Ah, Christmas: a time of jollity, feasting and – often, if you’re a woman – a disproportionate amount of domestic grunt work. Want to avoid the drudgery this December? Here’s how.
Sophie Douglas*, a 32-year-old lecturer from the Midlands, loves Christmas. But she also finds it frustrating. “The labour involved in making Christmas happen is never shared in my house,” she says. “It’s done purely by the women, including myself.”
Douglas’s 30-something brother-in-law is the “worst offender for not lifting a finger,” she says. “He’s from a family who stick to gender stereotypes: he ‘downs tools’ when he’s finished eating, leaves his plate on the table, and refuses to change his son’s nappy during meals – my sister has to get up and do it.”
Douglas’s 64-year-old father, meanwhile, has mastered the ability to seem like he’s helping, while actually dodging responsibility for most of the work. “He leaves the Christmas prep and takes all the glory on the actual day. He’ll cook and carve the turkey and is ‘responsible’ for the sprouts. After this feat, he’s exhausted – so the women end up cleaning up after him, too.”
Douglas isn’t alone in feeling that women are expected to shoulder most of the work involved in making Christmas happen. From shopping to cooking and decorating, the majority of festive domestic labour has long fallen to women. In some parts of Ireland, the traditional celebration of Little Christmas (which takes place on 6 January) is still known as Women’s Christmas, in recognition of women’s hard work over the festive season. Historically, men would take on the household duties on Women’s Christmas, allowing their wives, daughters, sisters and mothers to relax for the first time in weeks.
“Since the Victorian age, and its domestic cult, British women have been conceptually positioned as the ‘angels of the house’,” says Sally Howard, author of The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does the Dishes.
“Christmas reanimates this motif: of women’s responsibility for hospitality, and demonstrating familial ‘love’ through provision of plenty and festive aesthetics.”
The task of buying Christmas presents for friends and family is a chore that falls to women particularly often, due in part to the long-time cliché that women love to shop (while men uniformly loathe it… right?). One study published in the Journal Of Consumer Research in 1990 found that Christmas shopping was widely construed as “women’s work”, and that women were much more likely than men to take responsibility for it.
You might hope that Christmas labour had become less gendered since the turn of the 90s, but more than two decades on, it often feels as though frustratingly little has changed. In 2013, a YouGov poll found that almost two-thirds of women who lived with a male partner said they were responsible for buying Christmas presents (just 8% of men said the same). Researchers have also observed that men are more likely to participate in Christmas shopping if they hold egalitarian views about gender roles, supporting the idea latent sexism is often behind these skewed dynamics.
Of course, it’s not just the Christmas shopping. Research has shown that women handle virtually all aspects of festive prep – buying and decorating the tree, sending cards, buying the food, cooking dinner on the 25th – at a significantly higher proportion than men. According to that YouGov survey, men do more washing up than women during the festive season – but that seems like a rather limp consolation prize.
There are always happy exceptions. Naomi Joseph, a 26-year-old writer from London, was raised by her dad after her mother died, and says the men in her family have always taken care of most of the cooking and travel arrangements at Christmas: “The women do the cleaning, but that seems only fair.”
Similarly, Margo Simpson, a graphic designer from Renfrewshire, says her family Christmases are “pretty evenly balanced” in terms of who does what. “We usually host about 15 people for Christmas, and my husband and I share the planning and shopping for food,” says Simpson, 53. “I set the table and get the house ready while he does almost all of the cooking. We share the clearing up afterwards – and expect help from our guests.”
But what if your household is not quite so enlightened, despite your best efforts? What if you routinely find yourself working yourself into the ground over Christmas, while your male partner and/or relatives do very little?
You could say “sod you all”, go on strike, and see what happens. But if you’re not ready to go nuclear just yet, we’ve pulled some suggestions for how to have a more equitable Christmas together below. Good luck.
Discuss what needs to be done in advance
If someone – you, your mum, your sister-in-law, your cousin – has always quietly handled all the Christmas prep, don’t be surprised if others are oblivious to the work that goes into the big day. They might be adults, but that doesn’t mean they don’t secretly believe that all the shopping, cleaning, cooking, decorating and present wrapping just magically gets ‘done’, as if by Santa’s elves.
So it’s worth having a frank conversation ahead of time about what goes into Christmas, with whoever you want to share the load with. (Feel free to loudly emphasise the sexist nature of how things have been done thus far.) For example, if your mum is doing all the cooking on Christmas Day, would she appreciate your brother going round early to help clean the house before most of the guests arrive? If you’ve taken care of all the travel arrangements for visiting your in-laws, can your partner buy the booze for your Christmas Eve drinks?
