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Make it a Christmas to remember: Dossier special

Rewrite the rule book of tired traditions, excess and extravagance. Heidi Scrimgeour discovers how to
reframe Christmas and say no to festive frazzle for a season that’s meaningful, memorable and magical

by Psychologies

A woman sat by a Christmas tree

On-trend tree? Check. Festive table dressed to impress? Carefully picked-out presents (sustainably wrapped, of course) and cards sent weeks in advance of the final posting date? Check, check. From the expectations placed on us by friends and family to the names we follow on social media – but mostly by ourselves – the pressure to pull off an Insta-perfect party season can mean Christmas takes its toll.

And last year’s late rule changes were particularly challenging, when suddenly we found ourselves with empty chairs and pared-back plans, which – no matter how stoically accepted – left the uneasy sense that the Grinch had truly stolen Christmas.

Yet, for many of us, the pandemic delivered a most unexpected gift: the chance to reconsider our festive to-do list and rewrite the usual Christmas script. A change that was perhaps long overdue, but took a global crisis for us to be able to consider.

For decades now, our expectations have grown. When we were children, a trip to see Santa at the local department store the Saturday before the big day was a special treat. Now, we feel we must take our little darlings to the very best grotto money can buy, with real reindeer, personalised gifts and an enchanted forest, all watched through the lens of a camera and shared with the world before we even get back home.

Likewise, the meal, the tree, the parties, the presents grow bigger and better, more expensive and more… exhausting. Because, make no bones about it, a recent study revealed that seasonal overload is real, with one in four women suffering from exhaustion and emotional burnout before the big day rolls around. My only question: Is it really only one in four?

But last year gave all our plans a kicking, and made us do things differently. And the good news is that we don’t have to climb back on the Christmas carousel of excess and extravagance. Many of my friends have expressed a desire to do Christmas differently this year. As we make plans, freed from some of the expectations that previously seemed set in stone, we also feel determined to throw off the festive burnout that plagues women in particular during this most wonderful time of the year.

We have learned that a simple Christmas can be profoundly meaningful and memorable. We’re no longer buying the myth that seasonal exhaustion is simply the price we must pay for pulling off the perfect Christmas. And in discovering what we missed when Christmas was duly upended, we’re reconsidering everything from what it means to us to how we wish to spend it.

So instead of hurtling into preparations you’ve perhaps never felt you could question, take a breath and make plans that truly serve you and those you love this Christmas…

Rewrite...your family time

If you’ve been used to seeing your parents for breakfast Buck’s Fizz, before heading over to his mum and dad’s for lunch, then visiting Gran mid-afternoon, last year you may have really missed seeing family and friends. Or maybe… you didn’t. If you’re reluctant to revert to the pre-pandemic Christmas chaos of dashing from pillar to post, now’s the time to break free from obligation. It’s about rerouting your usual plans rather than doggedly holding on to what you’ve always done.

‘What stops many of us from following through on a desire to do Christmas differently is the fear that someone important will be upset if we fall out of step with their expectations,’ says Holly Matthews, a self-development coach and founder of The Happy Me Project.

‘If you know someone is going to feel annoyed, remember that their feelings probably stem from the fact that they have their own version of the ideal Christmas.’ Find ways to remind them that they matter, and reinforce that you want them included in your plans, Matthews suggests. ‘Making them feel special will help them see that your new rules are about you, not them.’

You could, for example, visit loved ones on a more leisurely schedule during the month, instead of making it all about one or two crushingly busy days.

Be kind to yourself, as well as to others, as you shake up your plans. Some of the routines you’re seeking to dismantle may have been around for quite some time, so changing them is bound to be emotive, Matthews explains. ‘It’s not your job to manage other people’s emotions, but you can be understanding enough to know that certain feelings might surface,’ she says. ‘Try not to change everything at once, or leave some wriggle room for compromise, so that those you care about can have a bit of their perfect Christmas too.’

