Life Christmas

Thursday 18 September 2014

David Coleman: Don't lose your head this Christmas

Don't let stress take over. A little organisation can help make it a memorable time

Published 16/12/2013 | 11:25

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The dynamics of families can be a source of tension, according to David Coleman

I always feel quite conflicted at this time of year. Every December, I am struck by the contrast between the days getting shorter (and the grim reality of winter setting in) and the anticipation of the holiday break and the celebration of Christmas.

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I love Christmas, not particularly for its religious significance, but for the light it always brings to an otherwise very dark time of year.

I am definitely a summer kind of person. I have more energy and am more productive when the days are longer. Thankfully, though, Christmas comes just as the winter has officially turned and the days are destined to grow longer and brighter.

I love the anticipation within our family of the various Christmas traditions we have built up over the years. Christmas, more than any other time of the year, also means getting to spend time with my immediate family, my extended family and our friends.

With that anticipation, though, can also grow some stress. Sometimes our anticipation can become expectation. When things may not, or do not, meet those expectations, the disappointment can be powerful and disruptive.

So the flip side of the build-up of excitement in the run-up to Christmas is the build-up of stress and tension in families. I think there are three main sources of that tension. Money is an ever-present tension in most households, and Christmas, with its extra costs, definitely adds to financial pressure.

Tradition and habit can also be a source of tension. Sometimes we want everything to be "just so" and the pressure to maintain standards, traditions and just to have everything "right" for Christmas can be a burden in its own right.

The final source of tension, that I can see, is the dynamics of families themselves. There is usually a strong pressure to bring families together at Christmas. While this can bring great joy, it can also bring great rivalry and disharmony too.

So, I've put my mind to how we can prepare for some of these tensions, to reduce them or their effect and to make Christmas a time of true joy and rest.

There is usually a limit to what money families can generate. Unless there has been a recent redundancy for either parent, most families will know what their income is and what it will be over the Christmas period and into next year.

That means we can make a budget. We can know what, if any, surplus of money there might be after all of the essential bills are paid. Money stress becomes significantly reduced when we feel we are living within whatever means we have. Taking out big loans will add to the pressure, not just now but for months ahead. So, if the reality of life is that we don't have much money for buying presents then we need to manage the expectations of those who may be expecting presents. Santa too will probably be feeling the pinch and so even young children may need to be warned about what may be feasible this year.

This isn't about taking a Scrooge approach to Christmas and suggesting to children that it may be cancelled this year. But it is about talking honestly about what is feasible.

So, for example, for children who have delivered their Santa lists, it can help to check with them about "if you could only have one of those things which would you pick?" Alternatively, talk about how disappointing it might be if Santa was oversubscribed and couldn't deliver everything that was asked for.

Managing expectations in this way, while it may feel distasteful, may mean that you can avoid the stress of taking out those loans that will otherwise burden you for many more months. I think it is no bad thing that children learn Christmas is not an excuse to write the toy equivalent of a blank cheque.

Indeed, the stress of money worries that can be exacerbated by Christmas excess also links into this belief we sometimes have that Christmas must be "just so". The preparations we make for Christmas, whether it is buying presents, buying and preparing food or just getting the house in order, can also be a real burden.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that it is also a burden that many mothers shoulder to a greater extent than fathers. It is easy for mothers to be left entirely overwhelmed with the Christmas preparations, such that they can end up feeling taken for granted or resentful. This in itself can lead to an undercurrent of frustration and annoyance that can easily spill into arguments. So, plan the Christmas jobs early and delegate them throughout the family. That can include extra Christmastime chores for everyone to get the house cleaned and tidied.

Let go of your inner micro-manager that wants to have everything done in very specific ways to your particular standards. Perfectionism, at Christmas especially, is a stressful personality trait. It is healthy and quite liberating to let go and to give other people some responsibility.

Although I put my hands up and acknowledge that I am a perfectionist in so many ways, I have come to realise that Christmas is definitely a time for me to be with my family. It matters less how the house is and more that I can enjoy being with them. And this is why Christmas gives me a real lift during the dreary months of winter. I love the traditions that we can establish, that invariably draw us together and bring some warmth into our family relationships.

I have written before about the Christmas traditions that bring families together. My family doesn't do all of these! But I'll refresh your memories with some of those ideas in brief.

A Christmas Day sea or lake swim

Whether as part of a family or a wider community, everyone can be involved, from the swimmers to the towel carriers, to the hot-toddy-recovery-drinks-makers.

A Christmas Eve story

Reading the same story on the night before Christmas can become the kind of long-lasting tradition that can pass through generations, with your children growing up to read the same story to their children. Reading aloud is a rich part of our Irish oral tradition and is lovely to do as a family.

Slow down the opening of presents

Finding a way of taking turns not just to receive presents but open them too gives a greater appreciation of both the gift and the giver, rather than a helter-skelter ripping open of paper before rushing to the next one. One such approach is to roll a dice to see who's next to receive a gift, giving time before rolling the dice again.

A Christmas Eve camp-in

Pulling mattresses into your bedroom (if you can fit them) so that all the family can sleep together on Christmas Eve before going down to see what Santa has brought.

Making Christmas tree decorations

This simply involves getting each member of the family to make a new tree decoration each year. Having a make-and-do morning set aside during December could become a great way to kick-start the Christmas celebrations.

Creating a collection of Christmas-only storybooks and song CDs

There is something lovely about having a physical collection of books and CDs that appear only at Christmastime having been stored with the Christmas decorations the rest of the year.

Any kind of physical activity will reduce stress. So getting out for walks in nature, even (or especially) on the coldest days, will give you energy and vitality to combat the pressures that Christmas might be bringing.

Mostly these are great when done with your children. However, sometimes you might need to wrap them up and send them out to the garden, just for a few minutes of peace yourself! Indeed, walking briskly will leave you feeling not just relaxed but rejuvenated in a way that collapsing in front of the TV never can.

But I guess what is most helpful to combat Christmas stress is that we each determine what we value about Christmas.

If we prioritise what is most important to us, then achieving it will bring satisfaction and will mean we can let ourselves off the hook for the rest.

However your Christmas goes, I hope it is peaceful and that you are surrounded by the people you love most. Happy Christmas!

Read more from David Coleman on surviving Christmas for separated families on independent.ie

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