why is Christmas so stressful?

Christmas - Yes it is that time of year. A time when we are bombarded with advertising, with expectations from our family and colleagues, with more and more to attend and do. A time when there seems to be so much to fit in, as we finish work, celebrate achievements, prepare for holidays and hold parties. This year I have also noticed that added to the normal bombardment there has been a push in the opposite direction. Memes and Facebook posts encourage simplicity, inspire alternatives to consumerism and support ethical, natural, fair-trade and values based buying decisions. We have become caught between two warring streams of thought that want our attention and money at this time of year. It is no wonder we feel stressed as we attempt to find our way through all the competing demands that are coming towards us. Often we feel that it is not what we want that even matters. Even if we want an ethical anti-consumerist Christmas our families may not accept it. I remember one year I put an Oxfam chicken into a family secret Santa exchange - well let’s just say that only one person even understood what it was, and I was not popular that year. Negotiating family communication styles and different needs and wants at this time of year can be tricky and adds another layer to our stress, as we often feel that we are getting swept up in other’s decisions, and that our choice is being taken away from us.

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If we want to begin to navigate all these competing demands better, and in a way that reduces our stress, the first place to start is by taking a step back and asking:

What is Christmas actually for?

Why is it so important that we rush around with huge lists of what to do, what to buy and what to eat?

So often Christmas has just become something we do, because everyone around is doing it, it has become uncoupled from meaning and it can leave us feeling like it didn’t live up to our hopes or expectations. Christmas can be stressful because we have lost any sense of meaning or purpose from the celebration. Ritual, symbol, traditions, rites of passage, celebrations and festival rhythms are important to include in our lives and our current western urban life lacks opportunities for these. We are left longing for meaning and opportunities to celebrate well, but Christmas often fails to meet these needs. Traditions and festivals are part of how we express the things that are important to us that words don’t quite describe. They serve as outward demonstrations of our inner commitments. They are ways of telling the stories of our values, of re-centering ourselves in those values and expressing what it is that we value to others. They are opportunities to create and remember shared stories with our families and friends, that enhance our bonds and our sense of belonging.

However many of the traditions and expectations of Christmas lack context for us and don’t appear meaningful, so we throw them out. I stopped making a Christmas cake about 20 years ago. I don’t like Christmas cake and having the oven on for hours to cook dried fruit just when the summer berries and first juicy stone fruit are appearing seems silly. Some of these traditions have been thoughtlessly passed down and are now so disconnected from the context of our lives that it makes sense to abandon them. Yet my mum used to faithfully make my Grandma’s fruitcake recipe that had been lovingly handwritten into a recipe collection. By discarding something that is no relevant I am also discarding a chance of connection to my past and my family.

So we scrap the traditions that lack relevance to our context or lack meaning, and that makes sense. However we often don’t replace them with anything or we don’t know how to replace them with something meaningful. We may desire an informal low stress family meal but it doesn’t ‘feel’ important or any more meaningful that any other family meal we may have over the year. We may have scrapped some traditions and yet often haven’t added back any ceremonies, rituals or traditions that hold and express meaning and our values. In the past these types of festival rhythms connected people to the seasons and the land. For example events like the harvest were celebrated as part of a significant rhythm of the year. These were important connections to maintain and celebrate when life was mainly agricultural. For our mainly urban culture these days it is not so much a connection to the land and the seasons that we need (although I am sure some of you may argue that this would be helpful too). What our communities and families are lacking is a deeper connection to others that creates a sense of belonging, a connection to who they are, their story and their values, and to the value and worth of their story. It is these connections that allow us to navigate our way in the world, increase our resilience and foster our well-being. We need to re-create traditions, rituals and celebrations that give us a sense of meaning through celebrating and nurturing our connection to these things. Re-establishing a sense of purpose allows us to reclaim Christmas from the drive to consume and opens us up to expressing connection and meaning in more creative ways. Creating a new tradition of making shared art work, sharing photos and memories or stories from the year all add meaning and connection in a way that buying things may not.

Traditions are important, but to help us avoid stress they need to be contextually relevant, express our values, add meaning and create connections.

Rituals and celebrations don’t have to be solemn and serious we can all do with a little more fun and magic in our lives. Christmas is almost here but if you do have some spare moments for reflection this week, reflect on your Christmas celebrations and what purpose they serve for you. I have prepared a worksheet, with some questions to prompt your thinking around Christmas and creating meaning for yourself.

Taking the time to add purpose, value and connection back into your Christmas will help you to reduce some of the stress and overwhelm of this season. You can then begin to head towards a fun and relaxing festival.

I’d love to hear what new traditions or rituals you come up with so do share your ideas in the comments.

reflecting on the weekend

I often get to Monday morning totally exhausted by my weekend. I don’t know what happened but somewhere along the way (I think when I became a mum) weekends stopped being refreshing for me.  They are a chore I need to survive and I have become increasingly dissatisfied with them. Long Saturday afternoons spent reading and watching movies are but a distant memory, and so is the feeling of feeling refreshed and replenished for the Monday return to work.  Now weekends are difficult, they go at a frantic 7-year-old pace with lots of bouncing, wriggling, and cartwheels.  Mr Seven’s behaviour is always at its most difficult when two parents are present. Saturday and Sundays start at 6.15am and are packed tight with activity and household organisation tasks until I collapse into bed by 9 pm.  I find myself longing for the peace, quiet and creativity of my work week.

So I decided to use some of my work tools to apply reflective learning to my weekend, to help me think about what is working and what isn't working.  To be able to sit and ponder how I can use my strengths and values at the weekend and in a way that leaves me feeling rested and ready for the week ahead.  For a number of years in my personnel development and coaching work, I have been encouraging others to use critical reflection in their work and to set regular rhythms of reflection and evaluation.  I have also realised that regular systematic reflection has a lot to offer for reducing self-doubt and building self-confidence too.  However last night it suddenly occurred to me that I have never applied the reflective principles that I apply to my work and teach to others to my weekend.  

It is interesting that the wellbeing literature suggests that getting to spend at least 80% of your work week using your strengths, contributes to feeling that you have an excellent quality of life.  We also talk about the impact on wellbeing and workplace engagement of being able to have work that lets us express our values.  Underlying this research about work is the assumption that work is something that we struggle to enjoy and weekends are all fun and enjoyment.  To be honest (and I think this may be true for other part-time working mums) this is the opposite way around for me.

I love my work, and really struggle to enjoy my weekends. 

Household organisation and physical activity do not let me express my strengths or values.  Our time off is just as important, if not more so than our time at work, but sometimes we can be reluctant to apply work principles to our time off.  I guess it makes us feel like we are working instead of relaxing and can sap our spontaneity.  If we are going to use work tools to help our time off we need to avoid using them to make rules and only use them if they do have positive results

I decided to bring together critical reflection, strengths and values to help me assess my weekends as a first step in finding a way forward to expressing more of my strengths and values. It is also an opportunity to assess the balance between each family member in the opportunities they get over the weekend.  To do this I made a simple worksheet which you can see here.  

I would love to hear your ideas of how you use your strengths to make weekends more enjoyable.