Day 7: Gather together
"When I give lectures about happiness research, I ask the audience to close their eyes and tell them to think of the last time they felt really happy... You can almost pinpoint the moment when people have their happy memory in their mind, as peaceful smiles light up the room. When I ask the audience to raise their hand if they were with other people in their memories, usually nine out of ten do so." Meik Wiking, 'The Little Book of Hygge'
Dear Naomi, a core tenet of hygge is community - time spent with loved-ones - and that's what I want to talk about today. As Wiking puts it, "While you can hygge by yourself, hygge mostly happens in small groups of close friends or family." Food is also very hyggelig (hygge-like), so the combination of delicious Christmas food and the company of our nearest and dearest should be one of the most comforting, pleasurable times to be had.
But I'm struggling just how to articulate my thoughts on "Christmas community" in this email. I feel like there is often a disconnect between the community and convivial atmosphere that we imagine and long for at Christmas... and the reality, which all-too-often falls short of our expectations.
There are two unhealthy traps we are in danger of falling into when this happens, and I confess I have fallen into both traps at different times throughout the years. Maybe you have, too, and probably you'll recognise other family members down in those traps while you read.
Trap 1: We try to change our family and loved ones, to make them more like the tribe we long to belong to. This is particularly evident on holiday celebrations like Christmas, when we might insist that everyone gathers at this place, or sings these carols, or eats this food. "I have made this food for you and you will sit at the table I have decorated and you will eat it and you will like it and you will stop arguing and WE WILL HAVE A MERRY CHRISTMAS, dammit."
Trap 2: We recognise that we can't change other people, so we give up. We resign ourselves to the fact that gatherings like Christmas are something to be endured, not enjoyed. We brace ourselves for the criticism, or the arguments, or the control-freak hosts, or the inappropriate touching from drunken neighbours. The idea of a convivial Christmas is a fantasy, something for books and movies and maybe other people, but not for your family. Not for you.
I don't want either of those Christmases for you! We can do better!
What to do if Christmas gatherings aren't fun
If the company you keep at Christmas time doesn't bring you joy, but you feel there's no way you can get out of these events, here are some options:
SET TIME LIMITS
If you're hosting a family meal and your family gatherings are prone to... let's just call it "unpleasantness," whatever your family's unique brand of unpleasantness might be... set a time limit. That's not as offensive as it sounds - I do it for my kids' birthday parties all the time! Just say "Come to lunch from 12pm to 2.30pm" (or whatever time suits you and yours). If anyone questions this, simply tell them you have another Christmas event to attend in the afternoon. A time limit contains matters for you: stops people from lingering and building up resentments (old and new), limits how much alcohol everyone can consume, and gives other family members a chance to escape before things get stressful for them, too.
If the meal is not at your place, you can still do the same. Let your family know that you're looking forward to celebrating with them, and then you'll be heading to another Christmas event at such-and-such a time.
MAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF
Try to book in some "my time" somewhere in the day. Make it your own little Christmas gift to yourself. Whether that means having a joyful breakfast with your immediate family before rushing off to all those engagements; or getting up half an hour early and having a quiet cup of tea with a magazine before the chaos ensues; or sneaking out after lunch for a solitary half-hour walk; or meeting dear friends for drinks in the evening after all the "family duties" have been fulfilled... whatever it is, use this little something to salvage the day for yourself.
PICK YOUR BATTLES
If your family is the kind that winds up in conflict every time they get together, first of all I feel so bad for you. That's not fun. Without knowing your situation or circumstances, I encourage you if possible to try to avoid being drawn in on this day. By "pick your battles," I mean, wade in only if you think there is something to be gained by wading in. Otherwise, try not to take the bait, even if the criticisms start, or the tantrums ensue. Remind yourself, "It's just one day," or even, "It's just one meal."
LIMIT THE ALCOHOL
I know - it's Christmas and surely you can enjoy festive cheer at Christmas. Not to mention, maybe with your family, you feel you need an extra glass or two just to survive the meal! I know that feeling, I truly do. But alcohol will only make things harder on you if things do turn ugly at your family Christmas. Slow down, and treat yourself once you're back home, or once your troublesome guests have left.
LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS (FOR NOW)
Give yourself a little pep-talk before you start. The day doesn't have to be perfect. It's only one day, just a number on the calendar. Just enjoy it as best you can, and take deep breaths and try not to be drawn in if arguments and tantrums start. Later you can create that Christmas community you so desire, in your own way (see below).
WHAT ABOUT CHRISTMAS EVE AND BOXING DAY?
Can you arrange with your family to do your celebrating on either of these days? For some reason, there's just less pressure on everyone when it's not actual Christmas Day, and people often behave better. Even if they don't, well, they haven't ruined your Christmas, have they! Then you can be free to spend Christmas Day with "your tribe."
