My mother fell sick most Boxing Days. One year she flew off the back step and ended up in the emergency room for the night. I’m guessing she saw it as a chance to finally put her feet up.
Journey back in time with me as I retrace the 48 hours before my mother’s unexpected leap into mid-air. She would have begun the morning by taking out her giant enameled pan and kneading the dough for dozens and dozens of soft, white rolls. Once the pans were placed on the radiators to rise, she’d set to work on the pies: apple, lemon meringue, and mincemeat, at least two of each kind.
On the morning of the 25th, she and all the other women in our neighbourhood would rise at 5 am to supervise the hours and hours of slow roasting required for what we know today as a “heritage turkey.” She had an hour or two of quiet time before we children exploded on the scene. Once the presents were opened and wrapping paper flung all over the house, off we went to mass. My mother cast a critical eye over all five children dressed in our Christmas outfits, our faces scrubbed to a high shine. Afterwards, we’d race home so my mom could get the bird on the table at 12 sharp, according to my dad’s timetable. Post-lunch, most of us dozed in our chairs while mom processed the leftovers and cleaned up the debris. Who can blame her for indulging in a little post-Christmas collapse?
As a typical 1950s housewife, my mother may come across as a bit extreme today. But can’t we all recognize at least a bit of ourselves in her story? How many of us still try to wrestle a magical Christmas from sweat and elbow grease? We eat too much, worry too much, and expect too much. We spend money that we don’t have buying gifts our loved ones may not like.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of posts on the Internet that will tell you how to have a stress-free Christmas. As they lament the season’s commercialization, they offer cavalier advice about crafting home-made gifts or spending the day dishing up turkey at a soup kitchen. Is it just me or do those suggestions seem like even more work? At the risk of sounding like Scrooge, I advise you to skip the soup kitchen this Christmas. Instead, offer your services in February, when charities are less likely to have access to hoards of earnest do-gooders.
Looking back, my worst Christmases were those that involved weeks of round-the-clock planning. In contrast, the most successful were those when I had to work on Christmas Eve and be back at my desk on the 27th. With work as an excuse, I felt less pressured to stage a Christmas miracle. The house didn’t smell like cinnamon and the decorations hung slightly askew, but Christmas morning proved to be just as glorious and crazy as always.
As I grew older and saner, I became even more adept at avoiding the Christmas trap. When my children lived at home, I had a file entitled (no kidding!) Christmas Mistakes: Things to Avoid Next Year. Some of these items date back to 2003:
1. Pay more attention to your spouse or partner. From an organizational standpoint, 2003 had been an exceptional holiday. Gifts were purchased on time and within budget. Christmas dinner was both delicious and aesthetically pleasing. The colour-coordinated tree was a wonder of gold and blue. The only problem was … Mark was miserable. Coldly shunted aside in my quest for perfection, he became collateral damage, a casualty to my to-do list, a foot soldier sacrificed to the great cause. (How often does one get to use so many military metaphors?) In the end, of course, he mutinied and I learned an important lesson. Don’t turn your to-do list into an object of worship. People are infinitely more important.
Here’s a fun activity: make a list of all the stuff you usually do at Christmas: lights, gifts, dinner, the works. Then go through the list and see how many activities you can delete, change, or delegate. You’ll feel better immediately and your family will be delighted to have you back.
2. Cut down on the number of cookie recipes. As everyone goes gluten-free and sugar-free, no one really wants to eat the suckers anyway. If baking is a beloved activity, as it is for my daughter and me, you’ll find you can bond just as easily over two recipes as you can over 10.
3. Don’t get hung up on Christmas lights. It’s amazing that marriages survive the strain of hanging Christmas lights. Over the years, I’ve learned to set aside two weekends for this activity: one weekend to find and untangle the various strands and the following weekend to cajole Mark onto the ladder.
Even better, limit your own display and focus instead on enjoying the light shows mounted by your over-achieving neighbours. This year, I’m hanging a single star (see above) with fairy lights stapled to it. Simple.
4. Resist the urge to herd. Crowds make us crazy. In the French Revolution, spectators brought their knitting to the foot of the guillotine. At the mall, we are easily seduced into buying things we can’t afford and don’t need. If you must venture into the mall, go early in the morning or towards closing time. Prepare for it as you would for a trip into the darkest jungle: arm yourself with a shopping list, be vigilant in empty parking lots, don comfortable shoes, and eat some protein to increase your strength and endurance.
5. Limit your gift list. If someone unexpectedly buys you a present, resist the urge to run out and buy that person a gift in return. You may be starting a tradition that you don’t want and can’t afford. Show your friendship in other ways throughout the year, when you have more money and less stress. Above all, avoid going into debt to make sure you have a present for everyone you know.
Here’s a tip: discuss with your spouse or partner how much you will spend on each other. Since mutual attempts at mind-reading cause unnecessary stress, offer some suggestions on gifts you would welcome. This also lessens the likelihood of a last-minute find from the gas station. Perhaps there’s one large gift you can both share.
6. Build some downtime into your holiday. Hang around with your loved ones in your pajamas. Watch a movie together. Go for a drive and hold hands in the car. Sit in the dark and admire the twinkling lights on that Christmas tree you spent so much time and money on.
7. Carry the Christmas spirit into the rest of the year. If you want to throw a festive party, do it in February or March, when people are less likely to be double-booked and more in need of some relief from the mid-winter blues.
Remember: people over things, family time over stuff, and affection over order. And if you find that people resist your vision of a perfect holiday, change your vision! We owe it to each other in these years of living backwards.
Susan Young de Biagi is a regular contributor to prdn.
“As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou – my first novel – I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction, and authored a number of digital, educational products.