Yesterday, I took a trip down memory lane and looked through some photographs of my son’s first Christmas. It was three years ago and he was three weeks old. As I flipped through the pages of our family photobook, I was filled with that nostalgic feeling - the one you get when you look back on a moment in time that you know you can never get back; the sleepy cuddles, the newborn smell, the cute Christmas outfits. It was the perfect Christmas with my family.
On closing the book, I allowed myself to remember the other emotions I felt that day. The concern that I might not be able to do a good enough job looking after two children. The worry that my eldest child might feel pushed aside after the arrival of her new baby brother. The stress I was putting on myself to make Christmas the most magical, perfect, enjoyable time for everyone else, and the realisation that I couldn’t do it all while sleep deprived, hormonal and recovering from childbirth!
They say hindsight is a wonderful thing but, even three years on, I’m not sure I would change anything. Yes, I was stressed, yes I probably spent too much money and too much effort wrapping up presents that my newborn had no idea about, and certainly couldn’t open for himself! But still, I did what I felt I wanted to do to make that first Christmas, as a family of four, what I’d imagined it would be. And it was.
This Christmas will be very different. Preparing for Christmas with a three and five-year-old means my challenges are different but my desire to create magical memories is just the same. With that, I find myself writing this blog, a cathartic exercise to order my thoughts. I also hope that sharing my experiences might help other parents with young children create the magical day they dream of, without the meltdown that is often menacingly looming on the horizon at this time of year.
On the days when I am feeling overwhelmed by the number of jobs I still need to do in the run-up to the holiday season, I often find myself asking, what exactly will my children remember anyway? Am I putting myself under unnecessary pressure? Well, according to Dr Richard C. Mohs, Chief Science Officer at Global Alzheimer’s Platform, memory is ‘complex and elusive’ and is a ‘brain-wide process.’ In his fascinating article, ‘How Human Memory Works’ (full reference below) he describes how, if you think of a pen, your brain automatically retrieves the object’s name, shape, function and prior experiences. Each of these thoughts come from different parts of the brain and form together to bring the image of the pen to mind. Considering this, it seems reasonable to assume that a person’s memory comes not from one aspect, but from a combination of the smells, sights, sounds, feelings and experiences of Christmas. Does this help to alleviate the pressure, after all, if we don’t nail one part then the others can compensate? Or, does it make you feel even more strongly that you have to make sure everything is perfect?
So it is then, that I reflect on my own memories of Christmases past. Thinking back, I remember happy, family-filled times of games, food and decorations. I remember the excitement of leaving food out for Father Christmas and his reindeer, the struggle to fall asleep on Christmas Eve and the jingle of the bells on my stocking that was placed at the end of my bed. I remember the amazement every Christmas morning when I found it full and the wonder of how Santa had been able to sneak into my room and fill it while I slept. I remember the annual photograph that my mother took to capture our facial expression when we first saw our presents downstairs. I remember the smell of the Christmas dinner and the table filled with delicious treats. I remember how the grown-ups would fall asleep after dinner and I’d be awake, wanting to play. It is because of these happy times that I want so badly for my own children to look back fondly at Christmas time.
But, actually, when I think about it, my memories of Christmas are a blur of experiences. I can’t recall one particular year over another. I certainly don’t remember being a baby or a toddler. As a mum, I need to give myself a break. As a teacher, I know that the more we repeat something, the more our brain organises and reorganises, forming and strengthening connections. The proverb ‘if at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again’, written in the late 18th Century isn’t wrong in its advice! So, with this in mind, we need to tell ourselves that every Christmas doesn’t have to have it all or be perfect. If we’re there and we’re present, our children will remember that in years to come.
I find that one way to stop myself being overwhelmed is to make a list. It doesn’t work for everyone I know, but for me, I get great satisfaction in knowing I can tick things off and it also helps me to prioritise and do the things that need doing first. My Christmas to-do list is not a shopping list of gifts and consumables but the things I want my children to remember when they think about Christmas. What traditions do I want to continue and which do I want to create? The best bits about being a mummy with young children is that you can try things out and change them if you want to.
Our family traditions include.
We decorate the tree as a family. I buy one new bauble for the tree each year. We bake mince pies and stollen. We’ll visit Father Christmas at a local event. We make Christmas cards for our closest family. We donate to charity instead of buying and posting other cards. We go on a drive around the neighbourhood looking for Christmas decorations. My husband and I wrap the gifts together while watching a classic Christmas film.
While we don’t attend church regularly, I do like to go on Christmas Eve – I love the carols and the candlelight. We put a mince pie and sherry out for Father Christmas and take a photo each year. Family dinner, with a pudding, even if it isn’t the weekend! Exchanging one gift: the children choose and buy one small present for the adults on Christmas Eve These are usually hilarious as you can imagine when a three and a five-year-old go shopping! We play a family board game or watch a Christmas film.
In our house, Father Christmas fills the stockings and the gifts downstairs are from family and friends (this way, everyone gets thanked afterwards rather than Santa taking all the credit!) Traditionally we open the presents in the morning before breakfast but this year, we are going to stagger them throughout the day. We have a family lunch with turkey and all the trimmings. My husband and I take turns each year to create a photo book of our family’s year so part of the afternoon involves looking at that – and usually getting the previous photo books out too. I try my best not to fall asleep after lunch so that I can play with my children!
I love to hear about how other families spend their Christmases and the traditions that they have so do comment and tell me about yours. More importantly, please enjoy this holiday season, relax, savour the moment and take a photograph or two because one day, maybe a year from now, or ten, you’ll look back at them and remember just what a wonderful time of year it really is.
Happy Christmas everyone.
Mohs, Richard C. How Human Memory Works [Online] Publications International, Ltd. 8 May 2007. Available from: HowStuffWorks.com. <https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/human-memory.htm> 17 December 2019