Crises at Christmas

Celebrating Christmas can be a mixed blessing for many people. Lisa Phillips talks to three women about the challenges they face at this time of year

‘I’m single and needed to find my own way of celebrating’

Mention Christmas to 38-year-old Jo Rees, and she visibly winces. Her grounding in a church which condemned Christmas for its pagan roots, combined with family pressures, have made Christmas something of an ordeal.

“I think the biggest thing is other people’s expectations,” says Jo. “It’s trying to work out what you really want to do, as opposed to what the expectations are. And especially being single, it’s almost like you don’t have a choice. Because my brother is married and has children, he’s never been to my parents for Christmas. He has a family so it’s accepted that he can do whatever he likes, but because I’m single, I have to do the family thing.”

Jo is quick to point out that she loves her parents, and enjoys seeing them, but doing the ‘Christmas thing’ has a tendency to make the visits more intense.

Many of her feelings about Christmas spring from the church she attended for the first ten years of her Christian life. This church did not celebrate Christmas or Easter because of the pagan roots associated with the dates and festivities, and the whole season was a taboo subject.

“You had to be anti-Christmas to be a true Christian,” she says. “It was almost as though you had to be ‘bah-humbug’ about Christmas and you had to miserable. You weren’t allowed to enjoy it.”

When Jo moved on to new churches, she discovered a world where Christians did celebrate Christmas, and found herself wondering at the teaching she had received during her formative Christian years. But she still experienced the pressures of the season, and did not feel free to enjoy it.

“I would either run away to Israel for the holiday because there’s no Christmas there, or begrudgingly go to my parents and spend the minimum amount of time there before running home again.”

But last year, things started to change for Jo. A close friend asked her what she wanted to do for the season and, for the first time, Jo started to explore other possibilities.

“I actually bought a Christmas tree for the first time ever. I felt really naughty. I began to realise that God would have me enjoy my time – both at Christmas and at other points in the year.”

Her church was organising an Open Christmas on Christmas day – an opportunity for people who would otherwise spend the day alone to come together on the day and celebrate with Christmas dinner. Because Jo knows first-hand the angst and loneliness that often go hand in hand with the day, she was keen to help.

“I wanted to give Christmas to other people because I know what a lonely time it can be,” she says. “If you have no immediate family, Christmas can be the loneliest day on the planet. So let’s get these people together and give them a family. Give them that joy, and show them they’re special.”

Instead of going to see her parents, Jo invited them to spend Christmas with her, and they got stuck in and helped with the Christmas day meal. “Christmas has become commercial, and all about spending money and people getting themselves into debt, and that side of things is just wrong,” says Jo. “But you can redeem it and use it in a godly way.”

When I asked Jo about her plans for this year, she still wasn’t sure, though the prospect of another Open Christmas is appealing to her once again. “Last year, God prepared the way for me . . . I had to find out about all my influences, and understand why I think the things I think about Christmas, then distil it down to what I want to do and what God wants me to do. It’s important not to focus on your head, which is full of all the oughts and shoulds, but to focus on your heart, because God is in those things.”

‘My husband’s work takes him away’

For Caroline Ross, husband Malcolm, and 19-year old son Callum, a family Christmas is something of a pipe dream. Caroline is a proposals engineer and Malcolm a project manager in the oil and gas industry. For the last six years of their 22-year marriage, Malcolm’s work has taken him away from his family for long periods at a time. Currently, Malcolm works a month on, month off schedule in Kazakhstan, though in reality he rarely gets his full month at home. In the last five years, Malcolm has spent three Christmases away from his family.

“Because I’m in the same industry, it helps me to understand,” says Caroline. “I accept it and I understand the pressures he’s under. It’s normal in our industry. I just stay organised and make life as normal as possible for Callum.”

But Christmas has a way of highlighting his absence. “The first time was really hard. Malcolm always said we would never do it, but life changes and work patterns change, and you have to accept it.” Caroline and Callum spent the day with extended family, but despite the presents and surprises organised by Malcolm before he went away, he was missed in all sorts of other ways.

