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.*
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 clichéd 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.
*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…