Alternatively, if you can't get out of tense Christmas Day celebrations, use Christmas Eve and Boxing Day to create your own magic with people that feel like your people.
My enduring best Christmas memory ever is from when I was only 16 or 17, and it was actually on Christmas Eve. I was part of a group of eight friends, and we were very close to one another. We met at one of our houses, sat around the Christmas tree, and just enjoyed one another's company. We gave out presents and because we were all students, nobody had much money. One friend gave me a hand dyed scarf, another gave me a trinket box made from a plaster cast, another gave me a four-leaf-clover she had found. I can't remember much of what we did or said, but I can still remember the feeling of that Christmas Eve. The completely relaxed feeling that I was with "my people," I was entirely me, and entirely loved, and I didn't have to try or fear anything.
Tips to host a calm Christmas gathering
As I type this, I am somewhat bleary-eyed, so there may be more typos than usual as you read. It has become a bit of a tradition at our place that we invite our friends over for a seafood dinner on the Monday before Christmas. It is always a wonderful time, the room filled with genuine friends and lots of laughter, and none of the tension that I've talked about that sometimes seeps into family gatherings.
(Of course the down-side of hosting an event on a Monday is that you still have to get up for work on a Tuesday. After cleaning up, we got into bed at 12.30am, and then my husband's alarm went off at 5am. He turned it off, rolled over, and went back to sleep. But once I'm awake, that's it for me. So I'm typing on only four and a half hours' sleep, and when my husband does finally wake up and come downstairs, we may or may not be having words.)
Sleep deprivation aside, we love to host these parties, and host a number of other dinner parties and events throughout the year. There's nothing ground-breaking in here, but if you're hosting a Christmas event and you're not used to cooking and planning for this many people, hopefully the tips below will help reduce some of the rush and stress, making things a little easier on you, the host, so you can welcome your loved-ones into your home and still enjoy the day (just turn off your husband's alarm before going to bed).
1. PLAN THE MENU
Know ahead of time everything that you're going to serve - don't leave anything to the last minute! (= stress). When you are planning your menu, here are some factors to consider:
- Double check dietary limitations for all of your guests, even if you think you already know (last year we hosted a dinner party and I hadn't known that one guest had recently stopped eating dairy. I served up a duck ravioli that had cheese in it, there was parmesan on the salad, and dessert was panna cotta)
- Think about the time of your event, versus how long it will take the food to cook. How long will it take that turkey to cook? Will you have to get up at 3am just to get it into the oven on time? (If the answer is yes and you still want to go ahead and do this, prepare everything for the turkey ahead of time, so that you can just pop it into the oven and hopefully get back to sleep). Or is there an alternative? Depending on how many guests you have invited, could you buy a de-boned turkey roast from the butcher instead, which will take a lot less time to roast?
- Double check the quantities in your recipes to ensure there will be enough for everyone. You might need to double some recipes to be sure
- The size of your oven is also something to factor in. We only have the one smallish oven, so I have room for either roast vegetables or some kind of roast meat. I can't do both at the same time. And even if I could, they don't necessarily cook at the same temperatures. One trick I've learned is to pre-bake the vegetables, either that morning or even the day before, then seal and store them. I cook my meat, and then once I've taken it out of the oven to rest, I crank up the temperature and put the vegetables back in to crisp up
- Factor in "preparation time" as well as "cooking time" when you research recipes. If you love to cook, maybe you want to prepare something elaborate to serve to those you love on Christmas Day. But if spending hours in the kitchen is not your idea of fun - or of there are other people (small children?) who would rather have your time and attention on Christmas morning, then choose something that takes a lot less time. Do you have to hand-make the stuffing? That honey-glazed ham sounds delicious but, this year, will your children thank you for skipping it and playing with them instead?
- I'm not ashamed to cheat. This year I was super busy, so I pre-bought two pavlova bases and just decorated them as guests were arriving. On a previous Christmas, I bought a pre-prepared turkey breast roast (one of those Jamie Oliver ones) to feed my guests. You can also use pre-bought cranberry sauce if you want to (gasp!). This is not a cooking competition, it's a gathering, a community event with people you (hopefully) love
2. STOCK TAKE
Do you have enough plates, bowls and cutlery? Do this stock-take after you've planned your menu, so you'll know what's required. Rather than spending a fortune, ask around ahead of time to borrow anything you might be missing. If you plan on letting guests serve themselves from the table, do you have enough large plates or platters?
Is there room at the table, or do you need to borrow another? Do you have enough chairs? (We often borrow chairs from my husband's work when we need extras. They look ugly and office-y, but I'm the only one who notices or minds - you can see them if you look closely at the picture at the top of this email).
What about table-cloths? Do you have enough? If they need ironing, do this ahead of time so that's one less job to think about on the day.
