A very merry, mental Christmas

I can’t possibly navigate December without writing about the subject that effects my mental health to such a degree that it can make me smile, reminisce, cry, thankful and whimsical all in one go.

The Main Event!

The thing we spend all year working towards.

And I’m sure that many of you feel the same.

Christmas is my favourite time of year. How many people say that? Yawn. But it is.

I love the weather, the twinkling lights, the opportunity to eat everything in sight, the smell of cinnamon, mince pies, movies, Christmas dinner, laughter, good company, gratitude, pyjamas, slippers, Christmas music and of course, the cherry on the pie, PRESENTS. No, sorry, that last one was a joke. The best part of the festivities these days is watching the magic unfold through the eyes of our child.

This is the first year our little one understands Christmas and is clearly genuinely excited. I’ve already spent weeks listening to questions about the tree, rudolph, what gifts are being requested from Santa and how much good behaviour has been banked to obtain said gifts. My ears started bleeding last week. I surrender!

Seriously though, listening to the chatter and watching as eyes become as bright as the North Star when they realise all the fun promised by the festive season, just rekindles thoughts of my own childhood christmases and the amazing time I had with my Mum and our many visitors.

People arrived throughout the fortnight of celebration, all of them came laden with food, drink, crockery (mum never had enough) and, of course, more gifts.

I was lucky that mum spent a lot of her time making sure I was sheltered from the difficulty she endured when I was small. She kept my childhood Christmasses as happy and fulfilling as possible. It’s only now I’ve become a parent myself that I understand clearly the sacrifices she made. I wish I could return the favour, but it’s too late. And therein lies another side of Christmas – the grief remembered and relived. But, I digress…

The best I can do is make sure my own child also has happy memories to dwell on when being retrospective and telling the next generation about this joyous time of the year.

But I know all too well that Christmas outside of the eyes of a child is commonly a time for stress, reflecting, anxiety, sadness and remembering things that can cause tears to shed or give you pause for thought.

I’m going to talk about balance again. I know I’ve mentioned it many, many times before, but it applies to Christmas too. Once the card writing, present buying, wrapping, grocery shopping and decorating is done, all you have left to do is enjoy it. We sometimes get lost in those chores and accidentally think that they are the most important aspects of the season. They aren’t.

Sure, we all enjoy the material things (no point lying), I love giving the gifts, writing cards and getting tangled in an abyss of wrapping paper and sellotape as well as spending hours decorating a tree only for the dog to yank it down again as soon as I leave the room. Watching the presents I’ve lovingly wrapped being torn apart with no care, not even bothering to read the gift card, makes me wonder why I put all that effort in to wrapping every year. The burnt roast potatoes and raw turkey is always a high point. Spending hours bending my nails back and ripping the skin on my hands as I try to prize the latest toy from a box designed by Houdini himself. The disappointment when the new bathrobe doesnt get around your bulging stomach, and the matching slippers that are so large you trip over your own feet trying to get to the last mince pie.

What goes wrong though? Why does Christmas often stop being fun and by Boxing Day the whole season feels like a massive headache? What are the common pitfalls? Are there things we can do to prepare that will reduce the potential stresses and strains? Is there such a thing as a ‘perfect Christmas’?

I have a few theories, memories and possible tips…

Arguments

Undoubtedly the most common negative in December (not just Christmas Day) is the volume of arguments caused by the myriad of things creating stress. And as the days tick by the vacuum of resentment builds. The pile of washing up, the mess after gift opening, the lateness of guests, the forgotten food, the early morning, the missed present… the list goes on.

Avoid arguing however you can. Walk away, take a breath, hide the frustration with a smile and talk to a friend instead. Whatever you can do. Because it happens so fast and in the blink of an eye Christmas has been destroyed for everyone AND you.

Ill fitting clothes

Maybe you’ve had clothes purchased for you that were too big or (far worse) too small. Or after spending weeks training for the festival of eating, you’ve woken up on Christmas morning to the realisation that your stunning Christmas outfit no longer gets over your sausage-roll-filled belly.

