I am actually kind of looking forward to Christmas this year. Every year I hate it less and less. For a long time it meant only stress and exhaustion. Disney, I feel, are largely responsible for setting the bar of small children’s yule expectations so high. It means that only a prolonged period of parental hard labour and sleep deprivation can provide them with the minimum acceptable amount of magic. Christmas shopping started as soon as they went back to school in September, and continued steadily until the end of advent, with an added flurry of frantic panic starting on the 20th. My second baby was born in November, so that year I sat up in hospital feeding and burping him while I wrote cards. One year I got in from the supermarket at 3am and started mopping the floors, because for once there was nobody standing on them.
I loved having small children. Clearly. I would not have had five children otherwise. Every day is a magical day with a pre-schooler. Every day is also pretty labour-intensive for a full-time mum. Christmas wasn’t much more special than any other day, as far as I was concerned, but it was a lot more work. This was done on less and less sleep each year as the older ones stayed up later and later on Christmas Eve, while my husband and I waited for them to be asleep so we could sneak into each room, take out each stocking, fill them all, and then sneak them back in again. Then we would snatch a few hours’ sleep before the youngest child came excitedly to wake us up with the incredible news that Santa had been.
With small children, the weeks leading up to Christmas are full of special events, just when you are working flat out to prepare the main one. There are nativity plays, parties they have to be dressed up for, carol concerts and christmas fairs (one for each playgroup they attend, another for the primary school, and another for the other primary school if, like we did, you have your kids in different schools for various reasons). There are teachers, play leaders, gym leaders and ballet teachers who need to be bought presents. There are craft activities. There’s a lot of glitter to hoover out of the carpet.
It’s not just children who make Christmas hard work, though, is it? It’s also visiting relatives. They need rooms hoovering for them, beds making up, they have to be fed and offered endless cups of tea, and they want it all to be charming and extra-special, and then they want to spend time with the hosts they’ve come so far to see, with the hosts actually awake and capable of conversation. It would be nice to spend time with them, too. But there would be more time to spend at almost any other time of year.
And you can’t just feed them beans on toast or takeaway either. Traditional food takes time to prepare. Over the years more foods have become traditional, too. All of it tricky. All of it expected.
Shopping is a lot easier than it used to be. It used to entail fighting through other shoppers’ elbows to find vaguely suitable items in actual shops. These days, I get closer to the specifically right gifts without leaving my home, by shopping online. It used to involve swimming through swarms of people and snatching food items off rapidly emptying supermarket shelves on the day before Christmas Eve. When supermarkets started opening 24 hours a day, I started doing the Christmas food shop late in the evening of the 22nd. It was blissful for a few years. We would have a huge store almost to ourselves. It became a family outing. One year we went with a friend. It all added to the sleeplessness, and led to the 3am mopping mentioned earlier, but it cut out so much stress. A lot of other people have cottoned on to the idea now, though. It’s still better than during the day, but last year ASDA at 11pm on the 22nd December, was about as busy as it is on a normal Saturday afternoon. But that’s manageable.
Last year we moved to a smaller house in town. Two of our children were living away to study, so we didn’t need as much room, and our previous house had been ridiculously large and a car ride from anywhere. At Christmas, though, our children all came home, which was lovely. We also invited my husband’s parents, my mum, my dad and stepmother and half-brother. There were no beds for them to sleep in at our place but, as we live in town now, there are a lot of hotels on our street. It made a huge difference to have the visitors sleeping somewhere else. Much less work.
We are five minutes’ walk from the train station so I didn’t even have to drive in and collect anyone off a train. Nor was I driving the kids in to town to meet up with their mates and do shopping and go to Christmas events, because they could walk in themselves. And, of course, the children are not little anymore. Most of them are adults who pitch in and help out. None of them need to be looked after. No bottles of formula or nappy changes disrupt the plans, none of the food needs pureeing, nobody needs checking on or carrying around. No nativity plays or playgroup parties. Maybe the most liberating thing of all (though I dare say I’ll get sentimental about this at some point in the years to come) was that with the youngest child too old to believe in Santa, we didn’t have to stay awake until everyone else was asleep to do the stockings. I did still fill their stockings with little bits and pieces, though, because I like doing that.
This year looks like it’ll be even better. Having had all the kids’ grandparents here last year, we get a year without visitors, apart from my November baby (see above) who is now 22 and all grown up and left home. It’ll be lovely to have him here. Next year, we can have another big one, because those are special and worth doing. But this year it will be a small, peaceful, mostly adult affair, with just me, my husband and our five children. I am going to try to actually enjoy it this year.