Avoiding Festive Fatigue

carols by candlelight

We’re back at that time of year where, if you’re not careful, life can feel like one long to-do list. My own list is epic. Finish writing cards. Post cards. Get daughter to write her cards. Make shortbread as present for class eldest’s class teacher. Take teacher presents into preschool. Make cranberry sauce to put in freezer. Post presents that need posting. Wrap other presents. Pay credit card bill (gulp). Update Ocado order. Finalise stocking fillers. Make mince pies. Water Christmas tree. Do all the things I need to do every day which don’t stop just because its Christmas.

But I want to stop and hit pause, so that I’m not so shattered by Christmas I don’t enjoy it. And ideally, so that I enjoy the last few days before Christmas, as in many ways they are the best bit. Here are my top five ways to avoid festive fatigue.

1 Go and sing some carols

For me, Christmas without a church service or two is like icing without cake. All the surrounding frippery can be beautifully sweet, but without the cake itself it can feel sickly and cloying. I’m not particularly religious, but the Christmas message of love, peace and joy never fails to uplift and inspire me. And taking time out to sing beautiful carols in a lovely place imbues me with a sense of peace and calm which lasts far longer than the service itself. One of our most beloved family traditions is going to the service of crib blessing in Trafalgar Square every Advent. Sadly we missed it this year as Anna was ill, and we missed the local carols in the village square for the same reason. However, yesterday evening I made a last-minute decision that Anna could have a slightly late bedtime, and we whizzed off to the carols by candlelight service in our local parish church. I had been feeling overwrought and overwhelmed all day, but I ended it feeling peaceful, loving and festive.

2 Do something you like 

A lot of Christmas is for children, and as parents we bend over backwards to ensure that they have the most perfect and memorable time possible. But they won’t enjoy any of that nearly so much with a grumpy, snappy mummy. I hope that making the time to go for a Christmas drink with a friend, lighting a scented candle and snuggling in whilst listening to some carols with my favourite Christmassy books to read, and going to that carol service will help me keep my cool and my patience as the children’s Pre-Christmas Tension rises.

3. Don’t try and do everything

There is so much to do at this time of year. Parties, drinks, Christmas fairs, grottoes, carol singing, lights, meals out, pantomimes, films, shopping , festive family craft sessions and so on and so on. If you try and do everything that comes your way you will be exhausted and frazzled. Take a moment to think about your family, and what you actually enjoy doing, and concentrate on a few activities that will feel really special and meaningful (even if that’s just watching a favourite Christmas film together whilst drinking hot chocolate) rather than squeezing everything in to what will end up feeling like a giant, sparkly, headache inducing blur. You won’t enjoy it, and your children probably won’t enjoy it either.

4. Cut corners and delegate

I am not going to send cards to children at my toddler’s preschool, because she barely remembers any of her little friends’ names, and can’t write.  When my friend brings her children round for a pre-Christmas catch-up/play date they will get frozen pizza for tea (maybe with some cherry tomatoes and cucumber on the side), because the point is that we all spend time together, rather than me being stuck in the kitchen trying to rustle up some home-made delight that at least half the children will probably reject on sight anyway. My husband is in charge of wrapping presents (although I still haven’t found a way of getting someone else to wrap his presents!), doing the decorations and setting the festive tables, and although I don’t cut many corners on Christmas Day cooking because I love doing (and easting!) the whole shebang, I am more than happy for my mother-in-law to contribute her delicious bread-sauce, brandy butter and ham for the festive feast.

5. Remember the bigger picture

Will anyone really look back and say “oh, Christmas 2017 was a big disappointment – mum forgot the maple glaze for the parsnips”? A piece of advice I read of this year and try (though often fail) to heed, is when something goes wrong or causes you anxiety, stop and think whether it will still bother you in five years time. If the answer is no, then stop fretting. I think this advice applies more than ever at Christmas. Children, and indeed everyone, will remember an atmosphere of warmth and love and a sense of magical anticipation. That doesn’t need you to work yourself into the ground, or spend more money than you can really afford – in fact probably the exact opposite.

Oh, and a final thought – this is a horrible, germy time of year. Force feed everyone a good multivitamin, get out in the fresh air when you can, and stock up on the Dettol spray to try and contain things if the bugs do strike!

 

 

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Advent Weekend

After a moaning blog about hideous November, this is a much more cheerful post about our lovely weekend when, even though it’s only just December, we really got our Christmas on!

