Every Tuesday evening my daughter and I go to a yoga class. It is run by a tiny bird-like woman who, in between exhortations that we contort our bodies into ever more imaginative positions, delivers a chattering commentary on life. Having been a teacher for a long time, and apparently not having any resident teenagers to remind her of how wrong she can be, she spouts forth her views with the gay abandon of someone for whom an opposing view is a rare and minor inconvenience.
'Christmas is so awful,' she said last Tuesday, during our usual fifteen minute warm up period. 'It's just a feast of spending, it means absolutely nothing.'
We may be used to such sweeping statements in our class, but Christmas is a touchy subject and threatening people's long and fondly-held image of it with a broad sweep of her tongue produced an unusual amount of dissent. A few tentative voices piped up that Christmas was actually a lovely time, bringing families together for giving and fun, but these only produced another volley of festive indictments and a catalogue of supporting evidence in the form of suicide and divorce rates at this time of year.
This week's tip is about Christmas, what it means to you and what you would like it to mean.
As I was driving past a church the other day, a sign on the notice board caught my eye.
'Coming soon: Three men and a baby!'
A couple of days later I was passing another church. It's notice board was sporting the message:
'Worn out? Come in for a service!'
With many shops offering unusually large discounts this Christmas, it seems that a lot of people are chasing after our business at the moment. These pleas for our attention present us with an interesting set of competing interests. If we are madly shopping, even on Sundays, then we are unlikely to be at church or at any other place of spiritual succour, whether it be a religious building, a walk in the country or just sitting quietly with ourselves in the privacy of our own home.
'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men'
This is what the angel allegedly said to Mary, and for many of us it represents biblical readings repeated so often during years and years of school carol concerts that, decades later, we are still word perfect. If our yoga teacher was comparing these words with the reality of Christmas today then she could be forgiven for her cynicism. One could reasonably substitute Gabriel's words with
'Glory to things in the high street, and at home stress, indigestion and a row with at least one family member.'
As with Gabriel's words, so much of our Christmas, including our attitude towards it, has been repeated and repeated over the years that, while we know it off by heart, we have often lost touch with what it means to us. People love tradition but I have always felt that having done something repeatedly for a very long time is a very poor reason, per se, for continuing to do it. If it were we would still be sending children up chimneys.
I was recently talking to a client of mine, Cheryl, a mother of three young children who told me that Christmas was her most stressful time of year. An exploration of what exactly was stressful revealed a list of rules and 'must do's' that would have sent Buddha into a spin. There must be enough presents for everyone (but with no concept of what 'enough' might be), the house must be spotlessly clean and tidy, the dinner must have three courses and be at exactly 5pm, everybody must have a lovely time, we must watch the queen at 3pm, I must make my mother in law feel welcome (even though she infuriates me), my husband must not drink too much (though he always does), there must be mince pies, dates, nuts, tangerines, chocolates, a wreath on the front door, a tree, Christmas cards beautifully displayed, carols on the CD player, time to watch midnight mass, stocking presents all individually wrapped, a carrot for Rudolf, crackers for dinner, drinks for the neighbours, mulled wine on Christmas Eve. And on it went.
These rules ruined the whole of December for her every year, which found her buying, buying and buying, working, working and working, and worrying, worrying, and worrying. As a result, there was one person, at least, who was not going to have a lovely time.
Cheryl's Christmas is an extreme version, but nevertheless it's one most of us recognise. If you don't celebrate Christmas you probably have an equivalent feast which involves similarly frantic activity based around long-held expectations. And those expectations not only contribute to stress in the planning and execution of the event, they also set up a lot of people for a sad and lonely time because, for one reason or another, a traditional Christmas is not going to be possible for them.
But what would Christmas look like if we decided that instead of buying, working and worrying ourselves to death, or measuring our Christmas against a traditional ideal, that we would go along with Gabriel and give glory to whatever our 'god' is, and plan a Christmas of peace and goodwill? Or indeed any another kind of Christmas?
1. What are your rules for Christmas? Presents, food, decorations, schedule, clothes, state of your house, state of your appearance, who needs to be visited, what kind of time does everyone have to have, what television needs to be watched/not watched, who needs to be pleased or appeased?
2. What do your rules lead you to do, think or worry about, and how does all this make you feel?
3. Then consider, what are your rules designed to achieve? What are your objectives, and how will you know if you've achieved them? Is the outcome to have a traditional Christmas? For you to have a good time? For others to have a good time? To do it properly, in a way that will make you feel good about yourself? To get approval from other people? To have a time of joy, peace and goodwill? Or is your desired result simply to survive it, to get through to the calm waters of the 28th December in one piece?
4. Are you happy with these outcomes, or would you like to modify them? What would you like to be your priorities for Christmas this year, and are your usual 'must do's' aligned with these?
5. If your new outcomes are different, how would you adjust your rules to achieve them? Which rules are sacrosanct, and which are not? Are there people who could take care of their own enjoyment this year? Would you like to review your idea of 'enough' when it comes to buying presents? Are there some details that could be overlooked? Are there some joyful or peaceful activities that could be substituted?
6. Imagine your desired Christmas and enjoy.
Wishing you the Christmas you would like.