When the kids were young, and my husband and I wanted to role-model being charitable and Christmassy, we would reserve a Saturday in December to drag them around various rest homes to bring Christmas greetings to elderly relatives.
For our children, it was their least favourite day of the year. Kissing whiskered aunties and honorary relatives, their connection to whom they were completely disinterested in, there’d also be overheating in the back of the car in the December traffic, which would end in a violent outbreak of sorts. While they hated every moment of this day, occasionally they would come away with a gift, or scraps of food (the ghastly stuff you only eat at Christmas, like crystallised ginger or candy canes) that would give us some peace — until we pulled up to the carpark of the next rest home. “Not another old person!” they would cry, as we hissed at them to be quiet, wondering how we raised such uncharitable, entitled little brats. If it was good enough for us being brought up continually popping in to see strangers to whom our parents seemed to have a pretty tenuous connection, it was good enough for them.
While I realise that giving is supposed to feel really great, particularly giving the gift of time, somehow over the years I have got it all a bit wrong at Christmas. It somehow never really feels as good as I want it to feel.
My 33-year-old niece tells me that Christmas is one of her favourite days of the year. I’m surprised — I do think I’m supposed to feel the same way. But the truth is that for me, there’s more happiness in the concept of gathering 20-plus of the clan for a spectacular lunch, than it is in the reality.
My sisters and I have assumed very gendered roles of planning, cooking, shopping and wrapping for the Christmas Day feasting and celebrating. It’s also our opportunity to do some excessive mothering of grown-up kids, who use this as an excuse to be needy and expectant.
As the family expands, us three sisters, whom Dad still calls “the girls”, almost need a board meeting to discuss who is on the ham, should I bother with my signature dish, the Christmas cake; and what about the vegans? I realise some women love all this, but I’m just not her. I’m all for peace on Earth, but I need to make Christmas less of a chore.
I’m no Grinch, but if I think back to my favourite Christmases, it’s the ones at the bach where we holiday, with whomever happens to be there at the time. It’s not because my wider family are not there, but it’s because of how I feel when I am away — closer to nature, we can start the day with a swim, eat outside, walk the beach after lunch. I am more relaxed and can be present in my conversations with others, rather than wondering about the temperature in the oven.
This year, my niece encouraged me to rethink and reframe Christmas. What would you like Christmas to be in your Second Act? I want my wonderful extended family around me, and I want a bit of nature, but most of all I want to be more ‘present’ in the day. So together we concocted a plan where she posed to the second/third generation on their group chat — all nine of them — that this year, they take charge of Christmas Day.
So this December 25, the 16-35 year-olds will be in charge of the lunch, funded by the parental generation of course (are you crazy? There’s no such thing as a free lunch). All anyone over 40 has to do is turn up and pop the champagne! My god — why haven’t I got on to this one earlier? And as my niece pointed out, there’s really nothing stopping me going for a walk after lunch, rather than getting stuck into cleaning up.
If I want my kids to do more, I need to do less. I am forever swooping in to sort stuff out, planning ahead to avoid future catastrophes, buying extra presents for under the tree in case someone misses out. No wonder I haven’t been that present to Christmas — I’ve been too distracted wanting to create a particular version of it I had in my head.
So my plan for this Christmas Day is to be fully present, to involve others, help out, but most of all, enjoy what they plan and create. This will entail me embracing what Brené Brown would call one of the ‘Gifts of Imperfection’, and I say cheers to that.
– This article first appeared in the December issue of The Hobson Magazine.