It seems Christmas tends to wound us. Just judging by all the calls to look after ourselves at this time of year. Every day brings a fresh wave of breezy yet cautionary social media posts urging us to practice ‘self-care’ more now than ever. And apparently, grief and illness don’t take a break for this most wonderful time of the year. Who knew?
It is true that the expectation to be happy because it’s Christmas (both unspoken and sung loudly) adds unnecessary pressure to already busy lives. It is not in today’s Christmas’s nature to nurture.
For a holiday supposedly espousing kindness, joy and happiness, it doesn’t heal the hurts the year might have inflicted on us. If anything, it deepens our wounds because it insists we turn ourselves inside out to please the world, rather than recovering from the demands of the year. Perhaps, if we approached Christmas less as something that will inevitably leave us feeling worn out and stressed, we wouldn’t need to heed social media advice to ‘look after ourselves over the festive season’.
What if Christmas were all about replenishing ourselves as opposed to needing self-care as damage control?
My childhood Christmases were a world away (geographically and literally) from my adult Christmases. This time of year was cold. But perhaps most importantly it was also peaceful.
It was a far cry from the mania of our vast air-conditioned shopping centres with their jangly music and popping colour, and the endless offers from shop assistants to purchase one more of the mugs and get a free pen, or buy a re-usable shopping bag the proceeds of which go to a cause so worthy you will feel guilty if you say no. I do not use the descriptor ‘mania’ of our pre-christmas time lightly. I am eminently qualified to. The endless pressure to do, buy, invite, attend, overindulge can be likened to the constant pressured thoughts I suffer during a bipolar manic episode, when my brain extends its opening hours to at least 22 hours a day.
Between the ages of six and thirteen I grew up in a tiny village in Germany. The deep, catholic, south of Germany. Christmas was a sacred, special time of year to cocoon with your immediate family. Most of the churches were centuries old. They smelled of stone, and frankincense, and candle wax.
My family of origin was never religious. My own family now is not religious. I don’t believe Mary had a virgin birth, nor that Jesus was the son of God. However, as a child the Christmas story held fairy tale magic. And where I grew up, that story of prophetic angels, shooting stars, frankincense, gold and myrrh was revered, sung about, and infused Christmas time with peace and meaning.
Our Christmas trees were real. So were the candles on them. We celebrated Advent with a wreath my father wove out of fresh pine branches every year, and four red candles spread evenly around it. The first candle was lit on the first Sunday of Advent four weeks from Christmas eve. The remaining candles lit each following Sunday until all four shone on the Sunday before Christmas. Each advent evening we played Christmas music and ate nuts and mandarins. To describe it sounds quaintly Victorian now, but the smell of a mandarin being peeled still jolts happy excitement through my brain and links the scent to Christmas. We baked our own Christmas biscuits and ate lebkuchen (a spiced gingerbread made in Germany for centuries.) Each week the anticipation of Christmas slowly built.
On Christmas eve presents included sleds, skis, pet baby bunnies, board games, pointe shoes. Dinner was tasty, finger foods pulled from our family’s very mixed heritage, prepared in an atmosphere of love, not pressure. Christmas day meant playing with presents, looking for snow. No enforced rushing from one set of relatives to the next.
Even considering the effect of rose-tinted nostalgia on memory, the Christmases of my childhood were gently joyful.
I can’t time travel back to that softer time. And yet I have found ways to keep some of my peaceful Christmas memories alive. I’ve taught my children to bake the biscuits of my childhood while we listen to songs I have translated for them. We give the biscuits to our families who gather out our house on Christmas eve for a dinner of mixed heritage foods. And on Christmas day, we go nowhere. We stay home and play with toys. There is no snow. But there is a gentle, restorative joy in our house that day.
200th Anniversary. On Christmas eve 1818 Silent Night was first publicly performed in this Austrian chapel
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