Seasonal offerings for a cracker of a Christmas
Seven more sleeps to the most distinctive day of the year – one that is invested with so much hope and expectation.One person’s ideal Christmas Day, be it participating in a large family gathering, staying home in the PJs, attending church or calling on friends, may be another person’s idea of Christmas hell. But there are steps we can all take towards creating a “perfect” family Christmas:
Decide what festive elements are really important to you and your family and focus on those. Your physical and mental health, as well as your finances, will benefit from a simpler Christmas.
“Less is more,” says clinical psychologist Mark Harrold. “I don’t think having extra trimmings and going to a whole lot of expense adds to the tradition of Christmas.”
This may mean cutting back on socialising and menu excesses, but far better to really enjoy everything you choose to do and eat. Small children will not thank you for being dragged hither and thither – what they want above all is the time and attention of loving parents, which is hard to deliver if you’re half deranged by “all the things to do”. However, tamper with family tradition at your peril.
Don’t reinvent your Christmas Day without consulting older children.
We have far too many high expectations for Christmas Day, says Rita O’Reilly, chief executive of Parentline, the confidential listening service. There is a tendency to think it is going to be a “fantastic” day, while it is going to be a reasonably ordinary day, she suggests.
Try to keep children grounded in what they can realistically expect from Santa. Focus on the rituals rather than rights to presents.
At this time of austerity everyone is in the same boat, says Harrold, so we should not feel pressure to have the kind of Christmas of excess we have had in the past.
“I think children understand that Santa Claus has been affected in the same way. Kids are very accepting once it is explained to them what Santa can and can’t do.”
People need a reality check when it comes to Christmas Day, says Ciara Conlon, a productivity coach and author of Chaos to Control: A Practical Guide to Getting Things Done. “They are putting so much into one day: so much money, so much stress. It is supposed to be a holiday.”
A lot of people don’t enjoy it, she suggests, because there is so much stress in the build-up and the day itself is a lot of work. “Then it’s over and you’re in debt and you drank too much and you feel blue.”
A mother of three boys, she says: “I would like people to be thinking about the human side of it rather than the material side of it – it is the coming together, and it doesn’t matter if the Brussels sprouts are beside the ham.”
Preparation in advance is core to taking stress out of the day, says Conlon. If finances are tight, “you don’t have to be traditional and do the same every year”.
Revise the menu if necessary, so it is not all heavy foods. Personally, she thinks having two different meats is “ridiculous”.
Make asking for help part of your preparations – soldiering on as mother martyr to the point of meltdown does nobody any favours.
Prepare for family tensions
The thought of having to visit extended family at Christmas can be stressful for some people, acknowledges Harrold. Don’t just dread the day, “because then you’re carrying the stress and they’re not”. Instead, think through the encounter and consider potential flashpoints.
“Plan the visit, how long you’re going to be there, what you’re going to say. If a particular topic comes up, how are you going to deal with that?”
Create Christmas Eve magic
Every child should be able to revel in the delicious anticipation of Christmas Eve.
Last-minute baking, last-minute shopping, carol singing and the countdown to bedtime can all be imbued with a sense of ritual that childhood memories are made of.
Look to the soul
If organised religion doesn’t do it for you, try to seek a spiritual dimension on Christmas Day through music, quiet meditation, a walk in the countryside (see below), or simply by reaching out to others.
It’s not natural to be cooped up all day; making time for fresh air and exercise will pay off in better behaviour and less stress all round.
Personal trainer Cathy Soraghan, founder of Women on the Run and Men on the Go, is very quick to remind us that we are liable to consume a “shocking” 5,000 calories while sitting at the Christmas dinner table, so “just move it”, she says, for a little damage limitation.
“Even if you can’t get out of the house, run up and down the stairs – your staircase is an amazing piece of [fitness] equipment in your own home,” she remarks.
However, a better idea is to schedule time for a walk for all, “young and old – no excuses”, in the local park, forest, beach or just around the block.
“Wrap up, hail, rain or snow, and have a laugh.”
If you prefer to unwrap, take the plunge for charity at a Christmas swim, or participate in one of the 100 or so Goal Christmas Miles that are staged around the State (see goal.ie).
Set the mood
Smell is the most evocative of the senses: let the smell of pine needles, the turkey roasting in the oven, the Christmas pudding, clove and cinnamon aromas from mulled wine or simmering ham, all percolate through the house.
If you have an artificial tree and are eating dinner elsewhere . . . then fake it with a careful choice of scented candles, says interiors writer Alanna Gallagher. Her recommendations include Cloon Keen Atelier candles in Galway, the John Galliano candle for Diptyque, or “Empire” in the Cire Trudon range.
Get out the Waterford Crystal, “even if you hate it”, she says, along with the best dinnerware, to create a sense of occasion. If Christmas-themed crockery is your thing, don’t be afraid to mismatch items sourced from curiosity shops.
Have a fire blazing from early on in the day, decorate the table with holly and pine cones, and the scene is set.
It’s best to talk about people who are missed, whether they are absent through death, separation or emigration. “Then it’s not the elephant in the corner,” says O’Reilly.
