Great expectations for Christmas are out-of-date — instead approach the holiday with lower standards, says Lucy Corry.
Last week, while combining an after-work dog walk with a work-related errand (#multitasking), I made the mistake of picking up a stack of books at my local community library. This was a grave error on two fronts.
One: the books were heavy and I had several hills to navigate while carrying them and a dozen beers (the errand) and stopping the dog from chasing every cat in sight.
Two: one of the books was the Better Homes & Gardens Treasury of Christmas Crafts & Foods; 375 pages of “ornaments, decorations, playthings and gifts, and holiday foods for dinners and parties”. If the spooky handmade doll on the cover didn’t threaten my seasonal joie de vivre, the rest of the contents certainly did.
While the book describes itself modestly as “a treasure house of ideas”, it’s more like a horror hate-read. Each page horrified me more than the last, with its soft-focus shots of happy nuclear families bonding over hand-stitched stockings, quilted toys and hand-printed wrapping paper (“why purchase expensive gift wrappings when you can organise a work party at your house some pre-Christmas afternoon and have a ball printing your own?”)
In the Better Homes & Gardens world, Christmas is a time to go big or go home and get busy needlepointing. Even the recipes are over the top, though many of them use packaged cake mix, frozen dough and canned soup (!), presumably because the hostess will be busy adding the finishing touches to her mirror tile napkin rings and place mats.
There’s no doubt that the BH&G reader likes to party though — there are 35 drinks recipes, many of which are seriously potent. If you’d spent a week creating a nativity set (including a camel) from plastic drink bottles, polystyrene balls, foam, fabric scraps and something called sequin pins, you’d probably have a serious thirst too.
How about a tumbler of ‘Christmas Party Punch’ (two bottles of Sauternes, three cups of Cognac, six bottles Champagne and eight cups of fizzy water, plus some artfully sliced frozen oranges, green grapes and cranberries)?
It’s easy to look back at this book, which was published in 1980, and laugh, but the modern equivalents found on the internet are just as potent. My Instagram feed is worryingly full of #festiveinspo whipped up by stylists and art directors, my inbox is chock-a-block with seasonal suggestions.
On this site, Jane Wrigglesworth’s handy guide to making a gorgeous Christmas wreath with a bit of chicken wire and some coir matting is incredibly beautiful, but it feels equally out of reach. I would love to be making this wreath, but I know I am as likely to be doing a headstand on the summit of Matairangi (Mt Victoria) at sunrise. It ain’t going to happen.
That’s because this year I am bowing out early. I have resigned myself to the fact that I’m not going to have the time, head space or physical energy to do any festive baking or making. This is my early Christmas gift to myself — and to the people I live with, who don’t need me to be in a state of collapse between now and December 25.
It has gradually dawned on me that they prefer a wife and mother who is functioning normally and can go for a post-dinner dog walk (ice cream optional) or lie on the sofa and watch TV with than one who treats Christmas like a multi-sport event.
I’m not sure where this compulsion comes from, but I know lots of women (only women) who are similarly afflicted. One friend, who cooks under duress and doesn’t do anything remotely crafty for most of the year, ties herself up in knots making things all December. The results are never what she hopes for and she’s always shattered by the process. It’s madness.
If you’re in a similar boat — or, worse, you’ve already commenced the Great Christmas Makeathon and don’t know if you’ve got the wherewithal to keep going, here’s some hopefully helpful advice:
1. Time is a construct: December 25 is not the end of the holiday season, it’s the beginning. You don’t have to catch up with people before then if you – or they – don’t have time. It’s much nicer to hang out with your long-lost pals in January (or February) when everyone has had a break.
2. Stick to what works: If you’re not a pro baker the rest of the year, it’s unfair to expect yourself to go from 0 to 60 in three weeks. Your friends love you for your company, not your wonky baking. If you do want to bake something easy and delicious, this fruity slice is fabulous. So are these candy cane truffles and this last-minute fudge.
3. Lower your expectations (and your standards): This is hard the first time, but gets progressively easier. I’ve been practising this one all year. As an example, when my in-laws visited earlier this year I realised I didn’t have time to do all the things I needed to do and clean the house to my mother-in-law’s exacting standards. So I didn’t. I figured she wasn’t there to do the white-glove test on my windowsills, and if a bit of domestic filth bothered her, she could pick up a mop herself.
4. Be prepared for offers of help: There’s nothing worse than someone (like your spouse, perhaps), saying ‘what can I do to help?’ and you are too frazzled to think so you say ‘oh, nothing…’ when in reality there are lots of things they could be doing. So when you have a spare five minutes (indulge me here), make a list of useful jobs for someone else to do. This is very satisfying, even if only some of them get done.
5. Remember to put your own oxygen mask on first: A long time ago, at ante-natal classes, the wise woman running them told my group of expectant mothers how to deal with visitors when the baby was born. “A woman in her dressing gown gets looked after, a woman in her clothes does the looking after,” she said. I failed at this dismally back then (for lack of a dressing gown, among other things) but I am fully willing to embrace it now. If you’re overwhelmed by festive fatigue, you have my permission to put your dressing gown on and lie down immediately. This too shall pass.