Self / 20.12.2019

How to actually enjoy Christmas

By Laura Potter
Stress, lack of time, mountains of cooking. Christmas can be testing, but not this year…
Image: iStock

Various factors tend to collide at Christmas, so, with the best will in the world, at times it can be challenging to feel genuinely ‘merry’! ‘We don’t have enough sunlight, we’re cooped up and we’re overworked trying to finish our work for the year,’ says Linda Blair, clinical psychologist and author of Siblings: How To Handle Sibling Rivalry To Create Strong And Loving Bonds. ‘And when we’re tired, our emotions flood our reason, and we fall into familiar habits.’ It’s no wonder, then, that we get niggled by the same irritations year-on-year. But there are some easy steps you can take to protect your own mental health for Christmas 2019.

Look outwards

‘Rather than deciding that you will enjoy Christmas this year, which you can’t control, decide that you’re going to help the people you love enjoy Christmas,’ says Blair. ‘Whenever we give pleasure to others, we feel good.’ Ask everyone for one thing they’d like to do – as well as picking one yourself. ‘Be relaxed, spontaneous and outward-orientated. The more we look inward, the more pressure we feel.’

Keep your ‘must-dos’

It’s easy to let go of your usual routines to make space for shopping, partying, planning and wrapping, but don’t lose the things that keep you sane! ‘If your morning run makes you feel good, don’t let it slip – that goes for anything that involves getting natural light, movement or eating well,’ says Blair. ‘Also, make it a non-negotiable that you have at least 20 minutes of daylight every day. If it’s OK with your GP, take a vitamin D supplement, and if you can afford it, have a light alarm.’

Don’t fight, breathe!

An easy mindfulness practice could help us to stay calm when stress hits, says Blair. ‘When you get frustrated, breathe in deeply through your nose, hold until you feel a little uncomfortable, then breathe back out slowly through your mouth. Do that while whatever it is that’s irritating you is happening and you’ll be able to find a way to make it end sooner as you’ll be rational, not irrational. It helps you centre yourself, balance neurochemicals, and get yourself back into the present.’

Use humour

There are inevitable topics that get heated among families (Brexit, anyone?). Blair has two strategies: ‘Don’t overdo alcohol; if people are heating up, switch to spritzers. Second, use humour – it releases more tension even than tears.’ She recommends putting a sign on the table reading: NO POLITICAL CHAT AT THIS MEAL. ‘It’s funny, and when anyone starts doing it, others will say, “Hey, look at the sign!”’

Navigate party pressure

There’s huge pressure to socialise during December, but you don’t have to attend every shindig. ‘It’s not just OK to decline invites, it’s essential,’ says Blair. ‘In winter, we need more sleep, not less. Before we had electric lighting people slept 12-15 hours a night in winter.’ Politely decline and spend your time doing something else, like watching a movie while wrapping presents, say. When you can’t refuse, Blair has a strategy: ‘Go to the host and say, “Thank you so much for inviting me. Unfortunately, I’ve got to get back for the kids/dog/deadline at 10pm so I’ll be sneaking off, but I’ll give you a wave.” You’ve made it official, you’ve been courteous, you have permission to go.’

Job share

‘When each guest arrives, have them draw a job out of a hat that will be theirs for the duration, whether it’s loading the dishwasher, setting the table or topping up drinks,’ says Blair. Also, consider if what you’re doing is worth the trouble. ‘Do you really need linen napkins you’ll have to wash?’ Also have a light timetable. ‘That gives structure, and means people have free time to go shopping, visit friends, or take a nap without offending anybody.’

Secret Santa – the ultimate gift!

One in 10 Brits worry about money in the run-up to Christmas, and the same number ‘feel stressed’ about how much they are spending. It’s no wonder, as UK households spend on average £473.83 on presents alone. Blair says: ‘I always recommend a secret Santa, and set a budget, otherwise it can get competitive, especially among siblings.’

When Xmas feels sad

If it’s your first Christmas without someone, whether due to a loss or a break-up, Blair advises a change. ‘If you can afford to, go away. It can just be Cornwall, but doing something different amongst new people means it’s not comparable.’ Or do something that brings joy to someone else. ‘My brother, who lives far from family, always volunteers at a soup kitchen. There’s always somebody who can use your care.’

Prioritise personal space

Christmas cabin fever can see minor irritations bubbling into full-blown rows. ‘Decree on arrival that everyone must spend 30 minutes outside every day. Everyone will return in a better mood,’ says Blair, who also suggests letting guests pick a space that they can be alone in. ‘Sometimes you’re tired, or don’t want to watch that kids’ movie. We all need an escape.’

Recognise the struggle!

Back in the family home, you adopt old roles – and old arguments will crop up, from favouritism to teasing. ‘You can’t stop that happening, so you have to laugh at it,’ says Blair. ‘But be aware of the strain you’re all under. You’re being multiple roles – sibling, child, partner, parent, aunt, niece. It’s why you need space!’ Finally, relax! It’s OK if someone else stacks the dishwasher. ‘Let go of “shoulds”,’ says Blair. ‘They’re about conveying an image that people will like, and that has nothing to do with happiness.’