Rewrite...your festive traditions

There can be much joy and comfort to be had from our Christmas rituals (as we discover on page 24), but if you’ve ever tried to challenge a long-held family tradition, you’ll know how strong the reactions can be! Understanding why we hold so firmly to family customs – even ones that don’t serve us – is key to dismantling them with grace and respect, says Geraldine Joaquim, a psychotherapist, stress management consultant and author of Understanding Your Stress Footprint (£9.95).

‘Traditions bring steadiness in a confusing world and can provide a sense of belonging and comfort, while old family rituals can nurture connection, not just to our immediate family but to past generations,’ she says. ‘Developing your self-awareness is not for the fainthearted – it can bring up all sorts of emotions and memories – but as you go through the process, it also brings clarity and choice. You start to discover yourself in among the routine and can decide whether the activities still serve you, or whether you want to replace them with new ones. Customs such as what you eat for dinner and when you put up your tree are wrapped in family history that may stretch back to your childhood and beyond – your parents were probably trying to recreate the Christmases they had as children.’

Try reflecting on why you uphold a tradition. Consider who enjoys it and whether it adds meaning or brings you closer. But remember that traditions can also just be for fun! Talk to your relatives about why you’ve always done something a certain way: ‘This is a great way of discovering family history,’ says Joaquim.

But what can you do if the family customs you feel tied to no longer bring you happiness? If they’re not working for you, you can change them, or ditch them. ‘It can be hard to let go of tradition, but there’s a danger that you’ll resent it if you continue with a ritual that no longer brings you joy,’ adds Joaquim. ‘It might make you feel uncomfortable and could even create cognitive dissonance – the state of having inconsistent thoughts or beliefs, which result in feelings of unease and tension, which is not what you want when you’re trying to create an atmosphere of warmth and comfort at Christmas!’

If you anticipate fallout from others, take it gently, Joaquim advises. Make time to explain why a tradition doesn’t work for you any more, and think up new ones that could replace it. ‘If you hate turkey, you could suggest another dish to serve alongside it, or even offer to provide an alternative.’ Ultimately, it’s down to you to decide what to hold on to and what to create as new, but do so with an awareness of how it will affect others. Don’t forget, Joaquim cautions, to consider the impact on future generations if your tradition includes children, because they’ll be repeating your rituals – at least until they decide to abandon or change them!

Sending Christmas cards was popularised in the mid-1800s, but with today’s awareness of climate change and waste, it’s perfectly acceptable that people are turning to e-cards or not sending cards at all, perhaps making a donation to a charity instead.’

And remember, nothing is set in stone, says Joaquim – you may choose to stop a tradition but, if you miss it, there’s nothing to stop you picking it up again next year!’

Rewrite...your Christmas calendar

The festive party season is a major cause of burnout. But, this year, the stakes are even higher because we’ve grown accustomed to rarely leaving the house, never mind rocking around the Christmas tree all month long. So how do you pace your partying and say yes to a whirlwind of festive invitations without ending up exhausted and running on empty?

‘When we tire ourselves out socially, it’s often because of a lack of balance between our own needs and the needs of others,’ says Michaela Thomas, a clinical psychologist and author of The Lasting Connection (Little, Brown, £14.99). ‘Not being able to say no to invitations can stem from a lack of boundaries, perhaps due to a fear of letting other people down or worry about not being liked or fitting in, but it can also stem from a fear of missing out on all these wonderful events after a period of being socially starved.’

Many of us struggle to set boundaries because we don’t check in with ourselves about what we need, according to Thomas. ‘How do you know it’s time to charge your phone if you don’t check the battery status?’ she says. ‘Being mindfully aware of the early warning signs that you need downtime is key – are you irritable, snappy or tired without an obvious reason? You may be overloaded and need some downtime to recharge. If so, then it’s appropriate to choose one of the social commitments you are juggling and set it down.’

Remember too that people pleasing doesn’t serve you or your friends. ‘Kindness is key – you can face requests without passively saying yes and regretting it later, and without aggressively saying no and burning bridges with people,’ adds Thomas. ‘Between passive and aggressive lies assertive, where you kindly but firmly say that you won’t be able to make it. Compassion for the other person’s situation, balanced with compassion for your own situation, is helpful in guiding you towards which events to accept or decline, and how to do so with kindness.’

