Finding magic moments amid the stresses of the season
If you don't have Christmas sorted yet, it's too late - and your stress will only spoil it, writes Sarah Caden
Last Monday morning, I was up before everyone else in the house. It was just before 7am, the street was quiet, the sky was still dark.
I was folding clothes out of the dryer when something out of the window caught my eye. It was a string of lit-up, glowing objects in the sky, flying in formation across the black. For a split-second, I thought it was Santa's reindeer.
I know that sounds silly. It was last Monday and Santa wouldn't make a mistake like visiting almost a week early. I quickly realised, too, that what I was seeing were geese flying above the Aviva and catching its orange nightly illumination.
But for a split second, my heart did a tiny, excited little leap and even when reality dawned, I felt a bit choked up.
I went and woke the children, not just to tell them that it was a school day and not holidays yet and they had to get moving, but to tell them what I'd seen.
And, for a split second, they too felt the magical momentary buzz that it might have been Santa.
With the noise of supposed returning affluence, many of us don't know what to make of this Christmas. Are we spending again, splashing out, losing the run of ourselves?
We're scared of the latter and yet we feel ourselves sucked back in a little. I've stood behind more than one person this month at an ATM, putting the card in for a second time, to request a smaller amount than it denied them first time due to insufficient funds.
We're all spending a bit more than we might have a few years ago, but it sits a little uneasily. Because we know that, within recent memory, this ended badly and we remain a little ashamed of how we all partied.
We also know there are more people, families, homeless this Christmas than last. If we are parents, we want our children to know that Christmas isn't all about the things and the toys and the treats. We don't want to heap guilt on them, but we want some awareness that it's about people and not presents, moments and not more and more stuff.
We want them to feel loved and cherished and even a little bit spoilt by the season, but, on the other hand, we don't want to raise spoilt, self-obsessed brats. It's hard to step back from it, though.
Remembering the true spirit of Christmas is not easily achieved - not when Santa isn't able to deliver the requested Our Generation Doll ice-cream truck or has the wrong colour of scooter or puzzles over the child whose lists is much shorter than their siblings' but can't receive less from him for fear of long-term psychological damage.
That's the fear, isn't it? That if we don't help to create the Christmas of their dreams that we've put another failure on the long list of parental shortcomings. We load on to this one occasion all sorts of significance and use it to gauge whether we're winning or losing at the game of life and, in particular, the game of raising children and being a good person.
No matter how long their lists, though, the presents aren't really what form the abiding memories of your children's Christmases. Instead, if you're lucky, the years blend into a fuzzy memory of spending all day in their pyjamas, eating unsuitable and preferably forbidden things for breakfast, and being all together.
In particular, they remember the feeling of being all together without anything to rush to, which can be the feeling that overhangs the rest of the year.
All year long, we chant, "Quick. Come on. Hurry up. Where's your coat? Why are you wearing just one shoe?" They perceive us as rushed and harried and hassled. They know the word "stress' far too young.
It can't colour Christmas too. Really, we can't let it.
Five pairs of Christmas pyjamas have yet to arrive at my house. They are Christmas presents for a family of children to whom my children are very close and I had hoped to give them the PJs before Christmas.
I ordered them in November, thinking I was in plenty of time, and they were due to arrive on December 9.
They went on a boat, though, it now transpires. From the US to the UK and then on to Dubai and then back to the UK before they finally find their way to me.
The slow-speaking American girl on the shipping company helpline mentioned the word "25th" when I asked when that might be. Then she backtracked to December 23.
"Would that be optimistic?" I asked.
"Yes," she replied. I nearly cried.
These are pyjamas for children. Needless to mention, they will not fit them next year. Not to mention the fact that I don't have replacement presents lined up. I was angry. I can't pretend that I wasn't angry.
But does it matter? Of course it doesn't matter. Not really.
One of the presents that mattered most to me this year was sent to a little boy in London who has just turned one. The little boy is my children's cousin and the book is one we read every year, night after night, as it comes out of the box with the decorations in December and goes back in there come January.
Alfie's Christmas is a book of the 1980s, not entirely old-fashioned, but quaint enough and also gentle and full of family and love.
My kids have a lot of Alfie books, with the older now outgrown them, but the younger hanging on in there.
They both love Alfie's Christmas, though, not least because they get to laugh at me as I choke up every single time I read it.
It's the great-uncle home from Australia who particularly kills me, and the McNallys who live across the road from Alfie, who are very obviously Irish but stay in their adopted London for Christmas.
The children don't get the subtleties of my sentimentality about emigrants and immigrants, but it's funny to see how they enjoy how my voice cracks, more than once, every time I read the book.
I sent Alfie to the baby in London, even though he's a little young for the book yet. And I wrote on the note how the book was to go away with the decorations in January and come out again next year, always with the reminder that his Dublin cousins sent it because they love that book and they love him.
Make a tradition, share a tradition, try to remember the stuff that really makes the memories.
Obviously, I'll be looking for a refund on the pyjamas in the new year - I haven't gone soft entirely. But I'll try to keep the stress levels low and maybe spread something of the spirit of Christmas into 2018.