Christmas should be a magical time: a season to treasure family and friends, to share love and laughter, to worship and celebrate. But Christmas can also be a stressful time: a season of unrealistic expectations and peer pressure, of loss and loneliness, of want and worry.
Here we offer suggestions to help you pull through when it feels like Christmas is overwhelming you – from amending your plans and thought process in order to tackle an awkward relative, to dealing with financial fears or coping with bereavement. For many thousands of people this year, those who tragically lost loved ones in the coronavirus pandemic, Christmas will be a daunting prospect.
There may be members of your family – direct relations or in-laws perhaps – who do nothing but antagonise you and appear forever ungrateful. The prospect of spending time with them at Christmas may give you that sinking feeling. But the pressure from your spouse or other family members for you to entertain even the most contemptible of characters is tangible.
You want to avoid arguments and atmospheres, so once again you concede that the ‘unpleasant one’ will again be in your festive orbit. But this year, why not resolve to make changes. It might not alter the overall dynamic of the relationship for good, but it might just help you cope with Christmas.
An insensitive comment here or there is something you might still be able to deal with by counting to ten or leaving the room and taking a deep breath. Anything for a quiet life, hey? But over a sustained period of time, this can try even the most patient – especially over the Christmas dinner table, particularly if it’s your table in your home. So bring in a change of mindset and a plan involving some time management for those awkward family customers:
If you are obliged to host, why not switch from a sit down meal to a carvery-type buffet. That way, you can mingle more easily with the people you want to and avoid the unwanted. You can also quickly take yourself off to other rooms to escape without having to make your excuses.
Even if the day is proving altogether enjoyable, it never hurts to take yourself off for five minutes to take a breather. Drag the dog for a short walk, catch some fresh air in the garden or stretch out for a few minutes on the bed. Take in the day, don’t be overwhelmed by it.
Set a later arrival time for problem guests – and if possible an earlier departure time. Why not spell it out on official invitations. Eg: ‘You are invited to Christmas Lunch from 1-5pm…’
Insist there is no room at the inn. No more overnight stays for problem guests.
This can be tough if we are talking your in-laws. Your spouse could be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Suggest booking a bed & breakfast or hotel for them if necessary. Pay for it if you have to. The cost will pale compared to the avoided angst and arguments.
Host a Christmas breakfast for the wider family, exchange gifts and then have a more intimate Christmas lunch at a restaurant with just your immediate family and/or dearest friends. This way you can make a clear play of having to leave the house at a certain time.
If you are not hosting, you can control the timeframe. Be punctual, but stay only as long as you feel is polite. Excuse the pun, but politeness here is a relative term. Is the troublesome relative always so considerate to your feelings? Are they concerned about politeness? If not so much, then maybe you shouldn’t worry about it either. Do your ‘duty’ – then leave when you want.
Are your gifts greeted with a sneer? Can you never quite get it right with this certain person, however hard you try? Stop trying. Tell them you are making a donation to charity in their name from now on. They may well sneer at that, too – but at least the charity will be happy and your money won’t be wasted.
Hopefully, you have learned from experience and can think back to previous Christmas celebrations to remind yourself of trigger points for family tensions and how to avoid them. Does Gran get grumpy if she doesn’t sit in her favourite armchair? Is Uncle John a bit too competitive when the board games come out, leading to inevitable rows? Does cousin Jane have a pet allergy and needs to be kept away from the darling dog? Do what you can to avoid potential flashpoints ahead of time.
There’s some inevitable give and take at Christmas where family is concerned – but be brave enough to be selfish at times. You deserve a special Christmas. Don’t let someone you hardly like or barely see the rest of the year dictate proceedings.
Christmas costs, there is no getting away from it. But it need not cost a fortune. Indeed, it need only cost what you can afford and what you decide. But you have to be strong.
- Work out a gift budget and stick to it.
- Write a gift list and don’t stray from it with costly added extras.
- Buying online can help you keep to the budget and list.
- Leave credit cards at home if you are hitting the shops and spend only on your debit card.
- Leave your gift shopping until the stores go into sale in late December.
- Maximise 3-for-2 offers, including for gift-wrapping.
- Buy small inexpensive gifts; give portion of the cash you’d normally spend to charity.
- Inform friends and family this charitable path is your new plan.
- Are you a decent cook? Consider thoughtful homemade festive food as gifts.
- Budget for Christmas food. Don’t buy items that will sit in your cupboards for months.
- Send E-cards to save on the price of paper cards and stamps.
- Budget for the everyday bills you will still need to pay. Prioritise essentials over luxuries.
- Don’t take out loans or freely extend overdrafts you will struggle to pay back.
- Avoid store cards: they usually come with high interest rates.
- Contact the Citizens Advice Bureau if you encounter debt problems. There are solutions.
- Don’t ignore the situation hoping it will magically disappear. Denial will only make it worse.
- In January, plan to start a Christmas savings fund to ease any financial fears for next Christmas.
- Buy gifts, cards and wrapping in the January sales for next Christmas.
Coping with Loss and Bereavement at Christmas
If you have suffered the loss of a loved one, their absence can be most keenly felt at Christmas. If the loss is recent, the emotions will be more acute. But we can tell you from personal experience, there are ways of coping with the grief and pain – even if it’s only to some small degree. Indeed in a season when there appears to be more love and understanding in the world, this might prove a most pertinent time to honour and remember your dearly departed.
