Yup. It’s that time again. We are headed on a parcel-laden, fairy-light-bedecked, glitter-strewn, out-of-control sleigh ride downhill towards the ski-jump that is the holiday season.
And I don’t know about you, but this Magpie is finding it…well, it’s ‘festive’ in much the way that being caught in the middle of a stampeding herd of wildebeest must be. If the wildebeest were wearing jolly little Santa hats and ugly sweaters, and bellowing about making sure you get the specialty gin-filled chocolate penguins for Cousin Clyster, and the Frozen themed musical bed socks for Auntie Chlorine, and don’t forget the sprout-flavoured crisps (I wish I was joking).
From almost any possible viewpoint – psychologically, ecologically, theologically – the modern Christmas/Festivus/whatever you call it isn’t really great for anyone except commerce. And then only for the CEOs (pity poor lowly shop assistants – you can tell which ones love wearing antlers, and which ones will use them as a murder weapon if just one more person asks where the potted Stilton is).
You could, of course, shut yourself in and avoid it all. Or go on one of those Buddhist retreats in the wilds of Scotland they used to advertise in the back of the Big Issue. Or become a Jehovah’s Witness. But those are mostly either too extreme or too expensive for most of us. Families, work colleagues and the culture in general see us as either a Scrooge or a Grinch if we try to opt out of the ruckus, and who wants that?
But…stay calm. Breathe. And again.
There are ways to make the season bright(er), even if you hate tinsel, turkey giblets and TV repeats. Here are a few suggestions for things you can do over the next few weeks that may just make things a little more bearable, and a little less like a celebration of maxing out your credit card.
– Get out in nature. Yes, the weather outside may well be frightful for those of us in the northern hemisphere, whether that means traditional snow or less picturesque howling gales and sleet. But if you can do it without risking life and limb, do try to get out. We all need as much fresh air and daylight as we can grab at this time of year. And we also need contact with the natural world to soothe our collective souls. Find a wood, a beach, or failing that, a park, and commune with the elements for a while.
– Leading on from that: Feed the birds. Or any wildlife you happen to have nearby. Birds, especially, really need extra energy at this time of year, so break out the suet balls, if you have a garden feeder. Check local guidance as to what to feed birds and other creatures in your locality, and where it’s advisable to put it. (In our particular neck of the woods in this season, teeny little muntjac deer tend to frequent the verges of roads – cute, but not a safe place for them to be. Don’t leave food in places where animals might be encouraged to wander too near traffic or other hazards.)
– Make something with your hands. Try to use eco-friendly materials (especially glitter) if you can get them, and recycle where you can. It’s a bit late to make actual gifts, perhaps, but gift wrap and cards are doable, and there are also decorations. Little dangly things to put on the tree. Paper chains – they’ve made a commercial comeback in recent years, but homemade ones are easy. Those cut-out snowflakes you can stick to windows. If you have kids around, rope them in – they’ll love it. Or start sewing or knitting something. There’s something about the repeating motion of fabric crafts that’s very soothing, and you can do it while watching the Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas Special (if you must).
– Give something to those without. The Trussell Trust is an organisation that does sterling work running food banks (an appallingly necessary and ubiquitous feature of modern life, it seems) all year round, and non-perishable foods are always welcome, but in the holiday season there are also local requests for treats (mince pies, chocolates and such), toys and clothing to help people in need have some kind of celebration. There is also Crisis, where you can pay for a homeless person to have a bed for the night, a hot meal, basic comforts like a shower, haircut and medical attention, and help getting back on their feet. Those are in the UK, but check online for what’s going on in your area and which charities are participating.
– Read. An actual book. We spend a lot of time looking at screens these days, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself, it can be relaxing to reconnect with the physical pleasure of turning pages. My personal favourite read for this time of year will always be the delightful, hilarious, savagely satirical, and in places, surprisingly moving Hogfather by the late Sir Terry Pratchett. Your mileage may vary: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Louisa May Alcott, O. Henry, and of course, Charles Dickens, also produced great festive reads. But whatever you choose, make an experience of it. Tuck yourself up under a warm blanket with a hot chocolate and lose yourself in the story. Marshmallows optional.
– Discover fire. There is something primal about lighting fires in the darkest depths of winter, which is why every culture that has winter has had some form of ritual involving it. If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace, use it. If you have room and permission to make a bonfire, even a small one, go for it. If neither of those is possible, light candles. (Of course, safety is essential. Don’t inadvertently offer yourself, small children, pets or other household objects to the flames..)
– Create great smells in your house. If you bake at all, you’re probably going to do this anyway; but not all of us have been blessed by the goddess Mary Berry, so feel free to cheat and whack out a packet cake, or slip a tray of part-baked rolls into the oven. The scent of real evergreens can’t be beaten, but lighting an aromatherapy oil burner with a few drops of pine essential oil works wonders if you don’t want to be picking needles out of the carpet for weeks. Juniper, cedarwood, cinnamon, clove, orange, and frankincense are also evocative.
…And breathe. Pause. Try to reflect on the good things of the year that’s almost passed. Try to let yourself hope (because without hope, where are we?).
Now, if you’ll excuse me, if I could just find where I left the sellotape….