“Carving the turkey is always Malcolm’s job, and it was really strange that he wasn’t there, so I bought a turkey crown, which Callum really hated,” says Caroline. “He called it a turkey without legs, and said it didn’t feel like Christmas!

“I tend to think I’m the lucky one. I’m at home, I have everyone around me and I have the tree and the decorations. And Malcolm’s such a Christmas person. He’s the one who misses out. The decorations are gone by the time he comes home, and it’s not as if you can repeat that.”

Last year, the family had a small Christmas celebration in November before Malcolm left for two months (“It was a bit sad, because it wasn’t really Christmas, and it was too early to enjoy it like that”), and another when he returned at the end of January.

“We went to CentreParcs for the weekend, and I took a whole bag of Christmas presents,” she says. “When we arrived, we opened a bottle of wine and he unwrapped all the presents. One of them was a Christmas pud, which Malcolm really, really loves. I have to remember to buy one before the shelves empty.”

Being apart from Malcolm has helped Caroline to lean on God in a new way, and to look beyond the fun and festivity of the season. “I focus on others in far worse situations than me, thank God for his provision, and accept what I cannot change.

“I’m trying to be faithful. It’s important to look at the positives. Yes it’s happening, but you can put on a smiley face for everyone else. As a Christian, it helps to focus on what the Christmas message is really about, and not the festivities that we tend to think it’s about. I have found that when Malcolm is away, I have been much more focused on these things.”

‘We have a tight schedule to work through’

For Claire Labrie, Christmas can be a time when there are simply too many balls in the air. Her job as an obstetric nurse on a labour and delivery ward combined with the demands of raising a young family leave little time for rest and reflection during the holiday period. She and husband Josh have three children, ten-year-old Tyler, who is step-son to Josh, three-year-old Anna, and Emily, who is just one. Claire works three 12-hour night shifts a week, and Christmas is no exception.

“I personally find Christmas very stressful because you’re trying to plan all this ‘quality’ time around a difficult schedule and all the other families are also wanting time,” says Claire. “It just wears you so thin. I realise that’s a bit of a depressing standpoint, but often, I’m just relieved when Christmas is over and the kids have had fun.”

Claire’s work schedule always includes a shift on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and she often ends up sleep-deprived in order to stay awake and make the day special for her husband and children. Their own plans must also be juggled with the need for Tyler to see his natural father, WJ, over the holiday season.

“Since I’m usually working when Tyler is gone, it’s not the actual time away that I find the hardest. It’s hard to be face to face with the fact that my son has another life and another family that we are not part of. I’m so completely cut off from the relationship with WJ and his family that they almost seem like strangers to me. It’s hard that Tyler loves them and wants to be with them as well. Sometimes I wish that we could just cut any ties, but that is selfish and not fair to Tyler, who deserves a relationship with his Father.”

In fact, Tyler enjoys some of the benefits of two families . . . “The double presents help, and they usually out-present us!” says Claire. “I don’t think he senses the stress that we have dealing with sharing him over the holidays. To him, I think it’s more of a fancy play-date that he simply enjoys. We’re not usually doing anything fun without him, so he’s not missing out on too much on our side.”

Claire believes that being flexible, not sweating the small stuff and enjoying the people around her is the key to balancing the demands of Christmas. The actual time and day of the celebrations don’t matter so much.

“Whatever we do, we will plan Christmas morning whenever Tyler and I are both there,” she says. “We just move the holidays to our convenience, and we’ll plug family in around that.

When Tyler is away, I put his safety into God’s hands. I tend to freak out a little . . .  what if his cough starts up? What if he needs his medicine? What if we are gone and they need to reach us? Obviously it’s a huge relief to give that to God. Over the holidays, I just ask that God helps me to think of all the things I have to be thankful for, and to focus on that. It may be simple, but it makes a big difference.”