Some people think Christmas is all “sparkles and wonderful stuff,” says Dee Holmes, a family and couples counsellor at Relate, “but it’s hard work. Try to have adult conversations ahead of time about how tasks are going to be distributed – because it’s too late when you’re running around with a roasted turkey and the fire alarm’s going off and a child’s saying they feel sick.” Establishing what needs to be done, and “how things will be shared out in advance, is really important”.
If you’re hosting Christmas, Howard recommends “talking to other – male – family members about what’s needed and asking what they plan to contribute”, rather than simply delegating (which is a form of work in itself). And emphasise that once they’ve taken on a task, it’s their responsibility to see it through to the end. “Make clear that you won’t be ‘household manager’ on the big day.”
Recognise what you actually enjoy doing
You could insist that all Christmas preparations are split evenly between male and female family members/partners, with everyone taking on exactly the same number of jobs. But this is a near-impossible task, because Christmas chores are hard to quantify (it’s also likely to suck the joy out of the season somewhat). Something one person enjoys – say, entertaining the under-10s between presents and lunch – will feel like a punishment to someone else. Similarly, you might love doing all the cooking, but would rather have no tree at all than be tasked with untangling the decorations.
To preserve your own sanity, identify the tasks that you find pleasurable, and ask your partner/relatives/whoever you’re spending Christmas with to do the same. Chances are, you’ll find that a lot of the big jobs can be shared quite happily – and then the boring, underappreciated tasks can be divvied up.
It’s an approach that will sound familiar to many LGBTQ+ women, whose relationship roles tend to be shaped by their personal preferences and skillsets, rather than gender norms. “My partner does the Christmas shopping because she likes choosing gifts for people, whereas I find it unbelievably stressful,” says Louise Adamson, 34, a teacher from Manchester. “But when we host, I do most of the cooking – and I’m the one who drives us around the country visiting relatives.”
Shrug off the pressure to be perfect
Thanks to decades of reinforcement through films, music, TV shows and advertising campaigns, the pressure to organise the ‘perfect’ Christmas can be overwhelming. But letting go of this expectation can make it easier to resist taking on the lion’s share of domestic labour.
“Many feminist theorists prescribe ‘cutting back’ as a feminist act when it comes to the domestic labour that disproportionately falls to women,” says Howard. “Often this doesn’t work if, for example, it undermines necessary care for a child. When it comes to Christmas, however, radical sluttishness can be a good strategy.
“Buy as much as you can ready-made, and give up on the socialised requirement to keep everyone happy. Your mother-in-law is perfectly capable of refilling her own glass.”
Remember: you are not a human calendar alert
It might be tempting to keep reminding your boyfriend to buy a present for his nan, or badgering your brother to book the food delivery to your parents’ house. But despite what we’ve been led to believe, women aren’t responsible for project-managing men’s lives – and if your partner/sibling/dad drops the ball, that’s ultimately on him.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cut him some slack if there’s a legitimate reason why he can’t deal with festive organisation this year. If he’s been ill, has a newborn baby or is under huge amounts of pressure at work, offering to help with some of his Christmas admin may be the most generous gift you could offer.
But if he just can’t be bothered to get his act together, go ahead and absolve yourself of all responsibility. “Having to remind your partner to do something doesn’t take that something off your list. It adds to it,” writes lawyer and organisational management specialist Eve Rodsky in her book Fair Play. “And what’s more, reminding is often unfairly characterized as nagging.”
Feel free to stop reminding him of what needs to be done – and let him handle the fallout.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Ideally, everyone would happily and proactively share the load at Christmas. But if you observe the men in your family lounging around as the women become increasingly frazzled, don’t feel awkward about demanding that they step up. (Of course, in a perfect world, you wouldn’t have to make any such demands – but here on Planet Earth, it might be necessary.) “Are you a guest at your mother’s Christmas? Ask what she needs you to make or bring and rally the male troops to get off their asses and help out as a feminist act, even if she’s resistant,” says Howard.
It’s also worth remembering that different families have different relationships with helping. While some hosts might expect everyone to muck in, others wouldn’t dream of asking guests to peel veg or unstack the dishwasher. As a result, says Holmes, “couples and families getting together have to be quite honest about their traditions and their expectations of each other when it comes to Christmas”.
“It’s easy to assume someone who’s just sitting there is thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered,” Holmes explains. “But actually, they might be thinking: ‘They’ll ask me if they want help’, or ‘they’ll think I’m interfering’, or ‘they’ll think I’m implying they’re not hosting me well enough’.”
So as tempting as it is to conclude that someone who doesn’t offer to help is a bit of a dick, there may be other factors at play. Give them the benefit of the doubt and cheerily ask them to give you a hand. And if they refuse? Then you know they’re a dick – and can treat them accordingly.
* Names have been changed. The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does The Dishes by Sally Howard (£14.99, Atlantic Books) is out 5 March 2020
Images: Getty Images; Caroline Hernandez/Unsplash; Michael Voroshnin/Unsplash