A Quiet Christmas

Four white candles with a pink candle in the centre on a black background.
My Advent Wreath

We’re in the middle of it now. Right in the middle of all the Christmas activities.

Take some time to breathe.

I’m going to put some suggestions up on this blog that you may not be able to implement until next year, but I thought I’d put them up anyway. Next year’s Christmas will come around soon enough, and some things you might be able to do this year.

But before I get started on the dos and don’ts of Christmas celebration, I want you to stop and think. Stop and breathe, stop and ponder on what it is that is important to you about Christmas.

Now, I know that if you are a Christian, you’re going to say that the most important thing is that we’re celebrating the birth of Jesus. That’s obviously true. But think about how you spend your Christmas. If someone looked at you from the outside, would they say that this is the most important thing to you?

No judgement here at all. I think that for me, I love to celebrate the birth of Jesus by heading in to church for the Christmas Eve midnight service, but celebration of family comes very high up on my list of priorities for Christmas. And you can tell that by the fact that I have a Christmas Eve celebration with my children, a Christmas Day celebration with my parents and a Boxing Day celebration with my in-laws, my children and my parents and anyone else who wants to come along (it’s HUGE). It’s obvious, from the outside, what my priorities are.

Whatever is your priority, how are you making time to focus on that thing? Are there activities that you do that are spending time on things you really don’t prioritise? How could you lower the amount of time spent on those things, and increase the amount of time spent on your priorities?

I think that one of the stressful things about Christmas is the fact that we are all running around trying to meet the priorities of other people and do things that we don’t value. I’m not saying this is the time of year to massively annoy your close family and friends, but with communication, compromise, and a few well-placed boundaries, we could all have a quieter and more enjoyable Christmas.

When I was a young child, Christmas in our family was a huge burden. We had a Christmas Eve church service, a Christmas Day church service, and then lunch with my mother’s side of the family and the evening meal with my father’s side of the family. By the time we rolled ourselves from one huge meal to the next, us kids were ratty and looking for presents (more presents, and yet more presents), and the adults were exhausted. 

So we changed things. One family spent Christmas together and the other side met on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas, if you’re not British or Australian).

As life went on, things changed more as things do. Us children grew up, got married and had children of our own. Now there were even more in-laws to keep in touch with. So now, as I said, we do our small family Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve followed by the midnight service, then lunch with my parents on Christmas Day. Then on Boxing Day we go to Moz’s family for the whole day. And as for my wider family? We do Christmas in late January or early February. The weather is better, there is more chance of having a swim, and everyone is less stressed and more able to relax.

There are other options, of course. Scottie’s family (the morning host at Ultra106.5 FM) does the big Christmas with all the family every second year. One year Christmas is small, one year it’s huge and lasts for a week or so. I think that’s a really good idea.

Tsh Oxenreider suggests that if you celebrate the whole of Advent it takes the pressure off getting Christmas just right. She has written a book called Shadow and Light that you can find at https://www.tshoxenreider.com/advent along with an Advent playlist, a whole lot of art work, and some other tools to help you make the whole season beautiful.

Are there traditions you are doing that don’t suit you? Are there traditions you would like to try? One year I made my own advent wreath and lit the candles each week. I enjoyed it immensely but I haven’t brought that particular tradition into the following years. 

A new tradition we have started in our family is the Secret Santa tradition. This makes gift giving so much easier, especially now we are adults and are so more difficult to buy for! We use the website drawnames.com.au, which even has a gift giving guide if your particular person has been difficult and not filled out a wish list.

If you’re feeling stuck with all the cooking, perhaps it’s time to let others have a go. What’s the worst that could happen? You can stock some packets of chips in the freezer so that no one will starve. Or everyone can eat pretzels to their heart’s content. One year we had a charcuterie board competition, where each family brought their own imaginative cheese platter to the big family celebration, another year, a dessert competition was the go. Getting others to bring a plate like this spreads the work around and makes it fun at the same time.

The main thing is to figure out your priorities and boundaries, and then to communicate clearly. And I have found that if you hold everything loosely (like telling your adult children that they can choose when to come and see you), you end up getting a lovely surprise when you see people making your company a priority in this busy season.

And finally, remember that some people don’t have a busy Christmas. For some, this is the most boring and the saddest time of the year. Your best Christmas present may be just to notice and to give your company and time to someone who is alone. Jesus sacrificed his home in glory to come to us as a tiny baby. His throne became a manger. His throne room a stable. Is it too much to ask that in response we give up some of our precious family time to the lonely ones around us?

May your Christmas be blessed whatever you do this year. And may you remember the reason for the season and rejoice in the coming of our Saviour.