If you find yourself filling up the calendar and wishing you could make it stop, try asking yourself some important questions, Thomas suggests. ‘How will you feel if you push yourself to go? How would the other person feel if you couldn’t make it? How important is the social event? If your friend knew what you were going through, would they really judge you for cancelling? And, are you speaking to yourself as kindly as your friend would speak to you?’

If, from a Covid point of view, you aren’t ready for the office Christmas party or other gatherings, it’s especially important to respect your limitations. If you feel rusty from not having socialised for so long, Thomas recommends building up to a bigger event by going to a few smaller gatherings first. ‘Little and often helps chip away at your fear and broadens your comfort zone, rather than going from nought to 100 in one social event,’ she says.

Rewrite...your working life

Between office Christmas bashes and boozy client catch-ups, it can be hard to find time to actually do your job at this time of year. Mounting pressure to wrap up projects for the holidays alongside endless social expectations can leave you feeling more frazzled than festive by the time you clock off for Christmas.

‘Some people are like children at Christmas – excited about the opportunities for drinks, parties and long lunches – and very little work gets done,’ says Catrin MacDonnell, an executive and business coach.

‘But the work doesn’t go away and someone has to pick up the pieces. On top of pressure to be the perfect party person – helping to keep it all fun and keep smiling during often dull and drunken conversations – you might be the Christmas elf at home too: shopping, planning and cooking. It’s a huge amount of extra pressure, with fewer hours to actually do your work and get stuff done. And what goes out of the window first? Self-care. Eating properly, drinking water and getting enough sleep don’t happen as they should. No wonder we feel exhausted.’

But there is an antidote, according to MacDonnell. Remind yourself that you’re not responsible for keeping everyone happy at work or enabling everyone to have a good time. ‘If you’re a people pleaser or a perfectionist, Christmas is tough,’ she says. ‘It’s also hard for people who just don’t like Christmas.’

Take time to think about changes you’d like to make at work and share your thoughts with a colleague or friend so you can hold each other accountable, MacDonnell advises. If you’re feeling the festive fallout at work, you might agree that you won’t say yes to every extra task that comes your way. ‘This might involve explaining that you’re not able to take it on, delegating other tasks so that you can make space for it or setting a firm timescale and resolving not to toil over it for ever, trying to make it perfect,’ she says. ‘Whatever you decide, make it a rule and keep it front of mind. Some people find a mantra, such as “I don’t have to rescue everyone”, can be useful.’

It can help to think in advance about the things you want to avoid in December. ‘Say no to picking up all the work while others are having a ball, and no to drinks and party invitations if they fill you with dread or will leave you worn out,’ says MacDonnell. ‘And say no to hangovers too – or do a deal with yourself and limit them – because waking up in a pit of self-loathing and exhaustion staring down a day’s work really doesn’t help!’

Rewrite...your soul

Perhaps you don’t really celebrate Christmas but find yourself getting dragged along with the crowd and want to step back this year. Or maybe you’re longing for some quiet space to soak up the sanctity of the season, regardless of your specific beliefs. You don’t have to be a fervent churchgoer to find your sense of spirituality awakened at this time of year and Advent can be a wonderfully peaceful period of mindfulness, if you choose to embrace it.

‘As the year turns towards Christmas, we naturally begin to feel more festive because of changes in the weather, adverts we see on TV or even just the arrival of warming, spiced lattes on the menu at our local coffee shop,’ says Rebecca Lockwood, a coach who specialises in NLP, hypnosis and positive psychology. ‘These things have been anchored into our neurology so that we associate them with Christmas.’

If you find yourself seeking meaning in those moments, try paying close attention to the small things, such as the feel of cooler air in the winter months and spending time with people you love, says Lockwood. ‘Tap into what’s really important to you about Christmas.’

Making time for yourself can also equip you to deal with feelings of festive burnout when they surface. ‘Give yourself time at least every few days to listen to yourself and your body,’ advises Lockwood. ‘Whether it’s a steaming bubble bath to mull over your thoughts, or a moment over coffee in the morning, try to tap into how you feel,’ she says.

