Christmas this year is being brought to our house mostly by John Lewis, the internet and a collection of historically dysfunctional family relationships. I’m on first name terms with at least three of the staff in our local Waitrose, so regularly am I collecting parcels. We have a house even fuller than usual this Christmas and the building work that was scheduled for completion at the start of December is still going on, so the first set of relatives arrived today to a rapturous welcome party that included the builders, two decorators and an electrician. Their bedroom is an oasis in a house swathed in dust sheets and plastic. I’d rather like to move into it myself. I want everything done – more than this, I want everything to have already been done. The house is covered in thick dust; nothing is where it should be. Two families are now inhabiting half the space that’s usually occupied by one, and the scale of what has to be achieved before the next tranche of guests arrive at the weekend makes me want to hide under the dining table and weep. I can’t clear anything because the rooms into which things need to be cleared are still being plastered and skirting boarded and painted. This afternoon, we got an e mail telling us that the company from which we ordered the perfect present for the 8yo ‘would not be able to fulfil the order’ and assuring us that we wouldn’t be charged. There are meals to be planned and shopped for and prepared, presents to wrap, some still to be bought. And Father Christmas is still a big part of Christmas morning, all the more so as we have younger cousins staying. And it feels as though the more I ask for help, the more I’m told not to worry, that it’ll all be fine, that nobody minds. Tell me exactly what to do, I hear, over and over again, tell me what to do and I’ll do it.
But telling people what to do means you’ve done well over half the work already. The sheer energy involved in assessing what has to be done and how it’s going to be done far outweighs the energy of actually doing it. And the payoff is rarely worth it.
Me: could you order some stocking presents for the children?
Other: of course
Me, expiring with relief: THANK YOU.
Other, opening computer: right, what shall I order?
Me: Could you start clearing the stuff out of that room?
Other: where do I put it? What shall I do with it?
Me: anything that’s broken you put in one pile, anything that’s in good condition but we don’t use any more goes in another, and anything we still use goes back.
Other: (holding up one thing at a time) What about this? And this? And this?
Me: you could help me with the meal plans
Other: oh don’t worry about that, no one will mind what we eat
Me: could you find a Christmas Day film that’ll work for everyone?
Other: there’s no point in doing that now, we’ll just look on Netflix after lunch.
There are a number of perfectly understandable reactions to these conversations. One is to have started three months ago, but apart from the fact that time travel isn’t a thing, I don’t want to spend three months thinking about stockings and turkey. Another, more effective in the long term, would be to smash the patriarchy, but there are only four more days and the to-do list is already out of control. The most immediate would be is murder, but that’s likely to be messy and might upset the children (to say nothing of having to explain to his mum why he’s not there on Christmas Day).
There are a few less extreme hacks – slow cook casseroles you can put together in the morning and leave in the slow cooker all day. Baked ham, which you can just put in a pan of water with a carrot, an onion and some peppercorns then get children to stick cloves in. Gingerbread dough, which freezes like a dream and entertains small children for hours.
But actually, there’s only one way it can all be made possible, and that’s by rejecting the ideas of should and ought. Your Christmas has to be made of things that work for you. ‘You’re so much better at *insert chore here*’ isn’t a compliment, it’s a distraction. It’s fine for you to do all the cooking, as long as the others do all the washing up. If you’re peeling sprouts then someone else needs to play a board game with the children; if someone comes and offers help, hand them the knife. Let’s consign martyrdom to history and make a celebration of sharing, not only the labour, but the mental load.