Do you have OCD?* *Obsessive Christmas disorder
Getting bogged down with creating the perfect day? Just remember what's important, says our reporter, who offers up a guide to a stress-free festive holiday
Ah Christmas, the season of goodwill, family gatherings, canoodling by candlelight and jumbo boxes of Roses… What could possibly go wrong?
According to my aunt, it's been doomed from the start: a celebration of a woman giving birth without an epidural in a makeshift stable surrounded by farm animals. I try not to think about that while I'm flapping about presents, decorations and food. Call me romantic but Christmas has always been somewhat Disneyfied in my mind; a slightly less nuclear version of a John Lewis advert but a smiley one all the same.
Christmas has a wonderful way of meeting our deepest desires and dreams that makes you want to overlook the drunken arguments, muzak versions of your favourite Christmas tunes, confused elderly relatives and the fact that you need a shoehorn to fit into your jeans. But let's face it, Christmas is a time of year when plans go awry; at no other point of the year is there such a strong desire for everything to be perfect and when that desire is likely to be damned. People's grip of the reins gets tighter, our inner control-freaks get louder and we become obsessed with putting cute little crosses in Brussels sprouts at ridiculous hours of the night. So, unless you winter in Barbados, it's likely to feature on your stress radar.
Take last year: I dragged my husband and our three children to our local Christmas tree farm, insisting my other half take photos of the kids and I picking trees. He found the 'perfect' tree within the first five minutes and, although I knew it was the perfect tree, I refused to admit it, insisting we keep looking since it was about the 'experience'. An hour later we left with his 'perfect' tree and me sulking in the front seat. Then came the decorating which must involve our three children, Christmas music and some traditional foodstuff. Nice image, except for the fact that the foodstuff was a glass of liqueur that tasted like lighter fluid and an orange, which my husband insisted, was 'festive'.
My children's attempt at 'decorating' involved catapulting baubles at the tree and each other, breaking half of them while I struggled to unravel the lights. Writer Maya Angelou once said you could tell a lot about a person from the way he/she handles tangled Christmas lights - 'maniac' springs to mind. It started well, I laid them out across our sitting room floor, and when my two-year-old son asked could he help, I even managed to smile. When he decided to make a belt out of them, I still managed to smile although this time through my teeth. When he got up and ran through the kitchen stepping on the cat in the process, my stress levels hit Def Con 1. What ensued was a cyclone of despair as I saw my 'happy Christmas image' disintegrate in a sea of arm-windmilling and swearing.
Maybe it's in our makeup but it seems women tend to lose the run of things when faced with anything that may upset the status quo. My husband, who occasionally refers to me as CCF (that's Cute Control Freak, 'cute' added as a way of softening the blow - it doesn't work), thinks lowering my expectations is the key to feeling less stressed and underwhelmed.
Admittedly, my brain is perpetually buzzing with an essay-length to-do list, so this year I have vowed to follow the guide below in an attempt to replace the arm-windmilling maniac with a Zen-like person. I will choose the 'best' tree even if it is the first one we look at. I will try handing the tangled lights to someone else, and who knows, perhaps I'll enjoy the onslaught of family dysfunction. Here are some expert tips to help you do the same:
It's not a competition
Remember, Christmas is supposed to be the happiest time of the year not a one-woman assault course: amalgamating Nigella and Delia into a precise military operation is likely to end badly, as is chastising your seven-year-old nephew for his bad acting in the post-dinner game of charades. "'Good enough' are the two words that need to be in every woman's vocabulary, especially at Christmas," says psychologist Allison Keating of the BWell Clinic, Malahide. Women's expectations of themselves seem to be higher than men, says Keating. "Men are better at admitting they are tired or stressed whereas women tend to soldier on until they are completely overwhelmed." She recommends recognising your trigger points such as irritability and lack of tolerance and taking 'time out'.
"Being aware of how you are physically feeling, acknowledging it and then doing something about it, such as a 10-minute walk, plugging into a mindfulness app for five minutes or doing some exercise, will all help settle your nervous system."
OK, this does sound like the epitome of control freakery but a realistic list can help to relieve the panic, but refrain from adding your day's chores; despite what you think, you will remember to feed the cats, put your tights on and empty the potty before your guests arrive. If, like me, the interior of your handbag is like a Moroccan market of to-do lists, you might like to try Wunderlist - a productivity app that helps manage tasks more effectively.
You can't please everyone
Your brother's brought his vegan girlfriend (again); your uncle Pat refuses to wear the 'undignified' paper hat while your aunt Sally feeds chocolate liqueurs to the dog until it vomits on your shoes under the table. And, all the while your vision of the perfect Dickensian Christmas of united families and ruddy-cheeked children gratefully unwrapping presents evaporates.
It's important to have realistic expectations of Christmas and evaluate what it means to everyone. Traditions vary in every family and there's often an unconscious expectation of what you think is a normal Christmas that's likely to clash with someone else's.
"Christmas comes with a pressure that we should be having fun," notes Keating. "A really useful exercise is sitting down before it all kicks off, asking everyone what they want from Christmas and making a 'wish list' that involves everyone - that way people won't be upset if their needs aren't met."
Keep it simple
Damn Masterchef for giving us micro-precision aspirations; even mini food has undergone the 'Masterchef makeover' but you don't hear people exclaim "what is it?" when tucking into a bowl of crisps as opposed to a bizarrely-shaped puff pastry canapé. And all those cooking shows intent on making sprouts more interesting? How about not having them at all? Trust me, guests would rather have a burnt spud than a frazzled host, so keep it simple and cook what you know; everyone will be bilious with the remaining Roses anyway.
Remember to laugh
Men, take note: practical presents such as toasters, blenders, torches, leaf blowers and cheques inscribed with the words 'treat yourself'… all lovely (and practical) but likely to result in a face that translates as 'dividing our assets' (although, kudos does go to a friend who found the humorous side when presented with a mini toolkit from her husband for Christmas).
"Things go wrong at Christmas, it's a fact," notes Keating who cites humour as an important tool. "At a neurological level humour re-frames the situation and can diffuse tension. It's normally the sign of a good relationship if you can bring laughter to an argument but it's important to read your partner's mood first."
Keep the peace
A lot easier than it sounds since most men have little interest in making felt Christmas cards, sourcing the right organic carrots and icing mini Christmas tree cake toppers. If you're going to assign him a job to do, try to refrain from asking him how he's getting on since this sounds like you're checking up (which, of course, you are). Letting go of the vice grip is key, as is compromise and compassion, especially if visiting in-laws or extended family.
"We step in the door to our families as adults but often we're still perceived as teenagers," notes Keating, who explains there's old family dynamics that get played out at Christmas under the added pressure of cardiac assaults of grub, alcohol and stress. "Christmas Day isn't really the time to pursue old tensions or arguments. It's important to remember that sometimes it's not personal and that these things can be worked through if everyone approaches them with some compassion."
Goodwill to all men
Surveys consistently reveal that 'giving back' increases happiness levels (recycling presents you don't like even qualifies). Random acts of kindness, volunteering or giving to charity will improve your mood, a stranger's mood and your mental health and reminds us how lucky we are to have a home, fresh water and food to eat this Christmas. A goodwill gesture will also likely put your strop over badly-shaped olives for your chocolate raspberry martinis into perspective.
A Gift to yourself
The magic of Christmas means that normal rules don't apply, so no one is going to notice if the dinner is half an hour late. Take time to relax, enjoy your family and friends, the turkey will be fine, just don't keep opening the oven door and checking it!