On Friday afternoon my husband finished work early, and we collected Anna from school and headed straight into Central London. We went  firstly to the Liberty Christmas shop to choose a couple of new Christmas tree decorations. LibertyMany of our tree decorations are now 15 years old, bought by husband and myself in a pound shop in the West Midlands our first Christmas as independent householders. The ‘house’ was a scruffy little rented flat in Birmingham, but we were so excited to have our own place that we went all out with a real Christmas tree, lugged back on the bus from our local Homebase. Cash was tight on our graduate scheme salaries, and all those pesky electric bills and Council Tax demands which were suddenly our responsibility, hence the decorations all coming from Poundland! They’ve done pretty well, and we have added to them over the years, but this year I was inspired by my lovely blogger pal Chiswick Mum’s family tradition of each choosing a new tree decoration each year. And where better to do that than one of the most beautiful and Christmassy shops in London?

We chose a new star for the top of the tree, and two beautiful baubles. Then we went and wondered around and admired the beautiful Christmas lights around Carnaby Street and Regent Street, and the incredible window displays in Hamleys. hamleysWe then refuelled with some delicious pizza, and bought cookies to eat on the tube home. It was the perfect way to start the weekend, and a much needed reminder for me that going into town is enormous fun and totally do-able, despite what time constraints and anxiety sometimes have me believe.

Saturday was Decoration Day. First of all though we had gingerbread muffins for breakfast. These are a Nigella recipe, and a fairly recent Christmas tradition we instigated a couple of years ago, which are now a must for festive breakfasts.

gingerbread muffins

We were very proud of keeping last year’s Christmas tree alive in a pot in our garden all year long. In fact that was part of our justification for splashing out a little on some new decorations – after all, we wouldn’t need a new tree! However, pride always comes before a fall, and it turns out that we hadn’t been nearly as rigorous as we should have been at turning our little Christmas tree regularly, and whereas the side facing out onto the patio was beautifully green and bushy, the other side was brown and rather denuded. So husband set off with Anna to purchase a new Christmas tree after all. I felt rather sorry for last year’s loyal little tree, so that is going to be our outdoor Christmas tree with its own set of lights. Our new tree takes up around 50% of our living room space, but it is truly beautiful, and is the most delicious smelling tree I’ve ever encountered. It is also adorned with a gorgeous Liberty star, and the homemade vanilla and clementine biscuits which Anna and I always make together.

our tree

It all looks beautiful, and on Saturday night we put the children to bed and then snuggled on the sofa, fire on,  eating a takeaway, and admiring the twinkling lights. Perfect hygge.

Yesterday we went off to our local National Trust property, Sutton House, in Hackney so that the children could meet Father Christmas. It was beautifully done, with an incredibly authentic Santa in a really magical setting. Both children were utterly enchanted. This is a particularly special year as, at nearly 3, Sophia has really developed an understanding of what Christmas is all about (trying to explain the Christmas story did, however, lead to me grappling with the weighty theological issue of ‘but who is God, Mummy?” at 6.45am today), but at 8 Anna is still young enough to really believe in all the magic. Watching their little faces as they listened to Father Christmas’ story of his and Rudolph’s adventures one foggy Christmas Eve was so magical for us too.

Santa

All in all a really fabulous weekend to kick off the Christmas celebrations!

Twenty-Fourth Day of Advent: Christmas

xmas cakeWell, I had to end with Christmas, didn’t I? Regular readers of this blog and my Advent posts in particular will probably have picked up that I absolutely adore Christmas. I don’t want anything Christmassy to intrude until December because I feel it spoils it, but from 1 December, bring it on. I love the carols, the candles, the cooking, the eating, the choosing gifts and receiving them, the little family rituals, the cheesy Christmas tunes, Anna’s palpable excitement (which is about to shoot off the scale). Everything.

I also love the message of Christmas. I blogged before about my ambivalent relationship with Christianity, but equally how can I not warm to the message of Peace on Earth? One of my absolute favourite carols is It Came Upon the Midnight Clear and I can’t hear it without crying. Partly because it was my Nanna’s favourite and so reminds me of her, and partly because of the verse

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

Somehow Christmas brings alive the possibility that we might hush our noise and listen to the angel song. There is so much redolent symbolism. Stars and candles giving light, angels giving messages of peace and love, the evergreens with which we decorate our home reminding us even though the days are the shortest and darkest new life will return.

I love spending time with family and friends. Of course that isn’t, and shouldn’t, be confined to Christmas. But life can get so busy that it’s great when Christmas forces us to pause and take time away from work and day to day responsibilities and worries. In fact, Christmas brings together almost everything that makes me happy which I’ve blogged about this Advent. Family, friends, husband, daughters, food, home, baking are all crucial to making my Christmas special.

