"'Tis the season to be jolly, la la la la la la la la la...", or is it? I often struggle when I sense Christmas is coming. My memories are of cabin fever, disappointment after such a big build up and frustration at the shops putting up their tinsel before we've even had Halloween.
To help you navigate your way through the dark days and nights of TV specials, nativity plays and carol concerts, here are my top 10 tips for coping with Christmas. As someone from a large family who's often found it a challenge, I've learnt that a little preparation can go a long way. There are many ways to put a little sparkle back into your life so that you survive - and thrive - during the festive season.
1. Keep it simple
Take the pressure off yourself by simplifying the things that most stress you out. Instead of running around trying to buy presents for everyone, agree in advance who you will - and won't - buy presents for.
In my own family, we put all the names of the adults in a hat and each draw out just one person to give a present to, spending a maximum of £25. Have a conversation with members of your family about how you can help to keep it simple for everyone. You might not be the only one that's relieved to do things differently!
2. Create your own ritual
If Christmas lunch, midnight Mass or singing carols no longer do it for you, come up with a new ritual. Whether it's having a friend round for a glass of bubbly or sitting in front of the fire on Christmas Eve, do something that lights you up.
Don't worry what anybody else thinks. Find something that brings you peace and joy. Your ritual could involve lighting candles, being outside or throwing things away that you no longer want to keep. Ask yourself what's meaningful for you and go do it.
3. Do something completely different
Ring the changes to re-energise. Consider going away for Christmas if you can afford it. If you can't, how about volunteering for a local charity to serve lunch in a food kitchen? How about inviting a friend on their own to join you for the big day itself?
In my family we broke with tradition and decided to try a local pub for Christmas lunch so that no one had to cook. It was such a success that the next year we had some neighbours join us and we all enjoyed the novelty of pulling crackers and sharing jokes with some new folks.
4. Review and reflect
Make the most of the dark evenings to take stock about the last year. What have been the highlights? What surprised you? What have you learnt? Before making any resolutions about the next year, dig into your experience of the past year. Flick back through your calendar or diary to remind yourself of what happened.
See if there are any relationships with family or friends that could do with some attention. Christmas can be the perfect time to reach out, re-connect and re-establish a bond. Sending a Christmas card is an easy way to let someone know you're thinking about them and of seeing if there's still life in a relationship.
5. Get back to basics
Get in touch with what really matters. In these times of economic austerity, treasure what you do have. Play a board game, get out some old family photos, wrap up warm and go out for a walk.
Find a way to have a real conversation with someone you care about. If you've struggled to talk at other times, ask them about how their hopes and fears for the year ahead and share what's on your mind.
6. Make the most of the down time
The two weeks over Christmas and New Year is the perfect time to allow yourself some time off from emails, tweets and Facebook. Enjoy the spaciousness that comes from switching off your laptop.
It's the one time of the year when there's a national holiday so make the most of it. Put some energy back into yourself by taking time to rest, reading the paper slowly and enjoying a long soak in the tub.
7. Make space
If you struggle staying under the same roof as your family, see if there are any other options. If you can't afford a hotel or B&B, could you stay with a friend or neighbour? Perhaps you might be able to return the favour at another time.
If staying elsewhere is impossible, consider getting up a little earlier or going to bed a little later so that your carve out some space for yourself. Having just a few minutes a day to yourself can help you to stay sane and centred.
8. Talk things through
If you have a difficult relationship with a family member, consider having a conversation with them before the festive season arrives. If you really can't face sharing another Christmas, find a way to say this as kindly as you can.
Pick your moment and choose where you talk so that you have some privacy. Find your opening and practise saying the words out loud. It's better to face into the discomfort of having that conversation early on than to struggle with days of frustration later on. It may even clear the air in unexpected ways.
9. Find other outlets
If you find yourself getting moody, frustrated or withdrawn, find ways to let off steam. As the poet Maya Angelou said, "I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights."
To help you keep your cool, find healthy ways of venting. Go for a brisk walk, do a workout at the gym or scream out loud while driving alone on the motorway. Do what it takes to have a rant in a way that doesn't jeopardise your relationship with family and friends.
10. Offer to help
Challenge yourself to make a contribution in some unexpected way. The chances are there will be a meal you can cook, a table you can clear or a child you can keep amused.
It is the season of goodwill, after all. Getting out of self-absorption and into action is not only a sure fire way to make you feel better, it will also do wonders for your relationships.
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