This morning I was answering an email in which someone asked me something about Christmas in Ireland. I told her about our first Christmas here when we lived in Ballinrobe and how it was one of the best Christmas Eves I have ever had. Nothing at all spectacular happened and yet it stays in my mind and brings me a sense of joy and peace when I think about it even now.
It was a dark and drizzly evening when we set out on a walk that evening after supper. Everything closes early on Christmas Eve anyway, and the streets were deserted. It was just us, the drizzle, and the Christmas lights strung all around the town. The windows of the shops and businesses had low lighting on, so the Christmas displays could be seen and enjoyed. It was so quiet and so beautiful. We walked for a while and then went home and had cocoa.
When I think of that night, I am reminded of how my approach to the festive season has changed from what it was years ago. When I was in academia, it was wonderful to be able to turn my attention to getting into Christmas baking and stitching. For the majority of my academic life, I was in institutions that were on a term system, so we were done by this time of year and I was free to enjoy the run-up to Christmas. We went bck just after the new year, which suited me just fine. When I moved to a university that ran on a semester system, I was not done until a couple of days before Christmas, which I hated. I felt like there was never enough time to really get into it and do all I wanted to do. Even though we ditched a big meal on Christmas Day over 35 years ago, in favour of munchies that could mostly be prepared ahead of time, there was a lot I was doing in the days before Christmas itself.
As I think about that lovely evening in Ballinrobe, I see how different I am now. Instead of lamenting that I do not have time to do everything, I have happily done less and less each year. I would be really annoyed and unhappy if I felt like I had to do all of the things I used to do. I loved it then and now I wouldn't. I suspect that had I been forced to do Christmas then the way I do now, I would've hated it at the time, even though I love it now.
I have often thought about how busy I used to be in general and how much I was doing. For a time in grad school, I was setting the alarm for 2 am and putting it across the room, so I would have to get up to turn it off. Then I would begin my day. I was tired all the time, but I was also energised in a weird way. I was doing a lot of stuff and it was work I am still proud of. But there is no way I would want to be that busy now. I seem to value peace, quiet, and life in the slow lane more and more as the years go by and that is especially the case during the festive season. I am grateful that I am able to have that kind of life at the moment.
I recently read a book about the Christmas experiences of British people. I was struck by how many of them hated Christmas, until they were in a situation in which they could not mark the day as they usually did. For some, they were in a place where Christmas wasn't a thing, so there were no expectations. For others, they could not spend the day with the people they usually did, so they made arrangements with others or spent the day alone. Some people found themselves unable to afford the usual Christmas 'stuff' so had to get creative. In every case presented in the book, these people discovered that, when done the way they wanted to do it instead of how they were expected to do it, Christmas could be enjoyable. That's the key, I think--doing what makes you happy, whether that's being busy or slowing down. Each has worked for me at different times in my life, but that's probably because I was doing things my way and not telling myself what I 'should' be doing.
Years ago I read an article written by a woman who struggled with this. She was overwhelmed every year--exhausted and miserable. She decided that she wanted to enjoy Christmas, too, so she read some self-help stuff and set about following the suggestions given for simplifying the holiday season. Turns out, she was still miserable, because she missed some of the stuff she used to do. She realised that the key was deciding what was important to her and what wasn't, so she could keep the former and stop doing the latter.
Some years have been tough for various reasons. One year, Bill was sick at Christmas. Before that, one of our cats died a week and a half before Christmas and our dog died exactly a week after the cat. Needless to say, none of us felt like celebrating anything that year. It has not always been fun. But by and large, I have always enjoyed this time of year. My priorities have changed, and my way of 'celebrating' looks nothing like the usual images and nothing ike they used to, but that's OK. I hope that, whatever your December looks like and whether you celebrate the season (cultural, natural, or religious) or not, you are able to be engaged in the activities that bring you joy with the people you most want to be with.