The message that built up in the stores and in magazines – and the one we’ve all absorbed – is that to be a good wife and a good mother, women needed to produce the perfect Christmas
Some of us dread being alone at Christmas – or, conversely, being surrounded by extended family. We dread having our mothers-in-law to stay. We dread office parties. We dread simply ‘having to be nice’
For me, it starts at the end of summer. Holiday over, work resumed, my husband turns and asks, innocently, ‘What are we doing for Christmas?’
And every year, that short sentence delivers a sharp shot of stress that makes me hiss back, ‘I don’t know. It’s four months away.’
Meanwhile – still in September – my nine-year-old daughter starts composing her Christmas wish list and my teenager begins playing Michael Bublé’s Christmas album on a loop.
I wish I could share their joy, but for me, their excitement only adds to the pressure.
What I see when I think of Christmas is the mammoth task ahead: the money to be found, the magic to be made, a million issues to be sorted.
Are we spending this year with his parents or mine? Will we be frantically packing the car on Christmas Eve or waiting at home to be hit by a deluge of relatives?
Will we see my dad, who now lives with another woman and flits between two families? Or will he be calling from his partner’s house, with his partner’s children and grandchildren in the background instead of his own?
I know that in the end things will turn out fine – and by January, when everyone is back at work and school, I’ll be filled with gratitude. But at the start, in the build-up, what I feel most is…dread.
It’s not just me. Some of us dread being alone at Christmas – or, conversely, being surrounded by extended family. We dread having our mothers-in-law to stay. We dread office parties. We dread simply ‘having to be nice’.
If your Christmas has thrown what is wrong with your life into sharp focus, use it as an opportunity to reflect. On the day itself ask how you would like your life to be next Christmas
On Mumsnet, posts are pregnant with festive foreboding.
‘Am I being unreasonable…to secretly not be looking forward to Christmas Day?’ ventures one poster. Evidently not.
‘Dread Christmas as there is so much to do and organise,’ comes a swift reply.
One writes, ‘It’s ex’s turn to have my two on Christmas Day, so I am dreading it. It is my third time without them and it gets harder and harder.’
Last November, a Mumsnet thread was created for all those wishing to run the other way.
‘While some have the Christmas experiences shown in the adverts, others are starting to feel the impending doom of family festivities… This is a thread for you…’ More than 300 posts ensued.
‘Christmas tends to highlight any issues in your life,’ says Neil Shah, director of the Stress Management Society and author of The 10-Step Stress Solution.
‘If you’re divorced and trying to share the children between two homes, if you’re lonely or bereaved, if your marriage is strained, if you’ve always got on badly with your sister, Christmas really brings that into focus and makes it far more acute.
‘There are few escape routes – you’re cooped up, it’s cold outside, and your normal support group of friends and colleagues are otherwise occupied.
‘And on social media and countless TV channels you’re bombarded with images of a picture-perfect Christmas. It can leave you with a massive sense of failure.’
Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a sleep therapist at London’s Nightingale Hospital and author of Tired But Wired, agrees that the pressure to ‘do it all’ is immense.
‘I have one friend who gets ill every Christmas – headache, cold, cough,’ she says.
‘Another one always has a chest infection – last year it turned into pneumonia. She says it’s the weather. It isn’t – she’s running herself ragged.
‘I do feel that women have got a bit lost,’ she continues. ‘We’re like headless chickens, trying to create perfection in a frenzied manner.
‘When you’re in stress mode you think primitively, not discerningly. It’s your turn to host the neighbourhood Christmas party, so you don’t stop to ask, “Is this something I even want to do?”
‘You’re driving halfway across the country late at night on Christmas Eve to fulfil family obligations without allowing yourself to pause and ask, “Is this necessary?”’
It wasn’t always this way. Dr Leslie Bella, former honorary research professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, investigated when and why Christmas snowballed into this monster for her book Christmas Imperative: Leisure, Family and Women’s Work.
‘I think it helps to know that Christmas was not a big deal until Victorian times,’ says Dr Bella.
‘It starts with Charles Dickens and Victorian literature, which romanticised Christmas.
‘Around the same time, department stores were being invented. Christmas was a way of getting women to buy more.’
The message that built up in the stores and in magazines – and the one we’ve all absorbed – is that to be a good wife and a good mother, women needed to produce the perfect Christmas.
Involve everyone who will be part of your Christmas and ask for ideas on how it should be. Agree a plan and divvy up tasks. It’s an act of liberation – and a truly shared Christmas
‘We still believe, somehow, that if our Christmas is perfect, we’ve succeeded as women,’ says Dr Bella.
But how many of us honestly have perfect families who come together full of joy and goodwill?
‘When I was [first] widowed, and my daughter and her family lived a long way away, Christmas could be a very lonely time,’ Dr Bella continues.
‘My advice to others in that position is to create an alternative family to celebrate with. I got together with a bunch of other widows and Christmas morning became something we did together.
‘If you’re lonely, create your own Christmas with others who share a sense of that. Spend it with people who will appreciate your presence, not your presents.’
For those with the opposite problem –staggering under the weight of family expectation and obligation – Dr Bella suggests a ‘family meeting’.
‘As the season starts up, talk about who’ll do what,’ she says.
Involve everyone who will be part of your Christmas and ask for ideas on how it should be.
Agree a plan and divvy up tasks. Could your teenage daughter be the perfect person to shop for presents? Can your partner sort the menu? Can your father-in-law bring the booze? Accept whatever they come up with. It’s an act of liberation – and a truly shared Christmas.
Dr Ramlakhan urges women to slow down and cut back on shopping – she has resolved to do so herself.
‘Last year, I felt physically sick on the day,’ she says, ‘because there was just so much stuff. We often mistake “pleasure” for “happiness”,’ she explains.
‘Pleasure is eating ice cream. Happiness is more meaningful and longer-lasting.’
Psychologist and life coach Honey Langcaster-James urges us to look for creative solutions.
‘If you dread the 100-mile drive to visit family in December and yearn for a quiet day at home, then have one – arrange an Easter visit instead,’ she says.
Crucially, if you know that Christmas brings tension, she advises you aim for a ‘good enough’ day, rather than the Disney ideal.
‘Resolve to be queen of serene this year, however barbed the comments or offensive the behaviour. It’s not for long – life will soon be back to normal.’
For Fiona, 49, a book editor, the answer was to check out completely.
‘We’d had so many fraught Christmases that last year we decided to tot up the money we usually spend and use it to rent a croft in the Scottish Highlands – just me, my husband and our two children.
‘Presents were limited to what would fit in the car. When you have to “make do”, it’s amazing what you can do without – brandy butter? No one cared!
‘After dinner, instead of drinking ourselves into a stupor, we all went for a walk – and it snowed! It was the most magical Christmas we’ve had. We’re doing it again this year.’
For me, there’s no hope of that – there will be 15 of us sitting down to Christmas dinner – so I’m seeing it as an opportunity to delegate. Seven adults to produce the food. Seven teenagers to wrap the presents and provide the amusement.