“Christmas has been cancelled this year.” My father made this same joke every year, when we children were beginning to get excited. A few decades ago, our Christmas was a one-day, one-present-each event. It was a brief, magical moment in a mostly monotonous calendar of working days and plodding Sundays. Even so, my father was harassed by the disruption and what must have been a quite modest extra cost.
Since then, Christmas, far from being cancelled, has swelled like an insatiable beast. It feeds on people’s time, energy and money for weeks or even months on both sides of the day itself. For many people, the harassment snuffs out the magic. A host of mounting pressures – to get more done, and done in time; to spend more than you really want or can afford; to eat and drink more than is healthy or comfortable; the heightened emotional cost of loneliness, or else of strained relationships – are all the more stressful when the season is supposed to remind us of peace and joy.
Not that anyone talks much these days of goodwill to all mankind. ‘Goodwill’ is out of date and ‘mankind’ is sexist. You are more likely to hear people redefining Christmas as “all about family time and loved ones,” and, after all the extra stress and overwork, looking forward to some bingeing (box sets, luxuries) and a few days of mindless torpor.
The difference between torpor and real relaxation is that torpor can leave you feeling dissatisfied and irritable rather than rested. A habit of relaxing during your busiest times, instead of after, restores your depleted energy as you go. Torpor is a form of collapse, an attempt to switch off living for a while because it has become too overwhelming. Relaxation is the natural counter to anxiety and activity. It is the easing-up between one effort and the next that stops you getting overwhelmed in the first place, so that you do not pile up a debt of fatigue and emotional burnout to add to the other burdens you will carry into the New Year.
Christmas coincides with the transition we make at the end of each year from one stage of our lives to the next. I am reminded of a primary school I know of, where for the last five minutes of every class the children sit and think about what they have accomplished in the lesson just ended, and consider the new activity they are about to begin. Instead of classes that end with a jangling bell and an eruption of noise and rush, this small pause allows one period to lead calmly and purposefully on to the next. The same principle works whenever there is much to do and little time. Pockets of calm between your activities give you breathing space and help you keep things in perspective
Calm first: then carry on. This is practical psychology, and not only because stress impairs us. I am still amazed how, when (against my impatient grain) I pause and relax for five minutes – before leaving the house, for example, or before sleeping, or on waking – that is when my mind clears, and allows something important I had forgotten, or a solution to a problem, or renewed calm to float into my awareness.
Don’t tell yourself that you will relax later, when you have time. Even one minute, now, to pause and relax will put you back in control, stop your mind running on auto-pilot, and bring your life back into focus. Calm first. Then carry on.
Like all other Christmases past and future, this Christmas will come and go. You can navigate the pressures more freely when you are relaxed and (forgive the pun) more present.