3. SHOP SMART
- Write a detailed shopping list that contains not only items, but the quantity of items (not just "potatoes," but "a dozen medium-sized potatoes"). That way you minimise the somewhat inevitable 'fridge-and-pantry overload, and all the food waste that comes with that, after the big day
- If you can, shop for all the non-perishable items on your list ahead of time. Depending on where you live, you may be able to order them online to save having to enter the supermarkets at this time of year
- Talk to your local shops about your other Christmas needs. You may be surprised at how competitive they can be, price-wise, to the supermarket, and you'll get a much more personal service. If you know you'll be needing large quantities of anything, order them ahead of time. So for example, talk to the butcher about any meat you might be serving. Don't just pre-order the meat, tell them the recipe and the number of guests, and ask their advice on the very best cut. Tell them the day you'd like to pick the meat up, and they'll have it fresh and ready for you on that day. The same with fruit and vegetables. Tell them that "on this day" you'll be needing X quantities of this and Y quantities of that... again, they will likely go to market each morning, and can select yours for you nice and fresh, rather than you buying off the shelf. If there's anything special or unusual in your menu, tell your local shops about this ahead of time too, so they can find it or order it in for you.
- In the lead-up to Christmas, try to limit your ordinary family shops as much as you can. We are eating leftovers and scrambling together the oddest of meals at the moment, because I've been doing this. Christmas food takes up a lot of room in the 'fridge and pantry, so we're keeping things lean until after the day.
4. GET AHEAD
Make as much as you can ahead of time. Cakes, puddings, jellies, marinades, sauces... all kinds of things can be made the day before, or even several days before, and some of them freeze. Do as much of this as you can to save stress on the day. Consider factoring "can it be made ahead of time" into your menu planning back up in tip 1.
5. SAY YES TO OFFERS
If your guests offer to bring something, let them! If you don't, they'll just bring along another box of Streets Assorted chocolates anyway. Could they bring a salad? A side dish? If you asked in time, could they bring a pudding or cake? (I keep thinking I want to make my own Christmas pudding and October comes and goes each year without me getting organised... but thankfully, we have better organised friends and family who love doing this and often bring one to Christmas meals). Because Christmas is a summer holiday in Australia, other guests have brought things like trays of mangoes, or boxes of cherries and stone fruit.
If your guests offer to help you wash up afterwards, let them! If you're like me, this doesn't come easy. You want them to relax - they're your guests! But hand them an apron or a tea-towel, crank up the Christmas music, and make washing up a fun time to continue that conversation you started at the table, before someone distracted you. Whoever coined the phrase "many hands make light work" was onto something: the clean-up will be done in no time.
A caveat: I don't know about you, but I really don't like other people cooking in my kitchen. I go through all the preparation tips I've talked about here, I have a carefully planned-out schedule (and I know where everything is!) and it just adds to the stress, rather than easing it, when other people crowd into my kitchen. Of course, friends don't always want to take "no" for an answer so, to avoid polite back-and-forths, I put my husband on guest-greeting duties. His job, when guests arrive, is to pour them a drink, make them comfortable, and chat while I finish up in the kitchen, uninterrupted.
6. SET THE TABLE THE DAY BEFORE
Setting a table well always takes longer than you think, and doing it ahead of time just removes another job from your plate while you're preparing the food. I put everything out. Plates, cutlery, glassware, napkins... If you already have flowers or greenery that you want to use, put that out too. If not, think ahead about what vases you want to use, pull them out of the cupboard, and have them ready.
A note on flowers and greenery: you don't need anything expensive or extravagant. Last year (the photograph at the top of this page), I just filled little pots with sprigs of rosemary, set tea-light candles in other small pots, and scattered walnuts and dried orange slices over the table. For last night's dinner, I took a walk during the day with a basket and a pair of scissors, and trimmed some ivy and ivy berries that were growing over fences and walls, as well as some white-flowering crepe myrtle. I put those in old glass bottles (nothing too high or the guests can't see one another across the table), then filled the same pots you see in the picture above with water, where I floated tea-light candles surrounded in sprigs ivy berries.
7. PLAN YOUR MUSIC
Make a play-list, or pull out the CDs you want, ahead of time. We are ridiculously old-fashioned because our SONOS speaker died a few years ago, and we just never replaced it, so the only music we have in the house is from our old record player. I buy cheesy old Christmas records from second-hand shops whenever I find them (I think the most I've ever paid for one is $2), so we pulled all of those out ahead of time and had them ready to go for the party.
Do let me know how you go if you are planning your own Christmas gathering. I hope it is calm and joyful for you, and that in some small way, these tips help you to enjoy the very hyggelig experience of good food with dearly loved friends and family at Christmas time.
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See you tomorrow!