‘Honouring your feelings is always important. And if you feel something negative, instead of giving yourself statements in your head, try asking yourself a question to dig deeper. This will open up your mind to becoming more resourceful.’

6 simple steps to a less stressful festive season

Decide what your ideal Christmas looks like.  Did you enjoy a more solitary Christmas last year and want to retain elements of that this year? Do you hate turkey and want to eat chicken nuggets and binge-watch ‘Grey’s Anatomy’? ‘Whatever the ideal Christmas looks like for you, owning it in your own mind is the first step to achieving it, without judging yourself for your choices,’ says Holly Matthews.

Give people time to accept and adjust.  ‘Let people know your new Christmas rules in advance,’ advises Matthews. ‘Dropping on everyone that you no longer buy presents or eat meat two days before Christmas is unlikely to go down well.’

Write down your definitely/maybe list.  ‘Preparing ahead of time can alleviate some festive anxiety and help you let go of trying to control what you can’t,’ says Matthews. ‘Write two lists: what will definitely happen and what might happen. For example, I will definitely give Grandma that new scarf she wanted, and Uncle John may get a bit too tipsy at lunch.’

Breathe through burnout.  ‘Close your eyes, focus on your breath and remind yourself that everyone is doing the best they can and that you don’t have to allow other people’s dramas into your space,’ suggests Matthews. ‘If anxiety shows up during the festivities, do some breathing exercises: breathe in for the count of four, hold for seven and breathe out for eight.’

Follow the plan, not the mood.  ‘This is a good mantra to help you find the courage to go to an event that you don’t feel like going to, but which might be fun once you get there,’ says Michaela Thomas. ‘The anticipation of anxiety tied to an event is often worse than the experience of the event itself.’

Remember to rest and digest.  ‘We all need rest for recovery, and we all need recovery after the past two years,’ adds Thomas. ‘Digesting isn’t just about food – we have a lot of difficult, upsetting and challenging events to digest this year. Slowing down and taking it easy over the holiday season will help. Whenever stress builds up, take six slow and deep breaths over the course of one minute to activate your soothing system, or rest and digest mode.’

We’ve created a Christmas that’s perfect for us

Clare Veal, 46, a solicitor from Surrey, turned her back on the idealised big day – and that’s when the magic happened

Sitting in the garden as the rain fell on Christmas Day in 2017, I felt far from festive. Despite weeks of planning, the day had been stressful rather than magical.

My sons, Fred, 12, and Arthur, eight, were overwhelmed by the stacks of gifts under the tree, and my husband, Baz, was stuck building toys and searching for batteries, while I slaved over turkey and the trimmings. When we sat down to dinner, the children refused to eat most of it, then started arguing. We couldn’t even go for a family walk because the weather was so miserable and, when I retreated outside for some peace, my thoughts turned to loved ones lost over the years. ‘I’m not doing this again,’ I told Baz later that evening. ‘Christmas is supposed to be fun.’

Within days, I’d found a solution. Instead of our traditional Christmas at home or with our extended families, I’d booked a holiday park for the following year. We would pay for it by scaling back on gifts and when we explained to the children that Father Christmas would only be able to deliver a stocking and one large present, they were too excited about the holiday to mind.

It was the right decision because Christmas 2018 was the best one we could remember. And beforehand, all I had to do was pack the suitcases and buy a few provisions.

We spent Christmas Day at the pool and bowling, and dined at an Italian restaurant. The boys were thrilled to eat their favourite food, pizza, for Christmas dinner!

It felt as festive as anything we could have created at home and everyone was happy. Best of all, we made lots of really special memories that the boys still talk about today.

We returned in 2019 and are booked in again for this year, after Covid cancelled our plans in 2020.

I’m so glad we broke free from the norm. It feels as if we’ve regained the spirit of Christmas by doing what works for us, and we’ve created our own new traditions instead.

Quality family time is so much more precious than any gift that Santa could bring.

Clare Veal runs Aubergine Legal, a commercial law consultancy.

Photographs: Getty Images

Words: Alex Lloyd (Clare Veal profile)

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