Christmas 2019 is less than a month away, and it’s easy to get swept up in the pressure to have the perfect Christmas tree, the perfect Christmas presents and ultimately, the perfect Christmas day. But it’s time we remember that Christmas is far more memorable and magical when it doesn’t go to plan.
“I just don’t understand,” said my husband, squinting and swaying as he placed his weight on his right foot, attempting a 180 degree pivot, “Why our trees always look a bit…”
I smiled. “Crap?”
Having my own tree to decorate is one of my very favourite aspects of adult life. After years of fighting with my little sisters over how it’s done (there is a particularly heavy, home-made Santa shaped ornament that is definitely a paperweight, and someone always tries to sneak it onto a branch, immediately toppling the tree and causing the fairy lights to short circuit), and buying six sad inches of unfestive, squashed green plastic for various grotty house shares, I now have joint jurisdiction over a proper tree that is almost as tall as I am.
Every year, our tree and its decorations improve in quality. Every year, I take a special trip to Liberty’s Christmas shop and choose a brand new bird, a hand-painted bell or, erm, a cactus. One branch bears a forty dollar pink ceramic pineapple, bought on honeymoon at the Royal Hawaiian hotel – a destination so fabulous that Don Draper took Megan in series four of Mad Men. Every year, I dig out the box of precious decorations and proclaim “It’s going to be perfect!”
Yet, I am scrutinising the tree as I write. It does look a bit crap. Why is the bottom right hand side completely bare? Why is it lurching like Del Boy on the brink of crashing through a bar? Is one of those candy canes… rotting? The tree looks like me at the end of a Christmas party. Gaudy, scruffy, covered in glitter and approaching total collapse.
I grew up in a loud, loving, massive, messy family. I’m the eldest of six girls, and our Christmases were always extravagant and boisterous. We’re Catholics, natch – that’s why there are so many of us – so we were never allowed to forget the True Meaning of the season, with church on Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass and a bonus trip before breakfast on the morning of the 25th.
My father adores the secular side of the season as much as the spiritual part, and has been creating extra traditions since I was born. Ghost stories are told around the tree, quizzes with elaborate scoring systems are hosted, and enough gifts are given to embarrass the Ecclestones. I’m incredibly lucky. My Christmases have been happy ones.
However my family have set the bar high. I love Christmas in a way so intense I suspect it’s coded into my genes. But December can start to feel as consuming as planning a wedding. It’s a month long performance of sparkly, extravagant joy. Every Christmas is somehow supposed to “beat” the one that preceded it, as though we’re all multinational companies obliged to become incrementally happier in order to satisfy some demanding, emotional shareholders.
Daisy Buchanan is, I’m discovering, a limited company. As in, there’s a limit to what I am capable of. I can’t go to the most parties and find the presents that speak to the souls of the recipients and make paper chains while cooking every single recipe from Nigella’s Christmas book while remaining able to zip myself into the sparkliest of dresses. For every hour in which I spend pursuing festive perfection, I must spend 10 on my sofa, under a blanket, watching repeats of Eight Out Of Ten Cats Does Countdown, doing nothing more taxing than pulling pine needles out of my slippers.
It is tedious and tiring to blame social media. Still, we’re all under some pressure to live Instagrammable lives, whether or not we choose to resist it. At Christmas that pressure is ratcheted up high as a ceiling grazing tree angel. If you’re a parent, it’s not enough to make a costume for a nativity play, and then rearrange your work schedule in order to catch your darlings singing Little Donkey – you must document the event too. If you’re taking part in a Secret Santa, you can’t get away with a selection box and the memoir by the insurance meerkat – the gift must be sufficiently lovely to look at.
Why do we all keep taking part in this ludicrous competition? Why are we behaving as though Kirstie Allsop will be walking through our front doors to judge our lives at a moment’s notice?
The pressure to make things perfect often falls to women. We grow up absorbing messages that tell us to be hostesses, caretakers, the bearers of emotional load. We anticipate the wants and needs of others without honouring our own. The adverts are a problem – we’re constantly bombarded with brief but potent images of women wrapping, icing, boiling and wiping. It is difficult to escape the idea that not only must Christmas be perfect, but that we are responsible for attaining perfection.
We forget that Christmas is far more memorable and magical when it doesn’t go to plan. When I think of the season at its most textbook shiny, joyful and triumphant, I amalgamate 10 years of Christmases into one memory, which might actually be a picture I saw on the John Lewis website. My special, stand-out Christmases are beloved disasters.
There was the memorably awful one in 2006, when I had been brutally dumped, and my sisters brought me back to life with unlimited quantities of Baileys, and almost unlimited qualities of sympathy. There was Christmas 2013, when the man I would marry made me laugh uncontrollably with his text account of a horrendous, storm-strewn 13 hour train journey back home to his family in Wolverhampton. Christmas 1996 was special, because I was miserable and immobile, with a broken leg, and my Dad cheered me up by making a special magazine – a timetable of festive events, with a personalised quiz and word search.
We forget why Americans describe this time of year as the holiday season. It is supposed to be a break from the pressures that pursue us all year round. It is a time for hangovers, sofas, seriously unstylish knitwear and love that does not demand declaration. Let us be mad, messy and exhausted together, in the flickering, fusing light of the wobbly Christmas tree.
This piece was originally published in December 2018
Images: Unsplash and Getty