Christmas, eh? Sleigh bells softly ringing, snow on the ground, a fire crackling in the grate. A bronzed turkey alongside a studded glazed ham. Little sausages wrapped in bacon. The perfect tree. The perfect presents. The perfectly perfect pine-scented Christmas you ever did see, or even imagine.
Look, we all need a bit of a pick-me-up after the year we’ve had (and if you’re wondering what sort of year we’ve had, check out my blog on how to stay sane in a world of pain for the litany of misery we’ve endured), but there’s no point in being totally delusional about it.
Christmas is never perfect.
There. I’ve said it.
It can be good. It can even be great. But the Christmas dream you were sold when you were 8 years old and which Perry Como sang about? That only exists in your head. And the purpose of this blog is to replace what’s in your head with something a little more achievable.
Speaking of Perry Como, before we plough on, click here to put yourself in the Christmas spirit whilst you read on.
Right now, the whole world really does need a positive dream, but it needs to be one that helps to ease our stress and anxiety, not amp it up to 11 by chasing down a Christmas card version of what the festive experience ought to be.
There may well be robins in your back garden, but come Christmas morning they’re more likely to be sheltering from the rain than leaving their delicate footprints on virgin snow.
And unless you’ve managed to keep your perspective and dial down your stress and anxiety levels, that family game of Monopoly is still going to end with an upturned playing board and some angry huffing because someone landed on the hotels of Mayfair rather than the £200 Go square.
And why? Because the huffing isn’t really caused by a game of Monopoly.
Monopoly and the faux capitalist greed it fuels is just a brilliant lightning rod for all that pent-up stress and unrealised sense of expectation and anticipation that’s been brewing since November hung a holly wreath on your front door and disappeared into the night for another year.
So, here’s your challenge for the next couple of weeks.
Work on giving yourself the best Christmas you can without running yourself ragged trying to meet everyone else’s expectations. Here are our top tips on how to do that:
1. Keep hold of the purse strings
Christmas is already an expensive time of year. We all know that, so why are we all so prone to the giddiness that compels us to spend ridiculous amounts of money we don’t really have on ‘perfect’ presents?
There is a lot of want in the world, and I have no intention of denigrating that here. A lot of people’s Christmas lists are genuinely packed with gifts that are relatively inexpensive but which they nevertheless can’t afford to buy for themselves because they have more pressing financial priorities.
But there are also people who want for nothing and who scrabble around trying desperately to think of things to ask for that they might quite like but really don’t need.
Financial stress is one of the biggest factors in poor mental health, yet every December people max out their credit cards or use up their overdraft facility to buy presents they can’t really afford.
So, stop that. Instead, give gifts whose chief value lies in the thought that went into buying or creating them. I promise you, the people receiving them will treasure those far more than they will that £200 coat or £50 necklace you were going to buy in a moment of Yuletide desperation.
2. No, you really won’t eat all that food
Listen, no one is going to give you a hard time for indulging your secret but usually restrained love of peanuts or double cream over Christmas. An extra helping of Christmas pud? Fill your boots. A few more Heroes or Celebrations than you might stick away any other time? Not a problem.
But going full Delia and making or buying every chutney under the sun, creating a gingerbread extravaganza that softens like an old banana, and flying in enough party food to make the ambassador’s reception look like a barn dance on a budget (with or without the Ferrero Rocher)? Not so much.
When we get duped into trying to lavish array of food the TV ads insist we need, three things happen.
The first is that we run around like headless chickens buying an endless list of ingredients we’ll never use (who among us hasn’t bought a 1kg pack of raisins for a recipe that only requires 100g, and then thrown out the remaining 900g the following summer?)
The second thing that happens is we run out of time to create these masterpieces and end up careening round the kitchen at 3am on Christmas morning like some demented and increasingly sweary elf trying to make an elaborate horror that Nigella turned out in five minutes on Channel 4 three months ago.
And finally, even if we do manage to plough our way through even a third of the food we’ve bought and made, we put a stone on in weight and berate ourselves well into February while we eat birdlike portions of food in an effort to shift it.
The food looks great, but trying for the perfect table does nothing for your mental health. Go easy on yourself, buy what you know you’ll eat, include some extra treats and don’t frazzle your brain trying to cater for every last eventuality.
3. Learn to say no
Now is the time of year when the party invites start flooding in, and if you’re not careful you’re going to end up out every night, downing enough prosecco to sink a battleship and waking up every day feeling like you’ve been runover
Everyone likes a bit of a knees-up over the Christmas period – there’s a sense of bonhomie around the party circuit that only Christmas brings, so enjoy it thoroughly
But be selective. We all get invited to parties where you know you’re not part of the core A-list. If going to one or more of those is going to rob you of time you could spend doing something for yourself or spending time with people you really love, just politely decline.
Saying no is really powerful for our mental health, because it enables us to see that not only can we set boundaries for ourselves, but that setting those boundaries has obvious benefits.
And that power and authority bleeds into other areas of our life where we previously took on loads of stress by saying yes when we really meant no.
4. Create time for yourself
Whether it’s rediscovering the lost art of reading an actual book (remember those?!) or a magazine, or a long, hot bath, a trip to the nail bar, or a nice new hair-do or even just staring at the ceiling pontificating, it’s really important to create space and time away from the frenetic and constant mental white noise that comes at this time of year.
Having ‘me’ time is also important at those traditional times when conflict and friction are only the hair trigger of a misplaced word away. Christmas hosting your own extended family or your partner’s family are fairly typical emotional landmines.
Set some ground rules for everyone that allows everyone to take themselves off somewhere to have some peace and quiet.
That should mean no one is going to be offended when you lead by example and head for another, quieter room where your father-in-law isn’t offending everyone by making jokes that they defend with ‘it was all right back in 1974’.
5. Before you do anything, do nothing
This is one of my favourite pieces of advice, and I give it out a lot.
All this really means is that before you let your stress and anxiety overspill into something you’ll regret well into the New Year, just take a breath, and try to work out if what was said or done was intended to upset or offend, or whether your own stress is making you less tolerant of something that’s really quite trivial.
Then you can pick the appropriate response, which is either to ignore it and move on, to park it for now but make a note to challenge when tempers and stress are less frayed, or deal with it there and then in a measured and reasonable way.
The most important thing to remember is that Christmas is just three days, and it’s meant to be joyful. Feeling joy isn’t always an option – too many of us have too many worries and too much shit to deal with to be able to feel true joy.
But, you do owe it to yourself to have the best Christmas possible. It just doesn’t have to be perfect, because it never will be.
Whatever you’re doing, enjoy your Christmas. This year, more than any other, you’ve earned it.