It’s meant to be a season of peace and goodwill. Cue hollow laugh.
For many of us, the first sighting of a red and white Santa, usually around the end of August, marks the onset of low-level creeping anxiety, which builds up into full-on stressed-out panic as we approach the final days.
Even the most organised (yes, Mister and Ms Smug, we know) who bought their gifts on sale a year ago find themselves succumbing to the pressure of feeling there is too much to do and it will never get done.
Time to sit down with a nice cup or glass of your chosen calm-down juice and take a minute or two to reflect. And here’s the word to get you reflecting in a helpful way:
Not ‘why’ in the existential sense of pondering the meaning and the futility of life (there’s enough of that after one too many sherries), but as applied to our reasons for behaving the way we do.
A little bit of self-interrogation can help to keep in check the barrage of external and internal prompts which result in our feeling obliged to spend money we may or may not have and to meet expectations which may or may not apply to the way we normally act and the way in which we want to live.
When you feel the wings of panic beating in your chest as you struggle to locate and buy the ideal present, or worry that you won’t have enough of a particular item of food or drink, or that the meal won’t be as good as the one your in-laws or your mother or your brother or your sister cooked last year (come on, you know there are some competitions you will never win), take a deep slow breath and ask yourself:
Why am I searching so hard for presents which have to be absolutely perfect and tick every box?
Why am I even looking at these gift sets?
Why am I going to six different shops in search of wrapping paper?
Why am I spending so much time online, doggedly chasing down a meaningless item, and being distracted by more and more suggestions?
Why do I feel the need to wear something glittery, or covered in reindeer?
Why will I feel a failure if my decorations shriek ‘last century, dahling!’ ?
To find the answer, you need to drill down a couple of layers.
Your first response to this kind of question might be something along the lines of, because people expect it.
Think about how these people, the ones in your life, your family and friends, will react if you fail to meet their expectations. Reject you? Despise you? Pity you? Laugh at you?
On the whole, just how likely is this to happen? And if someone cuts you out of their life because the handbag you bought them wasn’t quite the Hermes Birkin they longed for, well, who’s the person with the problem here?
Of course we want to make our nearest and dearest happy. We want our tangible offerings to reflect the warmth of our feelings towards them. And ‘why’, we can ask ourselves, should the exchange of gifts and the jolly sharing of food and drink be any more than that?
The answer, as we all know, is that powerful forces outside ourselves are constantly nudging us into thinking and behaving in ways that are alien to our normal selves.
We lose our sense of judgement and perspective. We think that it would be downright rude to ignore the carefully honed recommendations made by huge companies who obviously know and love us personally. Items with astronomical price tags begin to look not that expensive, really, when you think about it.
If the answer to ‘why am I doing this?’ is ‘because I’ve seen that this is the must-have item or must-do thing this year’, then you could contemplate the way in which this idea has found a place in your head, and dismiss it. If you want to, of course.
That’s the thing — your answers might confirm that yes, you believe you will be judged on the quality of your Christmas performance.
When the Christmas tree lights don’t work, it will prove just what a useless human being you are. When you don’t manage to source the right kind of nuts, or leave it too late to get the limited-edition pudding (thank you, Heston Blumenthal), you really will feel totally incompetent.
Have one more go at asking yourself why these things matter. Perhaps you could think about this while watching a seasonal movie. Try It’s A Wonderful Life. You know why.