My only tip here is stretch material and elasticated waistlines. No you don’t need to wear joggers, no you don’t have to look frumpy, yes there are outfits that will fit well and look beautiful whilst allowing for a bit of holiday spread!

The wrong gifts

I’ve tried to write this post diplomatically and avoid focussing too much on the material things. To be honest it would be easy to blame my child for my concentrating on the presents, but truthfully, my partner buys awesome gifts and as a family who don’t live on treats, it’s hugely exciting to see what’s under the tree for me. It’s an excitement we share and many of you do too.

One year my partner had a wobble and couldn’t decide what to get me. Rather than ask, he went to Boots and purchased every item in the Ted Baker toiletries collection. I think there were ten parcels all containing the same things, just presented in different boxes and varying sizes.

There were 5 body sprays. Five! I still have 2 in my drawer and they were given 5 years ago.

I sound really shallow and self-centered, I know. And before you jump to any conclusions about my low-level gratitude, all I said on the day was how thankful I was (and still am) for the lovely presents. Since then we laugh about his lack of creativity that year. He knows me far better now and it’s not happened since.

I’ve witnessed more selfish individuals getting stupidly angry on Christmas Day because the gifts given were not requested. This was an adult having a huff. This toxic behaviour comes from the same place but ends up being dangerously negative and upsetting.

Avoid toxic people.

Batteries and other accesories

You tell me anything more stressful, more hair-loss causing, more heart-sinks-into-your-arse inducing moments than a kid with their most desired gift, but no batteries.

Who didn’t think this through properly? Who forgot them? Why didn’t you look at the box? Are they the same size as the Sky remote batteries?

In the end you have not only a sad, deflated child staring at a crap toy that can’t be used properly, you also have the ammunition for another argument with an added ‘he-said she-said’ situation.

The tip for this is easy. Go on amazon now. Right now. And buy as many batteries as you can afford. When they arrive, stuff them in a drawer and forget about them. On Christmas Day you’ll be a happy soul. You can thank me later 😉.

Weight gain

Ok, I added this for myself really. I’m 75% of the way through my biggest ever weight loss journey and Christmas is filled with the enemies I’ve been battling all year long. I don’t want to gain weight. I don’t want to stop fitting in my new dress. I don’t want to feel even more ugly.

I also don’t want to leave that last mince pie.

I can’t think of a more perplexing dilemma.

This year we will have a few healthy snacks available. I’ll also be counting calories and trying to complete gentle exercise. Those are my only tips for weight gain and I feel sick having written them. Who counts calories at Christmas? I’m a disgrace. But my dress fits, so I’m happy thus far 😊.

Strained relationships

Nothing….NOTHING….will reveal the cracks in a relationship like a busy, high-volume, child-bursting, early morning Christmas.

Everyone argues. I spend a lot of time on my personal social media declaring my love for my partner and shouting from the rooftops that I’m so lucky we never argue. Well baby, I lied. We do argue. It’s super rare, but it happens. Thankfully we are both level-headed and forgiving, so it gets fixed quickly and the only scars tend to be our slightly bruised egos.

But this isn’t my first relationship, and Christmas in the past was often dreaded rather than desired. ‘Who should visit? What can we cook? You spent more on your mum than my mum! Why do I always have to come up with present ideas? Be careful with the crockery. It was a gift! Did you take the turkey out of the freezer? Did you use the last of the wrapping paper?’ You get the idea.

Strained relationships are difficult to give tips on, but for us there are 2 I’m things that help. 1. Give your partner time to do some things they WANT to do. Meet a mate, go to a party or two, sit in pyjamas for days and watch Home Alone, picking holes in the script and story. Go for a swim / run / workout. Balancing selfishness needs to be done to allow everyone some enjoyment. 2. Do things together that you both enjoy and discuss the topics you won’t talk about throughout that time. If you’re a ‘Christmaszilla’ like me, then your partner would probably love an afternoon when the big day isn’t mentioned. Not at all. Maybe you’ve been talking about a movie that you want to see. Set up a Christmas-free zone and have nachos or burgers under a blanket while you enjoy the film.

Make time, shut up.