It starts with commemoration. Laying a wreath or flowers at the graveside or in a garden of remembrance is the norm for many. But there are numerous other tributes you can embrace. Charitable gifts are a good place to start. Make a donation to a charity most admired by the person you are honouring – donate in their name. If possible, offer your time to the charity. From an hour of fund-raising on the city streets to a whole day of selfless assistance: you cannot put a price on how much that could benefit the organisation. Pay to have a unique entry etched in a book of remembrance at your church or crematorium and have copies made and framed for your family.
Here are more ideas for you to consider:
Light a special candle by a photograph of your loved one each of the 12 Days of Christmas.
Put a picture of them in a small, heart-shaped frame to hang on the tree.
Have their name painted on a personalised bauble for the tree.
Give such items to relatives for their trees.
Plant a fir tree in honour of their life.
Buy a small, tabletop tree and adorn it with items that capture the essence of your loved one: capturing their passions and hobbies.
Frame a photograph of a street name or iconic image from their place of birth.
Cook their signature dish in their honour.
Create a memory box of trinkets and photographs.
Buy a gift they would have loved and donate it to a local nursing home or hospice.
If you have lost an adored family pet, you can buy simple laser-cut wooden decorations in the shape of animals. Etch a name on it and/or attach a photograph. If you have the pet’s nametag, slip it onto the ribbon and hang from the tree.
Write a poem in honour of your loved one. Perhaps these examples from our own in-house author might help or inspire you.
“Fabric of Life”
The fabric of your life was rich
A damask print with velvet touch
You agonised over every stitch
Yet never claimed it cost you much
Investing time was always key
Being there in times of need
The threads of life’s tough tapestry
Crafted by unselfish deeds
Creating a multi-patterned quilt
Yards of love from an open heart
Patches of caring, seamlessly built
Protective comfort near and far
“I Love the Way You Loved Me”
I love the way you loved me
For absolutely no reason at all
I love the way you picked me up
Without me having to fall
I love the way you inspired my thoughts
When I didn’t know what to think
I love the way you kept me afloat
When I was about to sink
I love the way you believed in me
When everyone else had doubts
I love the way you made me smile
When what I wanted to do was pout
I love the way you were patient
When I was losing my cool
I love the way you were reckless sometimes
When I wanted to play by the rules
I love the way you held me tight
When I didn’t know I needed a hug
I love the way my blessings you’d count
When I was at all complacent or smug
I love the way you kept me close
When I was feverish with flu
I love the way you cheered my success
As though my triumph had gone to you
I love the way you helped me stand proud
When I had no desire to walk tall
I love the way you loved me
For absolutely no reason at all
“Once Upon a Lullaby”
Once upon a lullaby
Sleep softly my darling
No more need to cry
Free from pain and harm
Peace for all eternity is yours
All of heaven you will charm
You are the eighth wonder of the world
You are tenderness and warmth unfurled
You are a lighthouse beam on a foggy night
You are resplendent, burnished, unselfish light
You are the soothing balm on an aching limb
You are intense security from deep within
You are the oasis in a desert vast
You are the love that forever lasts
(All poems Copyright author Phil Jones: 2014)
If you have lost someone special in the last year, this first Christmas without them could rake over raw emotions.
Maybe write down feelings in a kind of open letter to the person for whom you grieve then put it in a sealed envelope in a drawer. Suddenly, the thoughts may not dance quite so uncontrollably around your head. If you’re harbouring bad feelings about things you wish you had said or done, then write your apology on a slip of paper, attach it to a balloon and let it go.
Visit a beautiful, tranquil open space – perhaps a venue that was treasured by your lost love – and light a candle for them. This could be the time to call on the words of Mary Elizabeth Frye’s 1932 poem “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” – and consider life-eternal among nature’s glorious elements:
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glints on snow
I am the sun on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled light
I am the soft star that shines at night
Do not stand at my grave and cry
I am not there, I did not die.
We have heard of some families setting a place at the Christmas table for their lost loved one, with an empty chair too. But better perhaps to fill every chair and talk about them fondly – happily reminiscing about funny Christmastimes past. They will be there amid every shriek of laughter, every tale of joy. Avoiding the subject and walking on eggshells in fear of upsetting someone is not, in our experience, the way to go. And when it feels right, talk to them as you ever would – as Henry Scott Holland, the Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral between 1847 and 1918, captures in this piece:
Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was, let it be spoken without effort, without the trace of a shadow on it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was; there is unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well.
There will be tears and sadness. It’s almost inevitable. Go with it, just don’t let it dominate Christmas Day. Allow yourself a brief respite from the grief to acknowledge the love, care and friendship flowing from those closest to you. Delight in the living while remembering the lost, as this Indian prayer suggests so appositely:
When I am dead, cry for me a little
Think of me sometimes, but not too much
Think of me now and again as I was in life
At some moments it’s pleasant to recall
But not for long
Leave me in peace
And I shall leave you in peace
And while you live
Let your thoughts be with the living
If you need someone to talk to, someone to understand, and you feel that person is not or cannot be a family member or friend then you can call Samaritans. This tremendous organisation provides confidential help and is non-denominational. More details on their website at samaritans.org or in the UK by telephone on Samaritans’ free helpline number: 116 123. Calls to this helpline number do not appear on phone bills and are free from landlines and mobiles.
There are so many remarkable people, thought-provoking works and inspiring ideas out there to help you. We hope we have contributed in some small way. Above all else, it’s worth remembering throughout it all that true love has no ending.