Redesigning Christmas – how to get more joy out of the festive season

We're 5 days out from Christmas... how are you guys feeling? Is there excitement and energy in the air, or are you already feeling overwhelmed?

For me Christmas has always been a strange time of the year. When I was a child, I looked forward to the presents, and the lights on the tree and the cousins that would visit, but I also had a feeling of foreboding. Christmas in our house was the most stressful time of the year. Trying to pinpoint why is a bit tricky...

I guess there was the extra work of cooking mountains of celebratory things like Christmas cake and biscuits, but that should all be fun really. Then there was the stress for my mum of buying Christmas presents and hoping to keep the kids happy. Then there was the day itself where all the presents were unwrapped and we would each sit with the mixed feelings of pleasure at receiving something great, and the guilt of having given something that didn't live up to expectations or vice versa.

Whatever the reason was, Christmas time seemed to be the time that there was the least amount of peace and joy in our lives. It's not meant to be like that though right?

As I got older, Christmas seemed to get a bit better but I have to say that the way we celebrated in our family just never sat right with me. I never really GOT Christmas the way we did it. So finally a few years ago, the penny dropped that I'm an adult and I get to decide how to celebrate. What a radical thought! So I took to pen and paper and redesigned my Christmas.

First step: Identifying what it was about Christmas that didn't sit well with me.

There's a lot of societal pressure to celebrate the same way as everyone else. And before I go too far, I just want to say that if you are the person who loves this way of celebrating, that's great. I'm truly happy for you. No judgement. My point is just that we should all be free to celebrate however feels right to each of us.

So... here are the things that I decided I no longer wanted in my Christmas:

  • Stress

  • To do lists that MUST be completed before Christmas

  • Christmas shopping (and the accompanying feeling that I was already disappointing people with my present choices)

  • Stuff (I'm a minimalist so I actually don't like being given things that I don't need)

It's a short list, but it's pretty confronting for lots of people. As soon as you mention not doing gifts, there can be a whole wave of people who are instantly offended and who feel like you're saying 'I don't want to buy you a gift because I don't care about you.' And that is the trickiest bit of redesigning Christmas!

But before I address that, here's my list of the things I decided I really wanted in my Christmas:

  • genuine connection with family and friends who I love

  • quality time spent doing something memorable together

  • a focus on opening our hearts and sharing love and really being present

  • the freedom to sit and do nothing together

So you see, for me, the act of giving presents actually feels like a cop out. As in, "I've bought you a present to show you I love you and so now I can go and do something else". What I really want is for each of us to have the focus be on enjoying each others company. That's the most important thing for me, especially at Christmas time. And for that, everyone needs to agree and make the effort to be present and really mindful of each other.

So now here's the Christmas plan we came up with... My husband is German and so we decided to adopt the tradition of celebrating Christmas Eve which worked well for two reasons. Firstly it's not hot and the darkness means we can create a cosy atmosphere with fairy lights. And also it meant that a lot of our friends could actually come and celebrate with us.

We have 4 massive mango trees in our backyard, so we set up camp under them with fairy lights in the trees, picnic blankets and hay bales spread around for people to sit on, a sand pit for the kids to play in, and a bonfire for later in the evening. Friends and family can arrive anytime from about 4pm onwards and everyone brings a plate to share and an instrument if they have one.

It's a super relaxed vibe with people just happy to chat and nibble on the snacks that everyone's brought. Someone with a ukulele is always teaching someone else the chords to a Christmas carol while others sing along. It's mango season here where we are, and so mango daiquiris have been a part of Christmas celebrations for years now (one of the few elements I decided to keep) and so there are regular deliveries of daiquiris!

We celebrated Christmas in Germany a few years ago too, and one part of their celebration has stuck with us. In my husband's family, they sing carols before anyone can open presents. Since we weren't doing presents, apart from a small gift for our daughter, we decided to make all of our guests sing 1 carol, in German before we could eat! I know it probably sounds odd, but it ends up being hilarious! And it's a great way to bring everyone together for a moment.

One of the most important elements of our Christmas though, is being aware when any of us are starting to feel stressed. For example, I love to cook, but I could easily set myself the task of making way too many things for the party and then feel stressed because I was running out of time. So to avoid this we actually needed to become good at managing our stress just generally.

For me, it's about remembering that even though I have a long list of things that I haven't done, most of those things on the list aren't actually important. And what I'm actually trying to achieve while I'm baking is not just having the food made, but is also having a great time baking with my daughter. Quality time together. And you can only do that if you take the pressure off having to actually 'achieve' something.

So now instead of having a 'to do' list, I have a 'fun options' list with lots of things that would be great, but if I don't get to any of them, that's fine too. The rule is, I have to actually have fun DOING the task, and if I wouldn't have fun, then I need to find something else that would be fun.

And here's the thing, if our friends arrive and we haven't put the picnic blankets out yet, guess what? They'll help. We'll do it together and that in itself is a fun bonding moment. And if we haven't had time to buy the hay bales, guess what? We'll all just flop on the picnic blankets together. And the fact that everyone brings a plate of food means that no-one needs to stress.

And because no one's buying presents we each put our love into the food we make or into other ways of being thoughtful. My memories of last Christmas are of my daughter looking on with awe as my friends played music, and her dancing around in the magic of the fairy lights. I remember a moment when we turned the lights off so that we could all see the stars better, and another moment when friends huddled together singing their hearts out. And my heart was full. This is how I've always wanted to celebrate.

Christmas means different things to different people. For me it's a time to remember the love that we have for each other, and to actually express that love fully. So I encourage you to rethink your Christmas and if you could improve it in any way, do. It's yours to celebrate however you choose.

From my family to yours, Merry Christmas. May love be in your hearts, spilling out onto those around you x

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