22 December 2014

Christmas past, present and future

Image courtesy of suphakit73/
Every family that celebrates Christmas develops its own unique set of traditions around the event, dictating everything from when they put their tree up to what they eat on the day. There are countless permutations of the decisions to be made, with these decisions becoming that family's rules for the festive period - and no deviations allowed!

As children, we always opened our presents as soon as we got up, with the whole family in pyjamas and dressing gowns. The first year my parents decided to get dressed and have breakfast ahead of presents, I was genuinely upset, in spite of being an adult by then.

The first Christmas I spent away from them was with my (then) in-laws. I was like a stranger in a foreign land amidst their seemingly bizarre rituals, which included exchanging presents after dinner. At one point, much to my horror, someone even mooted putting this back to Boxing Day, as dinner had run on so late.

For those of us who have enjoyed a happy childhood, these family traditions are a reminder of that, and act as a comfort blanket we can carry into adulthood. Understandably, then, even the most spontaneous, relaxed person may find it hard to let them go. Others, such as myself, who tend towards the inflexible and who like routine, can find it particularly hard to move on. 

Although I have created new Christmas Day traditions with my boyfriend, Pete, I was, until this year, still wedded to certain other festive practices. These included having an advent calendar, putting up an artificial tree and full-scale decorations, sending dozens of cards, and eating a traditional Christmas meal - albeit one largely prepared by Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.

Each of these apparently simple elements generated huge amounts of stress: from hunting down the perfect advent calendar - not too childish, yet not too gloomily religious - to trying to track down the last pack of sausages wrapped in bacon to be had in north London.

After a year overshadowed by anxiety and stress, I just couldn't face ending it with yet more. I didn't know how to avoid it, though, until I spotted a post by a friend on Facebook, announcing that he was going to make a donation to charity in lieu of sending cards. It took a few days of prevaricating - Could I? Should I? What would my friends think? - but, finally, I decided to do the same.

Following that first, rather difficult decision, the rest was easy: I didn't buy an advent calendar; I decorated my flat - in an hour and a half, rather than an afternoon - with a simple display of decorated hazel stems, a mini tree (real), red poinsettia and white kalanchoe plants, scented candles and fairy lights; and, on Thursday, we'll be eating an 'alternative' Christmas meal of chicken and chips. In fact, once I'd accepted the idea of doing things differently, it became quite an exciting prospect.

Exposing myself to this kind of change is a positive thing. It's good mental exercise against my tendency to rigidity and will hopefully help me to tackle the bigger, badder OCD rituals that dominate my life. After all, if I can change Christmas, I can change anything!

However you choose to spend this holiday period, I hope it will be everything you wish it to be.

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