Traditions dictated by social media reinforce old stereotypes and place new burden on women to create an ideal festive facade
In the pre-internet age, Christmas traditions in Northern Europe were a clearly defined set of collective practices — most of them were invented either by the church or the Germans and remained unchanged for generations.
People went to midnight mass, decorated a tree, lit a candle in the window. In Ireland, because a touch of wildness is a cherished national trait, there was sea swimming on Christmas morning. In general, though, the conventions were simple and pretty universal. No one really messed with the formula.
In the 11 years since the advent of Instagram, that has begun to shift and new traditions have started to emerge. Many of them have been conceived, at least partly, as photo opportunities and are perpetuated by social media.
There’s the Elf on the Shelf, the nosy little delegate from Santa, whose adventures are catalogued with daily documentary coverage of his adventures around the house. There’s the annual Christmas family pyjama photoshoot, for which all the family are wrestled into festive sleepwear to pose in front of a Pinterest-perfect Christmas tree and a roaring fire — either real or flickering prettily thanks to a virtual fireplace app on the flatscreen TV.
Christmas traditions are no longer something inherited, but something to be constructed and then broadcast. They represent, paradoxically, an expression of a family’s individuality while also being a show of conformity to social media trends.
Above all, their purpose is the projection of an idealised version of family life. The inventive daily staging of the Elf on the Shelf is the ultimate in performance of high-investment parenting, the exacting aesthetic standards of the immaculate living room, the smiling children, the perfectly styled tree a projection of family harmony and success.
On the surface, these all look like benign new social conventions, but I’ve come to see them as 21st century instruments of female oppression. This is pretty, twinkly propaganda that does little to spread joy and a lot to perpetuate the gender gap.
Among heterosexual couples, the gender gap at home is already yawning. According to a 2019 study from University College London, fewer than 7pc of British couples split the domestic load — let alone the mental load — equally. It’s hard to imagine things are that different here. In Ireland, almost two out of every three women in a heterosexual couple say they are “mostly” responsible for household chores.
At Christmas, the burden of emotional labour increases massively. How many Irish men are losing precious sleep while internet shopping for gifts for their children’s teacher or browsing Pinterest for recipes for festive cookies for Santa, I wonder?
If the division of labour within homes is unfair throughout the year, Christmas is the time when this imbalance goes into overdrive. One poll of 2,000 adults from 2016 found women will spend an average of 72 hours completing all the extra tasks involved in making Christmas perfect for everybody. All that decorating and baking and extra shopping adds up to three full days of work. Meanwhile, a poll in 2018 suggested men in Britain spend around 11 hours over the festive period hiding from their families.
It’s exhausting, and that’s before you even mention the extra mental load of trying to find presents that are a thoughtful and astute expression of the receiver’s personality — so they feel you’re properly “connected” — or the early mornings spent blundering around bleary-eyed, frantically brainstorming for a quirky new location to hide the Elf.
Is it any wonder that tensions simmer at this time, when behind the facade of the ideal festive home is an over-extended woman, juggling professional demands with the pressure to have a ‘perfect’ Christmas? This pressure to make everything beautiful was never an issue before people started broadcasting Christmas in this way on social media.
It’s easy to understand why women have internalised these new exacting standards of celebration. After the internal effort of keeping all the plates spinning while remaining calm throughout the rest of the year, we have been duped into thinking these stage-managed moments of familial joy are the proof that all the work is worthwhile. After all, happy children and an appealing home are for most of us the goal — and social media provides an opportunity to prove to ourselves we have achieved it.
Except that the result is the perpetuation of impossible standards. These standards don’t just disappear come New Year. They explain why, for example, children’s birthday parties have in recent years become exhausting pageants of competitive parenting, why we’ve all started to believe a child’s bedroom must be not just a nice place for them to play but a magical wonderland of expensive furniture and the perfect decorative expression of a little personality.
The only answer is to opt out. Accept a messy house and mismatched pyjamas. Take a break from baking. The irony is that kids actually don’t care a jot how magazine-perfect things look. The pursuit of social media perfection is a game played by adults and has little to do with pleasing the children.