Lights twinkle. A fire blazes in the grate, sending lively little sparks fluttering upward. A damp log crackles, pops and then settles. The air is heavy with the scents of cinnamon and pine.
The air has turned cold outside, the nights have drawn in and through the fog, the trees look hostile and brooding in their nakedness. The countdown is on for a great banquet.
As we approach the end of another year, the great feast of Christmas approaches. It is arguably the most commercialised date in our calendar. We strive for perfection: seeking to impress with a picture-perfect home and an elaborate menu showcasing our culinary prowess. We completely exhaust ourselves, and resolve that next year, we won’t fall prey to the many external pressures that have so influenced us. How foolish, to be so caught up in what other people think!
But by the time December rolls around again twelve months later, we have forgotten our pledges and steely resolutions and we do it all again.
When I was younger, Christmas meant a number of things to me: family, giving gifts, carol services. Adorning the beautiful century-old house where we lived with lights and decorations. Blaring Christmas music: classical, traditional and modern, we played it all. And then, there were gatherings with extended family, gifts received, nights out with friends and the paltry concerns of wardrobe, hair and make-up: such wonderful times and so few worries!
With the accumulation of years, I have found that December in particular can by trying and it seems to weigh on me a little more each year. I feel tired, both physically and emotionally. I am unable to concentrate. I feel like I am juggling so many balls and I have so many spinning plates, that I cannot even count them. All the items I am trying to store in my brain seem to be brimming over. I feel anxiety over having all of the right gifts for everyone.
Of course add to all this that this year, I have it in my head that gifts must be purchased locally, they must be sustainable, packaging must be recyclable. I have ordered lots of items online: will they be delivered on time? I don’t know if my mother and brother will actually be able to travel to spend Christmas with us. Will they be getting Covid tests? Should they quarantine here. If they do join us for the break, I am bringing them into our ‘bubble’ and potentially putting my husband’s family at risk.
The past number of weeks have been busy. Luke is still in school and some extracurricular activities have resumed, but no nativity events will take place and there certainly will not be any playdates over the holiday break. Stephen (my husband) is working long hours – his work week as an electrician is on average about sixty hours – and then he is doing chores around the farm at the weekend. We have over three hundred sheep among other smaller animals, so the regular schedule of care for them is done at the weekend when we can all work together to get the job done.
During the week, I am the sole farmer, cook, housekeeper, bookkeeper and chauffeur. Whatever tasks come up, I have to find a way of getting them done. Maybe it is electric fencing for the sheep, or bringing animals to sell at the livestock mart, but it is also doing homework, keeping the house, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning out the poultry coop, trying to keep on top of the gardening… the list goes on. Jack of all trades, master of none, flitting between jobs and triaging as I go!
I think a part of the problem with this time of year, is that the days are so short, you have a much more limited window of time to do ‘all the things’. On a really miserable day, it might not be bright until after eight in the morning and the sky has returned to darkness by five in the evening… such a difference to the height of summer where it seems like the light never fully leaves the sky!
But, all this said, I have developed a secret weapon. Painfully simple but wholly invaluable. Lean closer, let me whisper in your ear. It goes like this. Awareness.
Year after year, I find myself with this awful feeling of being backed into a corner and not quite knowing what to do next. Having too long a to-do list, bouncing between too many tasks and trying to be the perfect hostess are usually my triggers – I’m thankful that I have learned to recognise them. For me, that choking, head-spinning feeling of being utterly overwhelmed by all that is going on around me causes my productivity level to plummet, which obviously further impacts the problem. So I have taught myself to recognise this feeling and to name it out loud to myself.
How I Deal with Feeling Overwhelmed
Just a few days ago, I could feel it starting to lurk in the background: I was looking at my house, which was badly in need of a good tidy and hoover. I had to run errands for the farm. I had to get files to the accountant. Luke needed a haircut. I had to tidy out the guest bedroom so that my brother could sleep there. The chicken cooped needed cleaning out. I had to foot bath sheep. I had to go and buy a stock of dog food. Some gifts needed to be purchased still.
Dinner preparations to do for the big day (like curing the spiced beef). My list just seemed to keep growing exponentially and in my head, was grappling for control of the situation. So close to guests arriving (ten days is pretty close!) I knew I had to take action fast to make sure that I didn’t end up derailing any of my progress in the run up to Christmas.
Stop, Sit, Sip
My first step is always to stop what I’m doing, make a hot cup of tea or coffee, grab a notebook and pen, and then sit down at a table somewhere quiet. Just sitting for a couple of minutes, very deliberately doing nothing but enjoying my drink, helps me to ground myself. It brings a feeling of calm and I can clear my head of all the busy thoughts that are vying for my attention.
When I am feeling a little more measured, I open up the notebook and brainstorm. If I have groceries to get, places to be, errands to run, jobs to do – they all get written down in a bit of a ‘brain dump’, and then I divide up the list so that I can make a plan.
I try to assess all that is going on: appointments, after school activities and the like can easily be forgotten when there is a lot going on, so I print off a calendar for the week so that I can see what is happening day by day and don’t forget anything. This also helps because it helps me to ‘stack’ my errands: If I am bringing Luke to Gorey for a lesson, I might be able to make a stop at the pet shop on the way home for dog food for example.
Make a 'To Do' List
It seems obvious, but all the errands get put into a to-do list, making it easier to tick them off one by one as I go along. If I am feeling particularly organised, this list may be arranged by day or priority! Items on the ‘To-Do’ list can even be broken down into further bullet points if it makes it easier. The aim here is to not forget some item on your list so that you have to return to the item again.
Make an Action Plan for Right Now
I will also prioritise what I need to do right now: so many things to do, but I need to brine my spiced beef as the process takes two weeks, and I have just half a bag of dog food left, so they are my emergency action items and need to be done first.
You don’t have to do everything yourself. Team work makes the dream work. Cliché indeed but it is true. Ask for help if you need it and let your family know if you are struggling. Having someone do even the most simple of chores, like bringing in firewood or feeding pets can free up vital time for you. Sharing the chores among family members will give them pride in a job well done and encourage them to contribute to the running of the household.
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It is always easy to wonder why we feel so much anxiety about an event or situation after the fact. Head-spinning stress factors just seem smaller and so much more manageable. That should not take away from or belittle our feelings while we are ‘in the thick of it’ though. The best thing we can do is to try and understand our triggers and be prepared for next time. If you are an avid diary keeper, these are great notes to find when preparing the next season. You may have found shortcuts that speed up a process, resources that were useful or even pitfalls that you want to avoid. Write it all down and that will become part of your arsenal for future seasons.
I am by no means an expert. I do however find myself extremely susceptible to tension and stress, most of which I put on myself. I require an organised space to work, and this includes in my head, so when I am a bit bewildered and scattered, these tips help me to get my thoughts in order so that I can move forward. They don’t remove or cure all stress, but they sure do help.