Grief

How dare I talk about something so serious? Well to be honest, grief forms a part of my Christmas every year because before she died I’d watch my own mother toast ‘Absent friends’ at 1pm every Christmas Day. It’s a tradition that I continue today in her memory.

However, if you have been through a bereavement, the festive season seems to magnify the pain and sadness you’ve been feeling and can leave a grey-ish sheen over a day that is supposed to be enjoyable.

What can you do? Think about a way to acknowledge the missing friend or family member and take 30 minutes (or more or less) to talk about, remember and think about or memorialise them in some way. Show them the love you feel, the sadness you can’t escape and the respect they deserve for an agreed period (maybe with a drink or some speeches) and once that period of time is over, do what they’d probably want you to do – go back to enjoying the day.

Pressure

Much as I love visitors at Christmas, the pressure it adds to my already slumped shoulders is immense.

The pressure to keep everyone happy, to make sure all dietary requirements are catered for, to get all the required gifts, to just afford the financial burden, is absolutely insane.

This tip is simple and goes back to the planning I keep harping on about.

Any hey, if Jason and Sarah want to come for Christmas dinner that’s great. But maybe they could pop by for a couple of hours on Christmas Eve too and help get ready for tomorrow?

Get creative, use volunteers, start as early as possible, take breaks and have a list that you stick to. It doesn’t matter how much detail you put in, but once there’s a list you can stop stressing about the pressure of remembering everything.

The other huge help is managing peoples expectations. Tell your parents that you haven’t had time to spring clean yet. The Boxing Day visitors are welcome, but they need to accept the tracksuit you’ll be wearing all day. You’re happy to cook for all 16 members of your family, but you can’t do it if people don’t help.

The second you start managing their expectations and make it clear what the things are that you can’t do perfectly, the pressure on your shoulder will start to reduce.

Relationships

Who’s arguing now? Brothers and sisters disagreeing over new partners they don’t get along with. Parents unhappy with the career choices of a child. Children who didn’t get to do the thing they wanted to do. Grandparents who didn’t get an invite. Separated parents trying to decide the time to imetable of care throughout December.

Christmas is an emotional minefield.

The only possible solution to relationship breakdowns is planning, planning, planning (sorry) yawn 🥱!

It might be that you need to consider multiple gatherings so clashing personalities don’t meet. Maybe you need a reminder from time to time that you are loved and your efforts are not forgotten. It’s ok to ask for that attention. It could be that you’re arguing with an ex partner over who has your kids and / or pets and when.

It sounds simple but the reality is the opposite. That’s why it’s important you talk, manage expectations and cover all bases.

Not everyone gets along, relationships fall apart, people suffer. We all have struggles. Listening to the needs of your opponent and having your needs heard can be the eureka moment.

The perfect Christmas

I SEE YOU! At the back reading this post sniggering at all the pitfalls we experience. You’re the one I’m talking to now. The person who spends January to November planning Christmas. You never take a break from festivities and read every magazine , book and website to find ways to make it even better next year.

You’re in a race with yourself kiddo. The people who really enjoy the day often bring together the biggest group in the smallest house. They have a secret Santa so everyone gets ONE gift that they are truly grateful for. They sit around the table creating a constant din as they eat, chat and laugh. They are sprawled on the sofa, spare chairs and floor by 4pm while the kids sit excitedly putting together a Lego set. They all chip in with the washing up later and the din from dinner is reignited as the plates shine again. They are often single-parent families who struggle but absolutely relish the moment they see their child’s happiness on Christmas morning.

No one spends it alone because there is always room for any friend or family member at their table. To me, this is what Christmas is about. Opening your door to someone who might otherwise have been alone. Someone did that for me when I moved in to a flat on my own. Scared and lonely, I would have spent the day alone if it wasn’t for their kindness.

I’ve dedicated a paragraph to that event because it’s the closest I’ve ever got to a perfect Christmas and I did nothing to make it happen other than turning up with stuff. So I guess you can stop striving for it through gold napkin rings, a Norfolk bronze turkey and extra special crackers. Perfection exists through happiness, kindness and contentment. It’s not material.

