Christmas can be a wonderful day of joy and celebration that brings family and friends together to celebrate, spread peace and love, eat delicious food and open wonderful gifts. But it can also be the exact opposite. A time of great stress, when unresolved family tensions explode, budgets blow out and the pressure to make everything just perfect becomes overwhelming.
It’s not surprising Relationships Australia identifies the Christmas period as the most likely time of year for people to experience anxiety and depression. In its December 2016 online Christmas survey, it found Christmas is considered one of the six most stressful life events, along with divorce, moving house and changing jobs.
In one survey of more than 3000 people, 86 per cent reported they find buying presents to be difficult and 65 per cent reported Christmas shopping to be stressful. A US survey found 45 per cent of Americans dread the festive season.
Sunshine Coast psychologist Suzanne Loubris says lowering your expectations and maintaining a sense of humour are your best tools for surviving Christmas.
“Number one: don’t be disappointed if people behave badly, and don’t expect they will behave well and you won’t be surprised by anything,” she says. “Humour is always a good way to get around anything. Have your sense of humour firmly in place. Be helpful, wash the dishes, clean up, listen to people without the need to express your opinions, keep things agreeable. Mostly, try and stay detached from what other people say. If someone says something rude, just smile and think, it’s just for today. Tomorrow is a different day.”
Ms Loubris says people get caught up in unrealistic ideas of how Christmas should pan out and family members often have competing expectations.
“If you have blended families or you’re going to the in-laws, remember everyone does it differently and cooks food in different ways. As long as you’re expecting things should be done your way, you’re going to find yourself disappointed and frustrated.”
When it comes to alcohol, she says have a glass of wine or a beer and put your feet up, but don’t have too much.
“When people drink too much, all the latent resentments come out. We don’t talk to each other all year because we don’t really like each other and now we’re going to sit around the table together and play happy families. Be mindful of that and be prepared for war rather than goodwill and cheer. Tell yourself, I can keep smiling for these three or four hours, then walk away.”
A million mums a month read Jody Allen’s Stay at Home Mum website, so it’s not surprising she has some excellent tips on surviving the silly season. The Gympie mum says even though she’s organised and starts planning for Christmas in January, she still finds it stressful.
“If it’s not for mums, Christmas just doesn’t happen and that pressure kills you,” she says. “It kills me every year.”
To help with her Christmas budget, Mrs Allen uses the Raiz app, which rounds up purchases you make on cards throughout the year and saves the money. This money funds her Christmas and an end-of-year family holiday. She also suggests buying a $5 or $10 gift card every time you do a shop, as well as buying non-perishable Christmas food like pudding, nibbles, chocolate-coated nuts and almonds well before the big day.
“I add one or two of those things every time I do a shop and put it in a cupboard,” she says. “I do my big Christmas gift shop online because I don’t like fighting people for a car park. With Christmas gifts, I get my boys to write a list. I set up alerts on all the cheap websites like catch.com.au, so when an item comes on sale, I grab it.
“I do a load of cooking before Christmas and give lots of gifts of food,” she says. “I make rum balls, honeycomb, peanut brittle and nuts and bolts [a spicy Nutri-Grain mix] for neighbours and the boys’ teachers. It’s all cheap and easy to make. I always like giving gifts of food because it doesn’t cost much and it’s really from the heart.
“My dad loves cheese sticks – the really hot ones. It costs about $4 to buy all the ingredients and he loves it. I like the thought of carrying on family traditions and there’s so much commercialisation, so it’s nice to make something by hand.”
To avoid the Christmas Day commute between houses, Mrs Allen chooses one side of the family to spend Christmas Day with and the other side of the family for Boxing Day. “I never book more than one thing per day,” she says. “Our kids are 10 and 11 and this allows them time to play with their new things on Christmas morning.”
Mrs Allen puts a cap of $200 on food for the big Christmas celebration and favours fancy salads and cold meats with a jug of gravy heated up in the microwave.
“Salads are so beautiful, delicious and healthy and really fun to make. I’m not a big one for the traditional Christmas dinner. We’ve never eaten a turkey in our lives. We like to do a really nice barbecue with fancy nibbles and a cold Christmas dessert. It’s not a time to do garden salad. You should be having pumpkin and blue cheese, balsamic roasted veggies, all done cold with parmesan cheese. A fancy salad goes a long way.”
Mrs Allen doesn’t drink alcohol but loves making Christmas punch with cold tea and loads of fruit, which the kids love.
When it comes to gifts, she buys one big present, like a trampoline, for the whole family. Then the children get something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read.
“I’m a bit naughty. I always say I’m going to budget $200 a child and I always blow it. I end up spending $500. I’m terrible. It’s the sort of thing all mums fall into. You see something that would make their day so special. I spoil my kids rotten, like anyone. Kids are made to be spoilt, so why not? Go nuts – it’s only once a year.”
Having said that, she never buys gifts for adults in the extended family and the kids under 12 get one gift with a $20 limit.
“I don’t think grown-ups need presents,” she says. “You buy your significant other a present but I think adult presents are a ridiculous idea.”
When Christmas Day dawns, Mrs Allen focuses on keeping things relaxed.
“We make a point of not travelling too far,” she says. “We just want Christmas Day to be relaxing, not this big anxious day. We watch a Christmas movie, look at the local Christmas lights. We just make sure our immediate family is doing something together and something relaxing.”