This year, Christmas is going to be a low key affair. My children will be spending it with their dad (by tradition, we take turns). My step-daughters are both at overseas universities, and have decided that with Christmas holidays short and air fares high, they will be staying put until summer. So, while the season will no doubt involve numerous phone and Skype calls, only my partner and I will be physically present. Just the two of us, then, for the anticipation of Christmas Eve. Just the two of us (plus one turkey and any number of pigs in blankets) on Christmas Day. Just the two us to do battle with the leftovers and the board games on Boxing Day. When I first worked this out, the realisation was depressing. I just couldn’t image a Christmas without any children.
For most of my adolescence and early adulthood I hated Christmas, and as much as possible I tried to pretend that it didn’t exist. This was partly connected with the fact that my parents got divorced when I was 16, and after this I always felt torn and stressed about which parent to go to on Christmas Day. As a student, I was also almost obsessively concerned with green politics. Seeing Christmas crackers, cards, decorations and wrapping paper in the shops made me miserable; the consumerism and wanton waste hurt me and felt very far away from the true spirit of the season.
Having children changed all that, as it does for so many people. Somewhere quite early in my son’s life, I had a strong feeling that I wanted him to experience the magic and wonder I had felt about Christmas when I was small. And so my kids have grown up with the full Father Christmas story, complete with leaving out a mince pie a glass of sherry on the hearth, along with a carrot for Rudolph. One of the unexpected pleasures of parenthood has been not just making sure that the sherry and mince pie disappear (all in the line of duty, of course!), but nibbling the carrot to make it look as if a reindeer has been at it. One year when my daughter was about 8 she also left a letter for Father Christmas, which asked for response. I worked hard and took my time trying to make the writing in the reply look magical and slightly strange, and was gratified that for years afterward she talked about “when Santa left me that letter in special, curly handwriting!” It’s the little details I enjoy, such as hanging a tiny present on the tree for each of us, or ensuring that even now the children’s stockings are packed with surprises. I am still a little “bah humbug” about the commercial elements of Christmas, and I try to buy from smaller retailers where I can and avoid shopping in big malls where the conspicuous consumptopn aspect is everything.
But if having children was responsible for rehabilitating Christmas for me, what does it mean now that our four are growing up and none of them are available at Christmas? From initially feeling aghast at the idea of child-free festivities, I have begun to think that maybe this year it is exactly what I need. Since letting go of my Grinchy approach to the season, I have probably gone too far the other way, and these days I have a tendency to want Christmas to be “perfect”. No matter how much work I put in, I always worry that the tree, the presents, the meal are not good enough. Last year, when I was becoming unwell but didn’t realise it, the quest for perfection got out of hand. I found myself becoming increasingly anxious and agitated, particularly about getting the “right” gifts for my children, and significantly over-spending to try to “fix” the perceived deficits in what I had already purchased. This culminated in a horrendous panic attack on the 23rd December, and the feelings of terror continued into and throughout Christmas Eve, making it very difficult for me to engage with my children as I had wanted.
A low key, low expectation Christmas is already giving me some breathing space from the kind of tail-chasing anxiety that I would do well to avoid right now. I am only 4 weeks past my worst mental health crisis for many years, in which feelings of panic and agitation drove me the point of having to seek emergency help for suicidal feelings, and I am still working hard to manage feelings of anxiety and irritation. A Christmas where I feel required to produce not “wonder” but “just enough for you and me”, and where there is more likely to be space for quiet and solitude, might be exactly the kind of Christmas I need. And maybe there is a kind of magic in that, if I look for it.