I first found Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love & Joy Back Into the Season by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli referenced in a book about Christmas cultural history – the way it has been celebrated down the years. I thought the idea of trying to basically calm down Christmas sounded like a great one and so I got the book for my birthday, read it and tried to make some adjustments. Both from the perspective of a Christian and as a mother, there was a lot that troubled me about how I felt one is culturally expected to celebrate Christmas!
Then when Christmas came, it all went sort of pear-shaped. The highlights of the list of disasters were that we had just moved house in the middle of the December snow, meaning we had to just shove all our stuff into the house indiscriminately along with a lot of furniture remaining in the new house which the charity shop vans couldn’t take away due to the weather, and we had hardly any space to turn around in. We were just getting it sorted when my children got flu, I got a horrible cold and I had to cancel all the Christmas activities I had really wanted to do with them. On Christmas Day we couldn’t go to church, my daughter had a huge tantrum because she felt so bad and the other daughter slept nearly all day.
But, in retrospect, I realised that some of the madness was totally my fault! For example, I had bought my husband a really lovely, well-chosen and thoughtful Christmas present, online, meaning I didn’t even have to leave the house. Yet, I ended up a few days before Christmas, out in the snow, with two not-very-well children in the buggy, buying a Star Wars Lego Darth Vader pen, having called umpteen toyshops to track one down. My husband had really liked a Han Solo one I had bought for a Secret Santa and he said I shouldn’t have given away because it would make him the Geek King at work. He was (fairly obviously, I can see now) only joking and he wasn’t that bothered by it at all, partly because, let’s face it, it is actually quite rubbish, but I became obsessed with the idea that getting one would really show him I cared and make his day. Actually, the wallet I had chosen to replace the one he’d had stolen a few months ago really delighted him, but he hardly noticed poor old Darth Vader (not as good as Han Solo anyway!). I should have stayed in the warm with my children, after all.
That incident was accompanied by some others, which also make me wince and struggle to recognise myself in them, including insisting the not-very-well three-year-old wrote all her own nursery and family Christmas cards in the tiny corner of the living room that actually had space for a coffee table. Looking back made me realise a few things about how I, and I suspect many other women, react to Christmas.
- I made my own trouble! I couldn’t help the snow, I couldn’t avoid moving house at that time, I couldn’t prevent the girls from getting the flu but I didn’t have to become obsessed about a Lego pen, or the Christmas cards. I brought all that stress onto myself. Unfortunately I also brought it onto my family. Not what Christmas is all about!
- I was sucked in by our culture’s promises that by buying certain things or doing things in a certain way, I would provide the perfect, traditional, love-filled Christmas for my family. My child would write beautiful cards and she would learn important lessons about thinking of others. My husband would realise that the length I went to for his gift shows what a thoughtful, dedicated and loving wife I am. I would like to add here that I am usually a fairly normal, practical and pragmatic person and I am well aware of how advertising works!
- I behaved in a certain way because I wanted to impress other people. My daughter brought home a brilliant card made by a girl in her nursery – how simple yet perfect, I thought, and how economical. To be brutally honest, I wanted my child to be one of the
arty girls with an arty mummy who sent thoughtful, home-made cards. Sometimes it is as if we feel we are in A Christmas Carol, with ghosts of our own Christmas past looking in, along with a whole host of ghostly neighbours, friends, school mums, etc. Was anyone that impressed by her cards? Probably not, especially the children who received them, as she was pretty uninterested in her own. Moreover, obviously it shouldn’t matter whether they were impressed or not. Again, it’s not what I really want my Christmas to be about, nor my children’s for that matter.
- Actually, all I needed was inside my house. I went to a talk about the pressure on women to be so many things to so many people, to fulfil so many roles and to have it all. The speaker gave the illustration of Eve in the Garden of Eden, an illustration which is relevant whether or not you believe it has spiritual truth. God made the Garden of Eden as the perfect home for Adam and Eve; they wanted for nothing, it was self-contained and satisfying. And yet, Eve listened to a little voice that told her she could have something more, something better, something she didn’t already have, and she reached out and took what she thought that was. In doing so she shattered the bubble of paradise forever. That’s a fairly dramatic way of saying that, at Christmas time, the majority of people in this country are already blessed with a home to celebrate in and a family or friends to celebrate with. What most of us need to celebrate the sort of family-based, loving, happy Christmas promised by advertisements, magazines and so on, is already there. Anything else on top is a very nice extra, and even most of that has been thought up and presented as an essential by advertisers. We are so privileged to have the luxury of being in the position where we are able to obsess over Christmas cards, Lego pens, stocking-fillers, what type of stuffing to make, whether to buy our own Christmas pudding, and so on, rather than whether we can afford to eat at all, whether we will have a place to live, and so on.
