobs that have been nagging at me all year are miraculously tidied up into other people’s welcoming arms; and warmth, fairy lights and the smell of cinnamon and homemade sugar-filled treats fill the air. Presents are handmade and meaningful; cards are written with love and actually posted; decorations are natural, zero waste and beautiful; and the air is pregnant with expectation and spiritual growth.

What Advent actually is, in this household at least, is exhaustion. It is cold. It is hectic. It is children with runny noses and adults who rely on their voices for work but are losing them anyway, and an endless, nagging feeling of not being on top of things. It is hyperactivity and the screeching of “Fiiiiive goooooold riiiiiings” from every room. It is The Palaeontologist screaming in frustration because she used up all her energy five weeks ago and hasn’t worked out how to build up more. It is Zoom calls about upcoming SATS and last minute letters about Viking days at school and realising you have no suitable clothes for the end of term celebration because your children have grown two sizes since they last went to a party. It is waiting not for the birth of Jesus but for clarity over government rules and regulations, The Vicar writing and revising what church services will be possible and how, everyone bending their minds around who will feel safe enough to meet together over the Christmas week, and what the consequences of any actions we take might be.

My reality is overload. My ideal is overly saccharine. Neither of them have any connection to simplicity. And Advent is a season whose heart cries out for simplicity. It is a time when we remember waiting. It is a time that was first filled with the praying, and preparation, and solitude, and weariness, and fear, and uncertainty of a pregnancy and birth that would change the world. It is a time of hoping against all expectations that this year it will be different. It is a time that first ended in a dirty, crowded, love-filled overflow to an inn that was more welcoming than it had space to be. How might it be possible, in an era of moments engineered for the perfect social media shot and endless comparisons across the playground, to bring that simplicity into my own Advent rituals?

One way is resisting some of the many and increasing customs of Advent itself. Advent calendars are shared and re-used every year in this household, and contain acts of kindness and, this year, the Christmas story as well as chocolates (because let’s face it, without chocolate would anyone get as far as looking for the lovingly recycled messages to act on every day? Plus, that boost of sugar before getting out of bed in the morning is apparently exactly what they need to drag themselves into their school uniforms in these final, closing days of a term that has lasted at least two decades.) We avoid Christmas Eve boxes (easy enough when Christmas Eve is a work night, and a busy one at that) and buy Christmas Jumpers – an absolute necessity for any primary school child in modern Britain – second hand, and re-gift them after they are outgrown (or try to – currently, I confess, I have a large and growing pile of them I never remember to give away at the right time of year). And I flatly refuse, with everything that is in me, for the sake of my little remaining sanity and well-being, to do Elf on the Shelf.

Notes for an advent calendar, with quotes from the Christmas story and acts of kindness. They are surrounded by chocolate and lying on top of pieces of Christmas wrapping paper.
Acts of kindness written on recycled Christmas wrapping paper. Two chocolates for every action (anything to avoid another squabbling match); one action for every Advent calendar compartment.

These moves are not enough to satisfy my hope of simplicity. Noise and lights and already-decorated Christmas trees still surround me at all times. The underlying fear that presents will not get bought has started to seep into my nightmares. The alternating fears that when my children look back on Advent, they will either remember nothing but chocolate and Christmas films; or that they will remember nothing good at all, make me seek out more to do and more ways, new ways, different ways to fit in with the expectations of those they are surrounded by and Make Memories by doing, spending, acting.

There is no perfect medium in this one. The things that would be my ideal would not be the ideals of my family. The days are long gone, if they ever existed at all, when I could work towards making my own perfect Christmas and simply expect others to enjoy it too. And that is a good thing. Not only because my perfect Christmas was unachievable, but also because, in moving away from my own ideals and accepting that maybe other people’s ideas have equal value, I have also moved away from thinking only about perfection, about service by martyring myself in a quest for everything to look like a Disney set, and started noticing the moments when we get it right, together; even when that means letting The Cowgirl “help” with making the Christmas cake, turning a 15 minute mixing job into an hour-long blow by blow account of every moment of her school day, interspersed with us both swiping tastes of the uncooked cake batter, loaded with brandy-soaked dried fruit, whenever we thought we could get away with it. I still want to try to read more of the Bible and less of escapist novels downloaded because they were free on Kobo. I also want my children to help me to make new family traditions, which are likely to involve a lot more mud, shrieking, and screen time (quite possibly simultaneously), than I would ever volunteer for. I still want quiet times and times of prayer and times when I intensively clean away a year’s worth of dust and grime and make our living space feel more like a home and less like a haunted house, wrapped in spiders webs and clogged with cat fur. And I also want to do one thing, every day, just for fun. Simplicity can be about what we choose not to do, not to buy, not to eat; it is also about living here, and now, and enjoying what is here and now, rather than focussing always on the future. And focussing on the here and now can be as much a part of waiting and preparation as anything else.

Simple figures of a pregnant Mary and a caring Joseph, on a wooden tabletop, with a homemade Christmas decoration in the background.