Christmas is a wonderful time of year but it also has its stresses, and Christmas and stress don't always add up goodwill, do they? Here's something that could help.
Can you believe how quickly Christmas creeps up? One minute you're relaxing in November thinking its ages and ages till Christmas, bemoaning the appearance of Christmas paraphernalia in the shops, and looking down a little on the super-organised people who are already getting their Christmas cards written and then, suddenly, it's only two weeks to go and you realise that you haven't even bought your Christmas cards, let alone written them. You then go to Marks and Spencer to buy those lovely new white poinsettias they've got this year, only to find that those super-organised people (you know who you are) have got there before you and there are only red ones left, a small handful at that. Then you go to the bespoke cracker website, in search of fill your own crackers, and the message there, to your dismay, is 'last orders for Christmas crackers 30 November'. At that point, of course, those super-organised people look down a little on you.
So it's the usual flat out race to get everything ready and so, perhaps fortunately, there's little time to think about the actual day, or few days, of Christmas itself.
But a bit like wondering why we get so het up about a few men kicking a ball around a patch of grass, it can sometimes serve to take a step back and think about Christmas and what it entails.
We make choices about lots of things in our lives - when to go on holiday, where to go, what to do there. We decide on whether to join a gym, or take up knitting, or wind-surfing. We decide who we're going to spend our time with, where and when. We choose films to go to, plays to see, exhibitions to visit. We may not choose how we feel most of the time, but we accept that we have good days and bad days, fun times and not so fun times.
But with Christmas all that changes dramatically. Suddenly we must eat mince pies and Christmas pudding. Our choice of main course is limited to turkey or goose (76% of British families opt for turkey), and, for one day only, we must eat sprouts. Whereas a tree in the living room would seem somewhat quirky at other times of the year, suddenly we have to have one. We watch old Christmas films on television, and a series of 'best xxxx of the year' programmes. The Queen doesn't cross our consciousness the rest of the year, but at 3pm we find ourselves watching her on the telly. The same old Christmas songs are dusted off and played. We have a list of people who have to be sent cards. We must buy presents for a certain list of people, and those presents must be of a certain value. We prepare ourselves to like everything that is given to us, even the yellow crochet cardigan from the aged aunt, and the tea towel from the in-laws. And most important of all, we have to spend Christmas day, and sometimes Boxing Day, and sometimes even the day after, with the same people, every year.
And, it goes without saying, Christmas day must be a Good Day, and it must be Fun.
There is undeniable comfort in tradition - at least you know what you're meant to be doing, it's good to have reason to get the family together, and there is a joy in giving and receiving, eating together, watching old favourites on the television. And it brings the wider community together too - like The Forsyte Saga, the world cup and x-factor, we know that a whole load of people are doing exactly what we are doing on Christmas day.
What tradition rarely allows for, though, is the human factor.
A survey found that the average British family will have five arguments on Christmas day, the first at 10.13 in the morning. Ownership of the remote control is apparently the top culprit for Christmas arguments, followed closely by chef stress and 'no-one helping mum'. The latter tends to be exacerbated, apparently, by dad drinking too much. After that comes the time that dinner finally arrives, disappointment in presents, who is going to wash up, what is going to be watched on television, and old family feuds and clashes. And of course, this is about the lucky ones, those who have family to be with.
So how can we take care of ourselves this time of year, when everything has to be just so and, of course, can never be? How do we deal with our mother who wants to take over the minute she arrives, our brother who drinks too much, the children who don't like their presents, the father in law who is always pontificating about the state of education these days, and how immigrants are taking our jobs? How do we deal with our sorrow at who is missing this year, or the family we don't have, or can't be with, or our anxiety about getting it all right? How do we have a Happy Christmas?
Tara Brach, a Buddhist teacher and writer, tells this allegory: imagine you are out for a walk and you see a small dog sitting under a tree. You walk over to say hello, and as you put your hand out to pat it, the dog suddenly snarls and snaps at you, baring its teeth. You recoil immediately. 'What an unpleasant dog!' you think, and prepare to walk on. And then you look more closely and you see something; that one of the dog's paws is caught in a trap.
Every one of us has a paw that is caught in a trap. Our mothers couldn't upset us with their judgments if we didn't, and we wouldn't worry about making a perfect Christmas, or get resentful when someone doesn't appreciate the present we bought them. And everybody else has a paw that is caught in a trap too. Otherwise they wouldn't be so disappointed when they don't get the present they were hoping for, or feel the need to hold forth with their views, or get upset if the sprouts aren't quite cooked.
While few of us have a problem with opening our hearts to a small creature in pain, we can be rather less good at doing the same thing with our nearest and dearest, and even worse at doing it for ourselves. As with charity, though, compassion starts at home.
How do you feel about Christmas this year, honestly? Are you looking forward, dreading, feeling ambivalent, excited, indifferent, stressed? Do you love Christmas, or is it something to get through?
What does a 'good Christmas' this year depend on for you? Do you need to get everything right? Does everyone have to get along? Do you have to avoid arguments with certain people? Does it need to feel fun or relaxing or loving? Does it involve other people behaving in a certain way, or not behaving in a certain way? Does it mean feeling happy, and not lonely or sad? Does it mean not missing someone too much? Does it mean feeling good about yourself?
Remembering the dog with its paw in a trap, and turning the same kind attention to yourself, ask, what kind of trap is your paw in this Christmas? Whatever it is, allow yourself lots and lots of kindness and compassion. It's allowed.
Turning your attention to other people at Christmas, what kind of traps are their paws in? What happens if you allow them the same kindness and compassion?
If you approached Christmas this year with kindness and compassion for yourself and everyone else, what kind of Christmas would it be?
Wishing you a kind and loving and laughter-filled Christmas.