‘On Christmas Eve my husband will ask what we got his mother’

Irish Times readers share their experiences of taking on the ‘emotional load’ of Christmas

‘I’m utterly exhausted. I do all the shopping and wrapping’

‘I’m utterly exhausted. I do all the shopping and wrapping’


Who in Irish households wraps the presents, writes the cards, organises gifts for the in-laws, the teacher and the helpful neighbour, while also cooking the dinner, decorating the house and making Christmas “happen”?

Last week, The Irish Times invited people to write about the the “emotional labour” associated with Christmas. Here is a selection of the responses. (With apologies for the gender imbalance – all the contributions were from women.)

Irene Colgan

My husband will sit into the car on Christmas Eve and ask me what did we get his mother/sister/nieces and nephews for Christmas! Clearly the elves do all the work.

Susan McQuinn, Dublin

I’m utterly exhausted, not from the physical work which is very manageable as we are a small family, but from the “emotional load” of Christmas. I do all the gift-shopping and wrapping, including whatever we give the kids ourselves, along with helping Santa do his job.

To top it all, we’re half-Spanish, so I have to get a few surprises from the 3 Wise Men who traditionally give children their gifts on 6th January – I might be mad, but I want them to know their culture.

My husband doesn’t even think of it and can’t understand why I stress myself out about it. And I get the gifts for his family! Not to mention that I usually do all the Christmas cooking, buy presents and cards for teachers, neighbours and friends, buy the Christmas jumpers, organise the decorations, leave our snacks for Santa, the reindeer, the Wise Men, the camels ... by the time the kids go back to school all I need is a holiday!

Ellie Byrne, Limerick

I do the WHOLE of Christmas. From climbing a rickety ladder up to the attic for the Christmas decorations, to untangling the lights, putting lights on the outside trees, buying the gifts, doing Santa on Christmas Eve (which involves going to bed at midnight, setting the alarm to get up at 3 am when I’m sure everyone’s asleep) to making ridiculous, messy “Santa” footprints with ashes from the fire (which I then have to clean up the next morning), to buying, wrapping presents.

I also spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about whether the kids feel like it’s proper Christmassy. I really want ensure they have great memories when they’re older (as I have, of magic Christmasses in my Granny’s house in west Clare).

Having said all of this, it’s probably my own fault. You know how most people have regular panic dreams – about the Leaving Cert, being on the street naked etc? Well my panic dream, and one which I have throughout the year, is that it’s Christmas Eve, all the shops are closed, and I’ve forgotten to do the shopping, the decorating and have no idea how I’m going to break it to the family. The absolute relief of waking up from this nightmare is immeasurable.

The ONLY thing my husband does, and it’s a total family tradition now, is to read “The Night Before Christmas” to the kids on Christmas Eve. One of our kids is 24 and she still snuggles up in the younger kids’ bed to be included in this. So really, I love it.

My husband gives out to me every year about the amount of food I bring into the house before Christmas – enough to feed a small country – but the thinking behind this is that I don’t have to venture anywhere NEAR shop for a week. I can stay in the jammies watching telly. Because the preparation is exhausting. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sinead McKenna, Dublin

I do Christmas at home. Himself bought a singular Christmas present and took the decorations out of the attic the other day and said: “I think that’s pretty much Christmas sorted”. The house is in a state, there’s not a card written, a present wrapped, no tree bought and no food in! But the decorations are out of the attic so he’s done his part!

Aoife O’Leary, Cork

My mother undertakes a lot of the work involved with Christmas – writing the cards, buying the presents, organising the Christmas grocery shop and cleaning before visitors come over for the festive period. My father picks up more shifts at work and puts in long hours to afford Christmas.

As an adult, I realise the strain this has had on my parents especially my mother. Her father passed away a few years ago before Christmas, and this time of year is very hard on her. I have found myself stepping up to take some of burden that is organising and managing family expectations – the term emotional labour definitely applies. I have enjoyed Christmas less since my grandfather’s passing as I am very aware of the high expectations of having a brilliant Christmas that everyone holds and the constant demand of seeing family, buying thoughtful and meaningful gifts, attending social gatherings and making the most of the time off work.

I am often burned out by the time Christmas Day rolls around to be quite honest. I am probably not alone in wanting a Christmas on a Caribbean island with no pressure and no eggshells to walk on.

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