The season is upon us – it’s an annual inevitability. But how will you choose to embrace the festive season this year? Will you be Scrooge? The Grinch? Or a zen Christmas fairy? Believe it or not, the choice is yours.
Christmas comes but once a year, but boy, each time it comes, don’t we know it! As soon as we hit December, it’s all systems go with decorations going up; the shops filling with goodies; and workplaces, schools, friends and family organising dinners and parties and drinks get-togethers. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, surely, but it’s also one of the most exhausting for a lot of people.
Now, when you hear people complain about Christmas, as a few inevitably do, criticism is usually levelled at the consumerism of the whole affair, the indecent over-indulgence, the horrors of having one’s entire family in one place at one time with all the fighting and anxiety that causes; the stress of gift-shopping and the high street hoards… What you’re about to read will not join in with that kind of Christmas-bashing. I happen to love the festive season, and I can’t see that any of the things people hate about Yule are really linked to the celebration itself.
Christmas is a religious festival, certainly. For Christians, it’s about the birth of a saviour and the miracle of God made man, come to atone for our sins. Easy to see why that should be celebrated. And even for non-believers, it’s a magical, hopeful time of year. A time when we are encouraged to stop and remember to be a little kinder to each other, to spend time with the people that matter to us, to connect with fellow human beings, and to revel in the wonder in a child’s eyes as they sit on Father Christmas’ lap or decorate a tree. What’s indecent, stressful, indulgent and consumerist about that?
No, when Christmas turns sour, it is always a result of choices we make in how we engage with the season. And that’s something a lot of us forget as we open each window in the Advent calendar. Even at Christmas, we have choices and the power to say yes, or no, to traditions, invitations and customs. We can choose to get drunk at the office party, feel like hell the next day, and spend January kicking ourselves. Or not. We can choose to be on Oxford Street at 5pm on Christmas Eve. Or not. We can choose to buy a massive turkey and get up at 4am to start cooking it. Or not. Just like the other 365 days of the year, we have choices.
What makes your Christmas?
So many of the diatribes against Christmas that will inevitably be written by witty and arch columnists this year will play into people’s feelings of pressure and a perceived lack of choice around the holidays. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I for one do almost no Christmas shopping in December. All year long, when I see a bargain or a one-off item at a craft fair or on holiday that would make a great gift for a friend, I buy and stock. Sometimes I even – gasp! – make presents. I turn the radio off when they play Slade for the 100th time. I refuse to buy or eat Brussels sprouts even if, as I have been told, “it’s not a Christmas dinner without sprouts” (the devil of foodstuffs, if you ask me). I have agreed a gift spending cap with certain friends and family. I no longer give a Christmas card to people I am going to see and wish a Merry Christmas in person – this has limited the list to only those who don’t live near me and has seriously diminished my chances of getting repetitive strain injury once a year.
Reclaiming the festive season
I choose what Christmas means to me. And Christmas to me is making the pudding with my mum while listening to the same tape (yes, tape) of Christmas songs we’ve had since I was a kid; it’s giving friends gifts without expecting anything from them; it’s attending a carol concert and bellowing the descant to O Come All Ye Faithful; it’s watching Love Actually and giving silent thanks for my own Beloved and all the love I have in my life. Christmas (and Hanukkah, Eid, New Year’s Eve, Easter and Thanksgiving, for that matter) and is what we make it so if you find yourself Scrooging and Grinching as you shove round the shops and weep at your bank balance, don’t blame Christmas. Remind yourself instead that every day, you’ve made choices. Think about how those choices are working out for you.
If life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, it’s wise to keep a few gaps in your diary…
I am definitely one of life’s planners. I like making a list, checking it twice, then typing it up and keeping it on file. I enjoy feeling organised and like things are under control, or at least as if I’m doing everything I can to make life run smoothly. In general, I think this a quality that usually serves me well. It means I show up on time, rarely forget appointments, keep on top of paperwork, and don’t often run around like a headless chicken. Organisation and planning – within reason – are undeniably Good Things.
‘Tis the season to be organised!
In the run up to Christmas (and the beloved’s birthday, which occurs the week before), my list-making takes on gargantuan proportions. Lists of things to get, things to do before I leave for wherever I’m going, people to contact, Christmas cards to write, appointments to make for the new year… I like to have it all written down so that I’m not permanently worrying I’ve forgotten something. Writing a to-do list frees the brain for higher activities – like watching Gremlins for the tenth time and working out the exact right recipe for mulled wine.
The best laid plans of mice and men
Funnily enough though, in recent years, Christmas has also served as a reminder to me that sometimes the best things in life are the things we don’t plan. A couple of years back, I was going home to England for Christmas, travelling with an American friend who was staying with me over the holidays. (When told that she was featuring in my latest column, the aforementioned friend wanted to choose her own pseudonym. At her own request, she shall henceforth be referred to as Peggy Sue.) A few days before we were due to leave Paris, the Eurostar stopped working. It just stopped. Apparently the winter was so cold that the trains were experiencing a thermal shock as they entered the tunnel, and the engines were seizing up. At first I didn’t actually believe that we wouldn’t be able to get on a train. I kept telling an increasingly worried Peggy Sue that the Eurostar was sure to be fixed somehow and that all would go according to plan. I guess everyone can see what’s coming.
A long coach journey into night
The date of our programmed departure came and went, and we couldn’t get a seat on a train, so we ended up catching an overnight coach from Paris to London. What ensued was one of the most memorable journeys I’ve ever taken. We had a leaky roof on our coach; a woman point blank refused to swap seats to let us sit together (her prerogative, of course, but who actually refuses that sort of request?); the man next to Peggy chatted to himself the entire journey; another chap was almost left behind every time we had to get off the coach and go through customs; one passenger was actually detained… It made the Odyssey look like a trip to the seaside. All this from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. in freezing and icy conditions. Now, I’m not going to suggest that Peg and I preferred this to whizzing under the Channel on the cosy Eurostar, but neither would I say I regret the trip. We had fits of giggles, took turns sleeping on the ferry, made up silly stories about our coach-mates. We were already friends when we left, but when we arrived, that epic night had made our bond even tighter.
Seizing the surprise
Thinking back, some of the best things that have occurred in my life indeed happened while I was busy making other plans. Like the time I intended to go to the cinema, take a walk then have an early night. Luckily I abandoned my plan when a charming chap I met while waiting for the film to start asked me to go for coffee with him. He turned out to be the love of my life. Or the time I received a letter meant for a different Joanne Archibald offering a part in a play at university. I had made the decision not to audition for anything that term, but I phoned the director to tell her she’d got the wrong woman and ended up auditioning for and getting the lead (the other Joanne had already declined). Thanks to that role, I made friends I still cherish to this day, was given a part in another play after that one, and ended up directing something myself. Or the time I got lost in Paris, stumbled upon a volunteer bureau and ended up doing some great charity work.
Relishing the random
Planning is, for me, one of the keys to a calm, organised life; but the unexpected is always the source of the best fun. I won’t stop making lists (I suspect it’s actually an addiction, but I think it’s a pretty harmless one), but every Christmas I am now reminded to revel in whatever gets thrown at me. It’s the bumps and twists in the road that make the journey interesting. It’s the random encounters and chance events that make your life full of life rather than simply a slavish playing out of your day planner. Sometimes, as I discovered on a cold and leaky coach in Calais, it’s actually life’s hassles that prove to be the most entertaining, enriching and memorable experiences we share.