Is the answer to only do what we love?

Visiting Jill

I’ve talked a lot about saying no. Today I’m going to talk about something I said yes to. Something horribly hard.

Growing up, I was surrounded by family and friends. We often had people over for meals, or went to visit others. We always lived in a faith community – after a short period in a normal house on a normal street, my second home was a farm where drug addicts could come for rehabilitation, my next was a foster home for children, my next a missions community. Us kids were taught, by the example of our parents, that relationships with other people were the most important thing in life.

There was one person that I always hated to visit.

Aunty Jill was not a relative, she was my mother’s school friend. In those days we called all the adults Aunty and Uncle, regardless of whether they were related or not. There are some friends I still have now who have asked me could I please drop the honorific – it makes them feel old!

Jill is not one of those. She loved the title Aunty. She needed it.

Aunty Jill had a very hard upbringing. Her father was not around, and her mother was very ill for most of her childhood. Jill responded to this stress by becoming ill herself. I never remember her not being ill. Or needy. Or lonely.

When we would go to visit Jill would be lying in bed in her tiny unit. She would pull me close to her scratchy chin and ample bosom and hug me for what seemed like forever. She would ask me questions about how I was, and whether I was happy, and she would make sure I gave the correct answer. She would give gifts – not gifts that suited us as such, but gifts she wanted to give. And then she would make sure we were properly grateful, that we said thank you, that we gave her a kiss and another interminably long hug.

She would take on the discipline of us children, making sure we behaved properly. If you said something she didn’t agree with, she would try to make you back down and if you didn’t, she would say, “Fair enough.” A phrase I still rile at today.

But my mother was faithful in visiting her old friend, so we, as kids, were faithful too.

We moved away from Tasmania for a while, and with that, and the move back, and getting married and having children myself, I lost touch with Jill. I can’t say I minded. I didn’t even think about her.

Then one day, when I was taking my young son to the doctors, there was Jill in the waiting room. She was thrilled to see me. Thrilled to meet my kids. Gave us all long, scratchy hugs. Made sure that we would look her up – she had moved to a nursing home by this stage. Asked if I could help her with something.

I’m a sucker for being asked for help so I said yes and we reconnected.

Now I had to go and visit Jill myself, and she was thrilled that I did. Absolutely thrilled that I brought the kids with me. She would give us gifts again, hug us all again, manipulate us into staying longer than we ever planned to stay.

She would try to discipline my kids, to make them say what they didn’t want to say, and that would make me angry. I was super angry that she was doing to my kids what she had done to me as a kid. I was super angry that I had to go and visit and that she wouldn’t let me leave. I didn’t want to be called her adopted niece or have the kids called her adopted great-niece and great-nephew.

But I would still go and visit.

Why? Because I believe that all human beings are valuable – not just the ones that are easy to love. I believe that God calls us to look after those that are in nursing homes, in prisons, in hospitals. Visiting Jill was horribly hard, but it fit into my values, and I learned a lot from visiting her.

I learned about setting boundaries. I didn’t force my kids to come with me and I would reward them after the visit if they did come. I let them see how angry I was and let them make their own decisions about what behaviour was appropriate and I think that helped them make their own decisions in similar situations.

I learned (from my daughter) how to say “I’m not comfortable with doing that Jill” when she would ask me to come and help her adjust her catheter or some such thing. I learned to say and to help my children say what they really felt in answer to her questions, not the answer she wanted them to give.

I learned how to set a time limit for a visit, and how to leave when the time was up.

I learned how to decide how often to visit and stick to my decision no matter how much I was pressured to come more often.

I learned how to find out someone’s love language (Jill’s was gifts) and to speak it and to appreciate it being spoken even if it was not my own (mine is acts of service – a love language Jill simply couldn’t speak).

As my children grew up, they chose not to go and visit, and that was fine. And then, as they grew up a bit more, they chose to go and visit. And I was super proud of them for doing so.

Many self-help books and blogs encourage us to only do what we love. They would say that my visit to Jill was a waste of time and emotional energy. That I should have crossed her off my list of activities to do and should have found instead something that built me up, that encouraged me, that energised me. But as hard as my visits to Jill were, I was strengthened by the experience.

When we look for a way to simplify our lives, the agenda for what goes on our list of things to do (and what gets crossed off) needs to be a greater one than ‘do I enjoy this activity?’. Many things are worth doing, even when they are not enjoyable.

Instead of asking if something is enjoyable, I think we need to ask whether it sits in our values. Whether it is our responsibility. Jill was, partly, my responsibility. I needed to step up to the plate.