And of course, that age-old Christmas enemy – Alcohol

Want to ruin a Christmas dinner before the pudding has been showcased? Get pissed off your skull. Want to bring the tired hostess to tears being rude and thoughtless? Hammer down 12 pints of lager before the queen speaks. Want to forget the wonderful day someone grafted to create for you to enjoy? Neck some vodka in the toilet so no one sees.

You aren’t improving the day by becoming prematurely, stupidly, excessively drunk. Sure, have a NORMAL amount, enjoy the delicious wine and the specialist brandy only opened for big occasions. Remember that word? BALANCE. Don’t be the idiot remembered for the wrong reasons. They might not invite you again.

Once you have your own festive period in order and know that your own stresses are being mitigated, maybe you could help someone else whose Christmas might not be as joyful? And like I’ve said on other posts, it doesn’t have to cost much, if anything. Invite someone over for dinner, knock on the door of your lonely neighbour, make a cake for the family with the parent that was made redundant, drive your aunt to see the Christmas carol service, call the relative you haven’t seen for months, donate old clothes and toys to a refuge, volunteer for a local charity or just offer to help someone struggling with their shopping.

Having experienced Christmas on my own as an adult, I can say with all honesty that the only thing that saved it for me was the kindness and generousity of others. People who invited me to share their private family food, fun and festivities. People who offered me a place at the office party. Families who sent me cards and gifts. Messages from friends of my parents. Offers of help to get a tree in to my flat and decorate it. People visiting and staying the night for a chat and a drink. So many wonderful people offered me relief and thoughtful kindness in a thousand different ways and it made it far more bearable. Actually, they were some of my favourite Christmasses.

I was lucky, I met my current partner after a year of living alone and we ended up making a whole new family of our own. Many others aren’t as fortunate and live a life where 365 days of the year are silent. They eat a microwave dinner for one on Christmas day. Their phone is only lifted when it’s cleaned. They don’t bother with a tree. There aren’t even any cards on the windowsill.

Bob Geldofs Band Aid Christmas single – Do they know it’s Christmastime? – talks about the third world and reminded us lyrically that “There’s a world outside your window, and it’s a world of dread and fear” as well as “Well tonight thank god it’s them, instead of you”. As the years have passed, more and more of the Band Aid lyrics have started to apply to the people in our country, as well as the third world. We have our own epidemic of sadness in Britain, and I have no idea if we’ll ever be able to fix it. People are struggling just to raise a smile at the happiest time of year, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Why wouldn’t we take some time out of our days to help them?

My ideas above are for the usual every-day issues that are simple to fix and / or manage. However, serious talk coming, for some people Christmas is a terrible, lonely, frightening, wretched time of year. Domestic abuse rises, separations also go up, finances become tight and lonliness is far more common than it should be. As a result, in many homes, happiness fades or in some cases, becomes non-existant.

So more than anything, remember to be thankful for who and what you have. You are rich in ways you don’t realise, and many others wish for what you already have.

Such a long post. I have so many opinions, I never realised how many of them were about Christmas. If you’ve made it this far then I can’t help but be thankful and surprised.

More importantly, I believe your perfect Christmas exists, maybe with a few adjustments to get there. 🎁 🌲 🎄

Published by stephc2021

Hi! I'm Steph, an amateur writer and illustrator specialising in Mental Health and being a self-confessed Spoonie. My website is home to any successful fiction I create, with stories that have won so far covering difficult subjects such as baby loss and mental health in grief as well as some funny and heart-warming tales when I get the inspiration. Every drawing and picture on my website was created by me. I spend a lot of time coming up with illustrations to accompany all of my posts and pages. I try to create original content across all of my channels, whether I'm writing about my own fiction or just generally musing on mental health or my own issues. I want to be part of the change because I believe the understanding of MH in the UK is getting better, but has a very long way to go. By being honest about my own struggles and symptoms I think others will relate and hopefully it will encourage them to talk to someone and get the help and support they need. Long term my goal is to help children too, help them understand their own mental health and how to help with the mental health of those around them. I live in the UK with my partner, daughter and dog, I swear frequently and I adore a well made, traditional, gooey, chocolatey, delicious brownie.

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