Opinion: Prioritising connection over commercialisation this Christmas

Monday 18 December 2023

By Associate Professor Kirsty Ross.

It's presence, rather than presents, that's important, Dr Ross writes.

As the year draws to a close and schools finish, many families are looking towards Christmas – some with excitement and anticipation of an enjoyable time with loved ones. However, others may be feeling some degree of anxiety and worry about how to manage the holiday season financially and/or emotionally.

Christmas is a time when parents have many demands to juggle, including the expectations and hopes of their children. For many adults, Christmas brings memories of their own childhood, and this can affect how they feel about the holiday season. Many parents will have lovely memories of their own childhood around Christmas and will work hard to re-create these memories for their children. However, for parents who had challenging or painful Christmases as children, there can be a mixture of emotions that they try to manage, often at a time when they are needing to spend time with people from their family of origin that were part of their Christmases past.

Significant holiday seasons are also a time when couples have to negotiate and navigate any differences they might have in how they feel the holiday should be spent with their family, especially for their children.

So, a lot to consider at this time of the year emotionally, and also during a time when many families are dealing with significant financial strains and restrictions with the current cost of living crisis. It is important that people remember that you can enact values and create special memories without spending a significant amount of money. I have seen so many parents put pressure on themselves to spend a lot of money at Christmas and have things ‘perfect’ that they end up so stressed and tired that the day is not enjoyable and they then feel guilty about not having the day they had wanted.

Profile photo of Associate Professor Kirsty Ross

Dr Kirsty Ross.

Whether you are trying to create a special holiday for your children or other people in your life that you love, what is important to consider is that often what we remember is how we felt on a particular day, not the gifts we got. We remember the board games played, backyard cricket matches, the time spent together and the feeling of being relaxed and enjoying each other’s company.

Presence, rather than presents, is what is important. Young children will remember very little about a particular day but will have emotions they associate with times of the year, depending on the sense of connection and fun they have with loved ones on those days. For older children and teens, being honest if money is limited and ensuring expectations are managed ahead of time can mean there are no disappointed faces on Christmas morning.

Young people are very understanding and accepting when they are given time to adjust their thoughts about how things might be during the holidays. Adults don’t even need gifts and an agreement not to exchange gifts can bring a sense of relief for many. Sharing time, food and laughter together can then take priority.

Shared hosting (the good old Kiwi ‘bring a plate’) takes the pressure off one part of the family to provide and host and then everyone can contribute - and also share in the preparation of food. This also means that there won’t be someone in the kitchen all day feeling left out while others are spending time together.

If gifts are exchanged, homemade gifts (such as art, baking, crafts) plant cuttings and flowers from your garden, or gifts with a set budget (and only purchasing for one person each) can make this more manageable. Having conversations with your family ahead of time and planning how food and gifts will be managed will take the stress out of the day itself.

If your family relationships are challenging to manage, planning how to take breaks during the day to gather yourself and de-stress will help. Asking your partner to support you in this means you won’t have to find these spaces and times by yourself.

Try to avoid drinking too much alcohol, as this can escalate tricky family dynamics and lead to conversations about old wounds that may not be helpful to revisit when emotions are running high and people are under stress.

What becomes important is to really consider what is important for you and your family this holiday season. The spiritual meaning of Christmas is the priority for many. For those who don’t have strong spiritual beliefs, time with loved ones is usually what people tell me they are looking forward to – and this does not need to cost a lot of money.

A focus on being present and relaxed, and connection with your loved ones – not the commercial aspect of Christmas – will mean that when you look back on the holiday season, you and your family will have positive emotions and memories to cherish.

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