I don’t have a ministry to people in nursing homes. I am not one of those amazing angels of people that adopt the lost and lonely, the poorest in our community, and reach out to them. Meeting those people at Jill’s birthday parties over the years was one of the rewards of reaching out to Jill.

But Jill fell in my purview. She had very few friends, a very boring life, and she needed the connection to our family. I needed to put aside my selfishness for half an hour twice a year to reach out to her. Even though it was exhausting. And yes, I whinged about her a fair bit. Like I said, I’m no angel.

When looking at what to cut out of your life, what to say no to, you may have a situation like I had with Jill. Something that is not fun, not rewarding, and does not help you invest in your ultimate dream. Most of the time we say no to these things, but be careful that you are not missing the chance to sacrifice your life, to take up your cross, to build the kingdom of God.

Sometimes it is better to do the things we don’t love. Sometimes it’s right.

I am saying no to things this year in order to spend more time on my writing. This post is part of a series I am writing about what I have learned about saying no. I’d love to have you join me on this journey. If you want to make sure you never miss a post, you can sign up on WordPress and the post will be sent to your email address every week without fail.

I am also writing a cosy mystery and it’s coming to the pointy end now. If you would like to hear more about the writing process, and see the cover reveal, drop an email to rijamos@gmail.com and I’ll add you to my newsletter list. The newsletters are chatty, with a writing-focus, and only come out monthly so they won’t clog your in-box.

You’ll notice some special art in this series. If you want to see more of it you can find the artist on instagram @deteor42

The Star Chart

Star chart

I wrote last week about allowing myself to say no and how I managed that this year by designating this the Year of Saying No to Everything. I also wrote about how bad I felt every time I let someone down, even if I knew that saying no in any particular situation was the right thing to do.

I don’t want people to be disappointed in me. Though I know in my head that I can’t meet everyone’s needs and expectations, I really want to.

I have thrown party-plan parties where nearly no-one has shown up. I don’t want anyone to go through that. I have organised prayer meetings where week after week no-one has come along but me, and I would almost prefer to be burnt-out than have another person feel that loneliness and failure. (You might have guessed that I’m not the world’s best salesperson. What my friend is, the one I talked about last week with the amazing fundraiser, I am the diametric opposite.)

I want to be able to go to all the things, meet all the needs, comfort all the people, serve on all the committees.

It’s just impossible.

But what is also impossible is living with the feeling of having let so many people down.

Now that I’m getting used to saying no, I’m realising that I’m not necessarily doing a bad thing by letting them down. There are many instances where I would just be an unnoticed extra in the room. There are other times when maybe God wants the person to learn from something falling over (I’m pretty sure that’s what was happening in my prayer group), and that if I show up and be the comforting person I will be stepping in the way of God’s plan.

If I want to follow God’s path for my life then I can’t veer off onto something else anytime someone asks me for a favour.

So this year I decided to reward myself for saying no. If this was the lesson I needed to learn then I needed a shot of encouragement each time I managed to decline an activity.

Moz made me a star chart with a little path of hearts leading the princess to the castle, and I bought shiny gold stars from the local newsagent.

Every time I’ve said no to something this year I have got a gold star on my chart. I am building up to a reward at the end.

I usually check with Moz, “can I have a star for that one?” and he usually says yes. He sees the stressing and overthinking that goes on whenever I turn something down.

Here’s an example:

I was invited out to dinner with a friend on a Friday night. My friend is lovely, she really understands me. She said, “If you can’t come because your introverted self needs time at home, that’s fine.”

My introverted self did need time at home. But the teaching at church and in some podcasts I was listening to was about how important it was to eat with people. How eating together connects us and makes us family. And this friend is very important to me. But at the same time, so was Friday night date night with Moz (we eat takeaway and watch a movie together) and I didn’t know what to do.

Moz was happy with whatever I decided. My friend was happy with whatever I decided. I had to make the decision. I had to set the boundary. I took ages to decide and in the end I sent her a text Friday morning saying no, I wouldn’t come.

Did I get a star for my star chart? You betcha! And that shiny gold star made me feel better about the decision, which I’m sure now was the right one.

You may have no difficulty deciding what is right for you to do and what is not necessary. I know that for some of you who are reading this blog you just can’t understand what my difficulty is and think I should just get over myself (I thank you for continuing to read it anyway). But I hope that for some of you, my journey is providing a helping hand on your own journey.

And maybe it’s not saying no that is the difficult thing for you. Maybe a star chart could be helpful in another area of your life – you could get a star for every half-hour walked, for example. Or for every time you do the dishes before going to bed.

For me, saying no is difficult, but the star chart helps. The reward helps. I can do a hard thing and then get some tangible appreciation of effort outlaid. It’s helping me to train myself in setting boundaries and the little tool of giving myself a gold star when I succeed has made a big difference to how I feel.

