We get out of bed and put our feet on the carpet, pulling on cardigans, slippers, dressing gowns. We tear through the cold morning air until we are down in the kitchen, heating on, kettle on, porridge on. The cold blue light of winter mornings spills across our living room floor and we huddle up to keep warm.
My mind runs across the usual thoughts. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. What we have on that day. And then, because it is December, and the countdown to Christmas has begun, it also flits through all the many, many things we have to do still. My elving list is long, and for everything I tick off, another thing or two is added.
Such is the way at this time of year, with all the pressure of Christmas and with the added pressure of hoping to make this another homemade one. It is easy to get carried away, and I say this as a person who quite gladly lets herself get carried away when excited. Because although I find it relatively easy to buy less than I was bought, and, to concentrate on fewer, good quality, open-ended toys, as opposed to a multitude of fillers, I don’t find it easy to remain calm and centred at this manic time of year. It just doesn’t happen without effort when you have children, especially when you do your best to make as much of the presents, decorations and general festive warmth that fills your home.
We start our days with the best of intentions. We go to town, and we get hot chocolates. I try not to think of all the things waiting to be done, the lists I write over and over (as if list writing itself will somehow reduce all the making that waits for me). We go to the library and I do my best to just focus on Ava, running around organising books into piles only she can figure out. I try to relax.
But there, in the back of mind, I have what appears to be a rather incessant inner voice that keeps repeating things like… felt, lace trimming, lilac yarn, what size needles?, sweet potato dhal for dinner, maybe I could finish X’s Yule present tonight, I have to send off those orders tomorrow, more brown paper, oh-crap-when-are-we-going-to-the-farmer’s-cart-again?, I need to print out photos for X’s album…and so on and so on.
It is always a challenge to stop this barrage of thoughts and focus on what is actually going on in front of me. It is the most challenging thing in the world to be present and mindful at the best of times, but in December, with all the pressures of Christmas and present giving, it can be downright impossible. Howard says I don’t know how to relax. I tell him that sitting on the couch and embroidering a Yule gift is relaxing. After all, I could be sewing, or painting, or cooking, or making salt dough ornaments, or….and there my mind goes again, spiralling in on itself and drowning under a weight of ‘must-dos’ and ‘have tos’.
Yet, here’s the alarming thing. I know that what Ava will remember most about this time of year, if I get it right, is the true magic of winter – the cold frost that blankets the ground as we walk into town, the warmth of a hot chocolate sipped inside a coffee shop covered in Christmas lights and playing yet another Dean Martin Christmas track. It might also be the stockings hanging on the fireplace, or the Winter Tomten that graces our Seasons Table and will every year from now on, but these things will be incidentals.
I know this, because what I remember about Christmas is not the sacks of gifts I was given with the best of intention (honesty, I can barely remember a single one now aside from the ‘big’ gift I actually asked for and wanted each year). What I remember is Christmas at my grandparents, the smell of honey-roast hams and roast beefs resting in the pantry. The special chocolate truffles made every year upon my request (Okay, a lot of these memories are food related – what can I say? I love food). I remember the conversations around the dining room table late into the night, and the card games we played – my grandpa through in the living room watching TV.
I remember all the making that happened, the busy fingers that sewed and knitted and were constantly moving alongside the chatting. The warmth of fleecy pyjamas and books in bed. The Christmas films I’d always watch and the feeling of being completely wrapped up, completely warm, safe and cherished. And that is really what I want for Ava, for all my children. I want her to know the deep magic of being part of something that is all about family and togetherness.
I know that all of the things I need, or want, to get done, are not really for her at all – they’re for my idea of what Christmas should be like – a kind of picture perfect, Martha Stewart ideal that looks glossy and always smells of cinnamon and spices, with a freshly baked tray of something always ready to come out of the oven.
So I remind myself, gently yet forcefully, that what is more important, is the time Ava needs to me to snuggle her under a duvet on the couch watching Lost and Found. I remind myself that if I don’t manage to knit everyone I know an elf hat for Christmas, it’s okay. People like gifts in January too. And if I don’t manage to make Ava the three pairs of fleecy trousers I have cut out, all in time for Christmas day, she won’t care at all. She won’t even know.
I try to prioritise. I try to take a breath. If I can (and I should, always) I do a mindfulness meditation, reminding myself how much easier everything as a parent is having had that small amount of time to meditate on what being mindful is all about. I bring myself back to the present. I study Ava’s face. What is she thinking? What would she like just now, what does she need?
I make her a cup of tea and bring her through some grapes and oatcakes, without being asked. (I remember how lovely it was as a child to be looked after without having to ask for it) I let that voice with its ongoing list occupy my mind for a second, long enough to acknowledge it there, to pay it heed, then I let it go. I breathe it out. I tell myself the list will be there later, when I need it. Or, if I’m finding it hard to let it go, I write it all out again for the millionth time. It’s there. I’m here. I can just be, for a moment or two.
And once I start this, it becomes easier to see the bigger picture. All the things that need doing are mostly just things that I’ve invented. There’s something else more magical, more quietly spectacular to do – and that is just to be with Ava. To relish these passing moments we have together.
Sometimes, the best thing to do is to ditch the list. To remember that perfect isn’t the goal, and nor is it even attainable. What Christmas and Yule should be about is all of us, who we really are, coming together and celebrating each other. And in those moments of being together, of being present with one another – I know that it will be as perfect a Christmas as it can be.
Because there is time, yet, to think about the fullness of this year, so nearly behind us, and to contemplate what it is we want from next year, within the long slow days of January and February. There is time to do more making, in a moment. Time to figure out the meals, the parties, the festivities ahead of us now. But there is only this moment, this very moment – ‘the still point of the turning world’ - to give to the ones who matter most.