Looking back at the Christmas I had just celebrated it was evident that I could benefit from rereading this book! It is an American book and so some of it sits a bit oddly against our British experience of Christmas, family and so on. I felt very grateful having read it that I am not celebrating Christmas over there because if we have a Christmas machine to unplug, they have a juggernaut bearing down on them – with hardly any notion of time off work to cope with it!
Robinson and Coppock Staeheli split the book into different sections which aim to help the reader re-examine different aspects of their Christmas celebrations and areas which may be trouble-spots for them. One chapter looks at women’s role at Christmas-time, examining the pressures on them, their hopes and desires at Christmas and suggesting how women can prioritise tasks so that they aren’t overwhelmed, can slow down and enjoy the season. Another chapter asks men what they feel about celebrating Christmas after women repeatedly said that they feel their partners don’t participate, help or even seem to enjoy Christmas.
One part I found particularly helpful was the authors’ suggestion that children want just four basic things at Christmas:
- A relaxed and loving time with the family. We are so often told that Christmas is a time to spend with family but actually there are suddenly so many demands on our time that can make that really hard. People who work are under pressure to get tasks finished before Christmas so they might need to do overtime. There are presents to buy and wrap, family to entertain, charitable or school voluntary activities, lots of cooking, cleaning, decorating, etc. Many of us know from bitter experience that sometimes the less attention we give our children, the more insistently they demand it, which can raise our stress levels and we end up telling them off and it’s all miserable. For me, following the book’s advice and cutting out some of the things I hoped to cram into Christmas-time and replace it with time playing at home really helped with this. Now my children have both been in school for a couple of years it feels like they really need down-time more than ever.
- Realistic expectations about gifts. In many ways this gets easier as children get older and can appreciate more about where presents come from and how much things cost. We chose to explain that little presents in stockings are from Father Christmas but other gifts are from parents, grandparents, etc. It helps them to understand that there are limits; they can’t just ask for or expect anything and everything. This year I have pointed out that a couple of the three or so things they would like for Christmas are fairly expensive and so it’s not realistic to expect all of them. Writing this down I feel mean but I know that’s just the Christmas machine grinding its gears again. If the authors of this book are right then giving children realistic expectations about gifts isn’t being ungenerous or cruel but is helping them to enjoy a calmer, happier Christmas with fewer disappointments, parents who are perhaps less stressed-out about the amount of money they have spent and an real appreciation of what they have received rather than struggling under a heap of gifts, some of which they don’t really need or even want.
- An evenly paced Christmas season. Of course, historically, there were twelve days of Christmas and Christmas Day would start many days of special celebrations rather than being the climax. To children today it can seem like they wait months for Christmas but then it’s over in just a few short hours, and then decorations get put away, parents have to go back to work, all the special activities stop. Children also can find the intense excitement of Christmas day, or even just Christmas morning, quite a lot to cope with, especially if they are already tired, if they sense that there are stresses in the family, if they haven’t been well, etc. There is usually no shortage of ideas to build up to Christmas – trips to see Father Christmas, church services, school events, etc. – but it can be harder to keep the specialness after Christmas Day. How can we do it without making a lot more work for ourselves and spending a lot more money? We keep our decorations up until Twelfth Night and I am fortunate that I don’t have to return to work in-between Christmas and New Year so I am able to be at home with our children. Perhaps we might see family and friends for Christmas visits in this time. This year we are going to see a play although that’s an expensive option for many.We also have the Christmas Book Fairy (bear with me!) which began with me wanting to find a way of giving the children a few books at Christmas-time but without adding to the heap of presents and without the books getting overlooked. So, I suggested they decorate an old box and leave it out every day of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Each morning they would discover that ‘The Book Fairy’ had left a book inside it. Originally there was one book between them but now that they are older and can read for themselves, and have different tastes to some extent, it’s a book each. A lot of these come from charity shops or are bought online second-hand but a few will be new much-wanted books or just ones the book fairy has a hunch they’ll love. Sometimes they are a colouring book or a sticker book. The idea can be varied to accommodate different budgets, various age groups and so on. We once did a similar thing over the Easter holidays where the Easter Bunny would leave something in a box each day: a colouring sheet printed off the internet; a ‘bunny bus ticket’ to go on a bus ride to a nearby town; a little craft idea; a new book about Easter; and so on. I suppose it was a bit like the alternative advent calendars you see on Pinterest which contain a different Christmas activity idea for each day leading up to Christmas.
- Reliable family traditions. These give children something to look forward to year after year and bring to every Christmas a memory of past Christmases. They provide the comfort and stability of the known and expected in a time when most of children’s routines are completely disrupted. These don’t have to be elaborate outings, baking sessions or outings, because children perceive anything they can count on year after year as a tradition, however small and insignificant they might seem to us, like where the stockings are hung up and what they use for a stocking, or helping to put up the Christmas cards.
Just revisiting the book in this blog has made me think it might well be worth another read now that our lifestyle has changed since my first introduction to it.