Thank you for reading my blog this Advent. I’ve been so touched by all your comments and the positive feedback I’ve had. I’ll be back after Christmas, but in the meantime I and going to turn on the TV for Carols From Kings, and wish you and your families a very happy Christmas however you are celebrating.

Eighth day of Advent: My parents

I came across a re-write of Philip Larkin’s infamous poem, This Be the Verse on Facebook a few weeks ago. Now, I probably have a higher than average tolerance for schmaltz and sentimentality, but for me this poem (below) does manage to be sweet and moving without tipping over into saccharine. It also really spoke to me.

Three year old me with my mum, dad and very new baby brother.

Three year old me with my mum, dad and very new baby brother.

I had an idyllically happy childhood, thanks mainly to my lovely parents. It was fairly traditional – mum, dad and 2.4 kids. Not sure who the .4 was, but my little brother is pretty nice too. We had family treats and traditions – I remember gazing out of the window with my mum on Hallow’een trying to spot witches on broomsticks in the night sky. Bundling up in every layer of clothes we possessed to go into the garden and wave sparklers around while my dad fought with matches and fireworks on Bonfire Night. Piling into my parents’ bed with our stockings (pillowcases in our house, actually!) on Christmas morning to see what Father Christmas had brought. Unbirthday presents were another tradition – the year my little brother was one, my parents were concerned that four year old me might be jealous at him getting lots of presents and attention on his birthday, so they bought me an ‘unbirthday’ present. When it was my birthday a few months later I wanted to know what little bro was getting for his ‘unbirthday’ present, and thus a tradition was started which lasted until I left home.

When I was very little my mum would save packets and boxes from the kitchen, and then play shop with me for hours on end. Whenever we walked anywhere with him, Dad played a game called Fast Walk, Slow Walk – perhaps you had to be there to fully appreciate it, but it would always end up with me and my brother sprinting along trying to catch up with my dad before collapsing into helpless giggles. The books of my early childhood – Shirley Hughes, Janet and Alan Ahlberg, Helen Nichol and Jan Pienkowski – remain vivid in my memory as they were patiently read to me so often, and I take so much pleasure in re-visiting them now with my children.

When I was ill, however hot and miserable I felt, my mum’s hands were always cool and gentle on my forehead and hot Ribena made by her or my dad undoubtedly had magic cure-all properties. Even as an adult, when I returned home after a minor op a couple of years ago, still woozy from the anaesthetic and sore from the taxi ride, my parents were here looking after Anna, and the relief of my mum tucking me up in bed and my dad making his convalescent special of scrambled eggs on toast for my tea was indescribable.

When I was a teenager, they showed their love in different ways. My dad would pick me up from wherever I’d been out to on a Friday night, but still be up to make me breakfast and take me to the station to get the train into town for my Saturday job’s 8.30am start. My mum made sure we were never out of Dairy Milk when I had exams to revise for. And that is another huge thing I am grateful to my parents for. I didn’t grow up in an area, or go to a school, where going to Oxford was the norm. My teachers felt I had the potential to try, though, and my mum and dad were endlessly encouraging. From spending hours testing me on chemistry formulae or French irregular verbs, to driving me down to Oxford for my interview, to straightforward bribery when they promised me £20 for every A* I got at GCSE, £15 for every A, £10 for every B, and so on they did everything they could to give me ambitions and then help me achieve them.

Since I have grown up and had my own children, I appreciate them even more. I also, perhaps, now appreciate them more as people in their own rights, and not just ‘mumndad’. My mum struggles sometimes with health issues, which makes the time and effort she puts into co-ordinating and volunteering frequently at her local Food Bank all the more admirable. She is also one of the wisest people I know, and my first port of call for advice on any subject from my children’s health (she had an evening phone call just last week as I was worrying about Sophia after her accident), to what colour boots I should buy, to the best approach to pursuing my writing career. My dad is the most selfless person I know and is constantly putting himself last through doing things for other people. His family are often the beneficiaries, but since retirement he has become a volunteer for the Samaritans, also works hard for the local food bank, served as a school governor at a local primary school and does pastoral work at church.

From my mum I have inherited my love of books and reading, and an interest in history. From my dad I get my sense of humour and chronic impatience with any kind of instruction manual.

They are also generous, thoughtful and incredibly loving grandparents, and it makes me very happy to watch them playing with, helping, reading to, teaching and caring for their granddaughters, and seeing the pleasure my girls get out of being with them.

My mum and dad set the benchmark for me. I want to give my children as happy a childhood as my they gave me, and I would love it if, when they reach adulthood themselves, my daughters regard me with as much love, affection, respect, pride and admiration as I feel for my parents.