Harrold advises people to try to think of how their loved one would want them to be. “People should aim not to be morose – of course they are going to miss the person but think what the person would want themselves, so be happy. Don’t deny the sadness, but embrace the season and make the most of it.”
With all the little screens that are inevitably going to be under the Christmas tree this year, it might seem Scrooge-like to demand that children switch them off. But start as you mean to go on . . . and designate “screen-free” times.
That goes for adults too. If you can’t live without television for the day, choose one or two “family” programmes that can be watched together before bedtime.
Be game for a laugh
After-dinner charades or board games may seem corny to some, but are an essential part of many families’ traditions. Choose something children and adults can participate in equally, advises O’Reilly, who recalls a colleague saying how a table quiz for combined adult-child teams proved to be a highlight of their day last year.
Focusing family members on games has the advantage, points out Harrold, of not leaving people sitting around, talking (and increasing danger of raising “the war”).
Settle for imperfection
If, despite your best-laid plans, things go differently and people don’t behave the way you hoped, go with the flow and try to see the funny side. As Tolstoy wrote: “If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.” Happy Christmas!
Homes alive to families'' festive traditions
Dolores Heaphy, pictured here with her family, makes no apologies for being a “Christmas nut” and she goes to great lengths, starting about August, to create a special day for her four children – Daniel (13), Gemma (10) and three-year-old twins Eva and Peter.She will be up at 6.30 on Christmas morning in their house in Frankfield, Co Cork, to get herself sorted before rousing the family. “I am blessed with four good sleepers.”
Her husband, Don, goes down and puts the lights on the Christmas tree in the front room (there is a second tree in the kitchen and a third in the porch) and then the tradition is that she and the children stand at the top of the stairs and shout down: “Did he come?” she says. “As if he wouldn’t.”
When Don exclaims: “You won’t believe what’s down here . . .”, they hare down to the front room, which is always “packed to the gills” with gifts Santa has left.
“The kids go wild. But it will be us watching their faces, that is what it is all about.”
Soon afterwards, they will be off to Mass in the nearby Church of the Incarnation, where Dolores sings with a gospel choir.
“We do a pretty damn good Mass,” she says. “The church is packed. We get a big clap at the end and everyone is kissing everyone ‘Merry Christmas’, and it’s that lovely, special time.”
Then it’s back home where Dolores cooks for the family, including her parents and sister and brother-in-law.
“I prefer the kids to stay at home because they can trash the place.”
After dinner everybody will be expected to sing and, after the visitors leave, Dolores will most likely go asleep on the couch. “It’s my favourite time of the year without a doubt,” she says.
“It is hard work and I am exhausted at the end of it but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I had beautiful Christmases as a child and I just want to give my kids the very, very same.”
Emma Leahy is just starting to build memories for her first child, Hannah (two), and she is carrying on the family tradition of a “Christmas Eve box”.
When she and her only sibling, Mark, were growing up in Knocklyon, Dublin, their mother would always prepare them a hamper containing things such as new pyjamas, bubble bath, hot chocolate and marshmallows, which they would open late afternoon as they began to wind down towards bedtime.
Emma used to think, “when I have kids I’m definitely going to do this”.
Her husband, Dan, is a chef and will not get home to Blessington, Co Wicklow until about 8pm on Christmas Eve, so they are going to open the box with Hannah first thing in the morning before he leaves.
At the same time, thanks to Skype, she hopes to be able to see Mark, who has lived in New Zealand for the past three years, opening the Christmas Eve box she has posted to him at what will be the “proper time”, being 12 hours ahead.
On Christmas Day itself, Dan’s only day off, Skype will unite the family of three with Dan’s parents, who go to his sister in Waterford. “They will get to see Hannah opening her presents.”
The one thing Else Ravneberg misses about her native Norway at Christmas time is the snow, along with outdoor activities such as cross-country skiing and tobogganing.
Otherwise the Christmas Day that she and her Irish husband, Simon Kenny, and their four-year-old twins Fiona and Seán, spend at her in-laws in Co Offaly is “perfect”.
Her father and sister are coming over this year, armed with some traditional Norwegian Christmas food, including readymade gingerbread dough for making cookies and rakfifk – fermented, raw trout – which are eaten with a wrap made of potato, known as lompe.
Else, who lives in Carrig, Co Offaly and is an agent for Playground Wader, Norwegian rainwear for children, is a little bemused at the continual carping by Irish people about it being too cold or too wet to spend time outdoors.
From where she’s coming from, “There is a lot of good weather here.”
Her family will certainly be out walking with their dog on Christmas Day no matter what the weather – either to “get the appetite up, or let the meal sink”.
However, the big difference she has noticed about an Irish Christmas, apart from the weather, is how inclusive it is.
In Norway the focus is very much on immediate family and relatives, whereas here she likes how friends may be included at the dinner table and how she is forever hearing on the radio people being urged to look out for the elderly and needy in their community.
“That is a fantastic thing about Ireland,” she adds. “There is a natural, national spirit – especially at a time like this.”
Parentline will operate over Christmas (apart from Christmas Day and New Year’s Day) on 1890 927277 or 01 8733500.