This weekend I found myself in a shopping centre during a weekend away. Which was not on the agenda, but became a necessity after my smallest boy misfired during an alfresco wee, and required new trousers, pronto. As we approached a department store, we watched as the doors opened, and hundreds of cheerless shoppers trudged single file into the shop - determined and resigned. It was a peculiarly joyless event to witness (made worse by having a soggy and disgruntled boy hanging off my hand), and looked rather at odds with the Christmas music and twinkly lights. As we filed our way through crowds of shoppers looking for the children's department, our mission at odds with everyone else's, I started to feel a familiar kind of claustrophobia - a feeling particular to this time of year.
Because winter, and in particular Christmas, is when we're all together. A lot. When the shops feel cramped and overwhelming. The house feels smaller because we're in such close proximity so much of the time and because it's full of coats and layers and boots and decorations, that while pretty and sparkly, also have a way of making the walls feel like they're closing in on us. And in the UK, the same thing happens outside as well. As the days shorten, the sky gets darker, more leaden and somehow lower. And the world outside also starts to shrink. It's quite possible to feel like the whole world is closing in on you.
It kind of is.
So I totally get why Christmas celebrations are so essential at this time of year. And why we start adorning everything in sight with stuff that reflects the light and creates twinkly-ness where none appears to exist.
But we've made the whole season tremendously complicated. We plough around department stores like headless chickens, leap from social event to social event drinking and eating to excess, and deploy time and energy negotiating complex family arrangements, totally losing sight of who we are, why we're doing this, and what the heck we actually want this time of year to be.
All this busy activity distracts us from the fact that even though Christmas is meant to be a joyful affair, it also happens to fall at a tricky time of year (for those of us in the northern hemisphere). A time of darkness and decay. A time of introspection and reflection - activities that make for potentially unsettling pastimes.
And if we temporarily turn away from the relentless messages about how Christmas should look, taste, smell and feel and ask ourselves what we want it to be, I'm going to guess it won't be about presents. It won't be angst about excess and thankless kids who have no idea how lucky they are (and if mine are anything to go by, absolutely no clue what presents they got last year - which is a sobering thought as I embark on this year's shopping). And it won't be about the food that becomes unreasonably complicated at this time of year - our taste buds apparently demanding flavours that we wouldn't touch during any month other than December.
I know. I'm sounding like a big old Scrooge. Don't let my uneasy relationship with some aspects of Christmas fool you. I'm actually quite the fan.
Because for me, when I stop and think about it, what I love about Christmas is the way it makes me feel. It's the time spent with people I feel connected to. It's about music that makes me tingle and think about those I love. It's about the waves of nostalgia that overwhelm me randomly on Christmas Eve, the beautiful peaceful feeling I get when the house is quiet and the tree lights are twinkling. For me, Christmas is about the way it stirs my emotional pot.
And the magic thing about that?
This same emotional pot is available to me all year round. 12 months of the year. Christmas or no Christmas.
That tingle, that peacefulness, that sense of connection - that won't disappear in January. That's available year round.
Christmas is simply an intense version of the rest of the year.
And when I look at it like that, it makes it more like something I want to be a part of. It reduces the likelihood that I'll fly through December in a joyless and obedient whirlwind of shopping, eating and drinking. It relieves some of the pressure. It makes it less of an endurance test, less of a survival exercise, and more of a moment in time to be enjoyed.