As I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s nearly Christmas. I’m willing to bet you’re spending these last weeks of the year busy with work demands while also trying to make sure everything’s in place for a magical Christmas at home.
Taking a break, it seems, is not always relaxing. Those tantalising two weeks away from the office, indulging in food, fun and time with the family, seemed very real and exciting in November. By December, it’s disappearing in a haze of must-dos on two fronts. Before we’ve had time to breathe, it’s January.
Why does this happen? And what can we do to make sure that Christmas doesn’t become just another time-consuming to-do list?
A story of Christmas stillness
In the lead up to one Christmas, I was heavily pregnant with my second son, due on 19th December. There was nothing that could be done but wait for his arrival, and adapt our Christmas to it as best we could.
Every day started with anticipation, and ended with uncertainty. The 19th came and went, and so did the 25th. He eventually arrived on 27th December, and we called him Gabriel.
He was, of course, the perfect Christmas gift. We had no choice but to wait patiently for him, to simply live in and enjoy the moments as they came and went.
Making a choice to be busy
That Christmas, I wasn’t able to be busy. I had no choice but to wait until Gabriel came. When there is a choice to be made, it’s very easy to decide to be busy. We do this without realising it, because it doesn’t feel as if we have a choice.
As much as we crave relaxation, we fear idleness. We want time to do nothing, but when the opportunity arises to have it, we fill that time with tasks. At Christmas, we call these tasks ‘traditions’. Some of these are universal, like putting up a tree or cooking a turkey. Others are personal, like visiting relatives or taking a country walk on Boxing day (or St Stephen’s Day as the 26th is always to me).
Traditions can be magical, the foundations of precious memories. They can also weigh us down with expectation, and if they don’t happen, guilt. A list of Christmas traditions quickly becomes just another to-do list.
What do you really value?
The value of any tradition comes in its meaning. The value of a Christmas tree lies not in the tree itself, but in the focal point it provides. It is somewhere to gather around, somewhere to keep and open presents, and something to enjoy decorating.
Buying and decorating a tree can be a chore, something else to take away from valuable relaxation time. Unless you choose to see it as relaxation in itself, an experience to be shared rather than work to be done. Or you could simply decide not to bother with a tree at all, if it doesn’t suit you to have one.
Take a break
Of course, it’s not always that simple. Deciding not to have a tree might be pretty much impossible if you have a house full of expectant children (and perhaps expectant adults). Likewise, choosing not to visit relatives can be tough, especially if it means others are upset. But you can almost certainly choose not to go to every party you’re invited to. You can choose to buy the Christmas foods you really want to eat, rather than the ones you think you should have.
Identify what matters to you about Christmas. With everything you plan to do, ask yourself how it contributes to the things that matter. If something doesn’t contribute, find a way to change it or scrap it. We don’t need to do nothing to relax. But we do need to make wise choices about the things we do.
What matters to me at Christmas is the simple pleasure to be had in enjoying time with family & friends. Patrick Kavanagh, a poet from Co Monaghan, seems to capture this best in his poem, A Childhood Christmas. He was a master of making the ordinary extraordinary through the sparse medium of poetry.
My favourite verses are:
My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.
Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.
I hope you enjoy it too. I grew up a stone’s throw from ‘Cassidy’s hanging hill” and feel a deep sense of connection with the words and their sense of place and childhood. It makes me think about my own childhood Christmases and those of my children, and of people no longer here to enjoy Christmas with.
If we can recreate that feeling, those connections, in our own homes this Christmas, we may reach January content, satisfied with the time that’s gone and optimistic for the year to come.
When we’re back at our desks, perhaps we will have learned something about how to identify what is important to ourselves and others, a lesson we can use in leadership as much as we can at home.
Instead of sending Christmas cards to clients and colleagues Scala Advance has donated to 2 charities which work with homeless people:
Focus Ireland, which believes that everyone has a right to a place they can call home and which campaigns to address the causes of homelessness
Brighton Housing Trust/First Base Urgent Christmas Appeal 2016. First Base is the only project for homeless men and women in the City to remain open over the Christmas and New Year Period