They Tuck You Up

Adrian Mitchell
They tuck you up, your mum and dad
They read you Peter Rabbit, too.
They give you all the treats they had
And add some extra, just for you.

They were tucked up when they were small,
(Pink perfume, blue tobacco-smoke),
By those whose kiss healed any fall,
Whose laughter doubled any joke.

Man hands on happiness to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
So love your parents all you can
And have some cheerful kids yourself.

The Seventh Day of Advent: Trafalgar Square crib blessing

This time seven years ago I was pregnant with Anna, and husband (or boyfriend, as he then was) and I were mooching about in central London. I can’t really remember what we’d been doing – probably Christmas shopping, almost certainly tea and cake. We headed towards Trafalgar Square to admire the Christmas tree, and as we passed St Martin-in-the-Fields church we noticed there was a band outside playing Christmas music. We stopped to listen, and a few moments later the band turned and began to march towards the square, followed by a procession of choristers and clergy from St Martin’s. It looked so picturesque and festive that we followed them, and so ended up participating in the service of crib blessing in Trafalgar Square.

It was a short but perfect service – a few traditional carols, with music provided by the Chalk Farm Salvation Army band, some beautiful singing from the choir and a few perfectly pitched words and prayers from the priest. Standing there, a few feet from the famous Christmas tree, Big Ben illuminated away in one direction, the lovely National Gallery building behind us, joining in with the soaring notes of Hark the Herald was truly memorable and magical. I could feel the baby who would turn out to be Anna kicking away approvingly inside me, and I commented that this was her first carol service. We decided then that this would be our first Christmas tradition as a family, and that every year we would bring our baby to this service. And we have done so.
carols1

For the last few years we’ve also been joined by some friends with their respective small children, and that has been great, but last night for one reason and another it was just our little family. It was Sophia’s first time there in person, although last year I was so heavily pregnant and having such strong Braxton-Hicks contractions throughout that I did wonder if there would be a real life nativity scene. This year, marking the passing of time, was the first year Anna could read the words on the carol sheet herself, and joined in enthusiastically with more than just Away in a Manger.

The crib blessing is one of a number of events which raises funds for the St Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas appeal, money which goes to help homeless people across London. One of the things I find particularly moving about this service is the emphasis from the priest leading it on the Holy Family as homeless, persecuted refugees, on the shepherds to whom Christ was first revealed as being the outcasts in their society, on the wise men as being ‘foreign’ and ‘different’, yet still at the centre of Christmas. Standing in the heart of London, which has such sharply delineated contrasts between those who have everything and those who have nothing, just a few hundred yards away from the Palace of Westminster where the crucial decisions as to how we treat the most vulnerable at home and abroad are made, there couldn’t be a more appropriate message to take from the Christmas story.

cribI was raised a Christian, but no longer describe myself easily as one. I do not doubt, never have doubted, that Christ’s teachings as recorded in the Gospels on how we behave and how we treat others are the blueprint for a fair, just, (and incidentally socialist!), society, and the world would be a much better place if everyone who identified as Christian endeavoured to live up to them. I say endeavoured – they’re really not that easy! I struggle with other aspects of faith, though. There are many passages in the Bible I find downright offensive, but it is not always easy to come up with a logically coherent position as to why I should regard some bits and not others. It is a cliche, but, like many others, I also struggle with the concept of an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God who allows children to die of cancer. And I struggle with the institution of the Church of England, and other churches too. So much energy spent debating the rights and wrongs of women bishops or gay priests when the rest of the world moved on from such bigotry and discrimination a generation ago, and when there are very many real and pressing problems to address.

Nevertheless, a beautiful church service, wonderful music, taking time and space out of the busyness of life to pause and reflect, fills me with a deep inward calm and happiness like nothing else, and I come close at such times to believing in a Divine force at work, however imperfectly us mortals might interpret it. I also feel that the work done by St Martins, and countless other churches of all denominations up and down the country, looking after those who have been let down by family, friends, state, and have nowhere else to go truly follows Christ’s teachings on how we should  treat the hungry and the needy, and I am happy to be able to play a tiny part in this. The crib blessing in Trafalgar Square combines both of these, as well as being a lovely tradition to share with my family, and as such gives me a very deep sense of happiness.

I have worried a bit about this post, as I have no wish to cause offence to people of any faith or none, or to court controversial religious debate! Equally, however, an Advent series in which I didn’t talk in any way about the religious meaning of Christmas to me felt wrong and inauthentic. So here we go!