Only three stars to go until my final reward. Which I’m pretty sure is going to be a weekend away alone – just me and my books. And a whole heap of chocolate.

The Year of Saying No to Everything

Escape room

I find saying no so incredibly hard. I don’t like to let people down. I don’t want to be a disappointment.

Actually, when I was a kid and my parents wanted to discipline me, all they had to say was, “I’m so disappointed in you” and that was it. I was in my bedroom crying. True story. Up until the age of, let’s say, 20 and married.

So when I started putting boundaries around my life this year I had to do two things. I had to allow myself to put the boundaries in place, and I had to reward myself for saying no.

Firstly, I had to allow myself:

I knew things were changing this year. I wanted a year with more time to do the writing I felt God was calling me to do. I wanted to feel less tiredness, less stretched. I read wonderful books like Margin, and The Best Yes, and I knew that in order to do what I was called to do, I would need to say no to some things.

To allow this to happen I designated 2017 as The Year of Saying NO to Everything.

This year I was allowed to say no. This year, I didn’t have to feel like everything was my responsibility – it was actually my responsibility to say no. I didn’t need to come up with reasons or excuses to back out. I didn’t need to ask myself whether or not I should decline the invitation.

This was The Year of Saying No.

One afternoon I found that it was just so helpful to have the decision made ahead of time.

You see, I was working with an amazing woman who had heaps of energy and just LOVED social occasions. She is the kind of person that organises team-building activities. The kind of person that enjoys get-to-know-you games. And she was eager to build our work team into a coherent whole.

One of the first things that she suggested was that we all go to an escape room together. I don’t know if you know about escape rooms. They are really popular right now. The idea is that six of you get shut in a room, locked in together, and you have to solve problems to find a way out. It’s group work that you are literally locked in to.

The whole idea is comparable to my idea of hell. Really. Wouldn’t like to do it even with my best friends. Can’t we just go out for coffee and a chat? If you really like the puzzles we could design them ourselves.

But this was not all. She wanted to include our spouses in this experience (we hadn’t even met the spouses) and then pick numbers from a hat so that we had two randomly divided groups, and then go into separate rooms, with these strangers, and race each other to get out first.

Now, like I said, these rooms are incredibly popular and they may well be your idea of a good time. I think her suggestion was a good idea. But it was not for me. And so I wanted to say no.

Instead of saying no, I said I’d check with Moz. And I did. I said, “Hun, if going into one of these rooms is the deepest desire of your heart, then this is when we’ll do it. Otherwise, let’s just not go.”

So that was a no.

On the same day as the invitation to the escape room, this lovely lady also invited me to her fundraiser. Now I think this woman is incredible. She is working, raising two kids, and then in her “spare time” she organises this HUGE fundraiser day. It’s a high tea. The ladies dress up and have delicious foods and there are competitions and music and goodness knows what. It’s huge. She got on the local evening news with this one.

Of course she wants everyone to go. It’s important to her. It’s important full stop. So she asked me, and I said no.

“Why not?” she said.

Oh boy. What an awful situation. Why not? What excuse can I find? Am I too busy? Not really. Did I already have something else on? No. Did I want to go? Not on your nelly.

But I had an answer. I had already decided.

Why not?

“Because this is my year of saying no to everything,” says I.

It was decided.

Now I know that every year can’t be the year of saying no to everything. But I figure I need the practice. So this year is the practice year. Perhaps after I get better at setting boundaries I will just be able to say no and then if asked “why not?” I will be able to think of some excuse like “It’s just not for me.” Or “I just don’t think it’s right, right now.”

In The Best Yes Lisa Terkeurst has some great statements to give to soften your answer of no:

“While my heart wants me to say yes, the reality of my time makes this a no.”

“I’m sorry but I can’t give it the attention it deserves.”

“This is one of those seasons when I must decline lovely invitations. But thank you for thinking of me.”

All of these are much more gracious than my blurted answer. Maybe I need more practice.

I am saying no to things this year in order to spend more time on my writing. This post is part of a series I am writing about what I have learned about saying no. I’d love to have you join me on this journey. If you want to make sure you never miss a post, you can sign up on WordPress and the post will be sent to your email address every week without fail.

As well as this blog, I am also writing a cosy mystery and it’s coming to the pointy end now. If you would like to hear more about the writing process, and see the cover reveal, drop an email to rijamos@gmail.com and I’ll add you to my newsletter list. The newsletters are chatty, with a writing-focus, and come out monthly so they won’t clog your in-box.

You’ll notice some special art in this series. If you want to see more of it you can find the artist on instagram @deteor42