"Anyone want another glass of wine?" Judging by the shouts of approval and laughter,
the answer was yes.
I scanned the beaming faces. Crammed into my brother Mike's beautifully renovated old farmhouse in Dunrobin, outside of Ottawa, were 22 of my immediate, extended and honorary family members, gathered for Christmas dinner.
It was noisy. It was chaotic. And it was the best Christmas we'd ever had.
Most years, our family meal is a prepared-to-perfection affair, from the glittering crystal stemware to the creamy pumpkin pie. The linen tablecloth is ironed hours before a drop of gravy is spilled. Candles reflect in the windows. Bing Crosby croons in the background. It's blissful, beautiful…and, with our expanding family, increasingly impossible to replicate without posing a serious hazard to our collective mental health.
So last year, rather than aim for perfect, we went for fabulous and fun. A month before, my sister-in-law, Jean, sent out a mass e-mail outlining her plan. She and Mike would open their home and cook the turkey, we'd provide the rest. Everyone was assigned something: the three grandmas invited to the do made pies, Mum brought a yummy vegetable dish, sister Mary did the ham. Even Jean's spunky bachelor brother, Ian, rustled up his signature garlic and pancetta salad.
It was organized mayhem – the kids tore, shrieking, through the kitchen as Ian (an honorary 35-year-old kid) chased them with a foam sword – but it worked. It worked because it was a day set aside for creating a new tradition in a changing family. It worked because it was about the pleasure of sharing everything from Jean's fabulous tourtière to those wonderful, rambling, half-finished conversations that characterize our family.
As the day's architect and chief cook and bottle washer, it was the only way forward for Jean.
"I like nice china and tablecloths as much as anyone, but Martha Stewart has a lot to answer for. She makes people think they can have an elegant-casual family Christmas where the toilet won't overflow, the kids aren’t overtired and the gravy won't be lumpy. Life isn't like that," she says of her own calamity-casual approach. "The key is to be just organized enough so that when someone is late or the three-year-old has a tantrum, you can deal with it. In the end, it was perfect."
Why perfect? Because it wasn't trying to be. According to Prof. Gordon Flett, who holds a Canada Research Chair in personality and health at York University in Toronto, Christmas isn't just bad for the holiday blues – it's one of the worst times of the year for perfectionists.
"Christmas reflects huge cultural expectations that things have to be just right," Flett says. "We have a consumer-based society that says if you have the perfect look or the perfect achievement, the perfect life will follow. People expend so much effort achieving this ideal. By the time the holidays arrive, they're stressed."
Page 1 of 2Even for those of us who aren't maladaptive perfectionists – noted for their controlling behaviour, unachievable standards and inability to adapt – the drive for perfection can taint the holiday. "We're an achievement-oriented society and that creates a lot of anxiety," says April Clay, a Calgary- based psychologist. "Everything at Christmas reminds us of outcomes we feel we should buy into."
Parents are particularly susceptible, says Flett, because they may be facing divorce, financial stress and seasonal blues, and this reminds them that things are not perfect. "You see parents overcompensating," he says. "The parents scaled the peak…and they get upset when the kids don't react as they want them to."
To turn a nerve-racking experience into one that is imperfect but fulfilling, Flett suggests questioning what really matters. "Is it the perfectly cooked turkey and beautiful table? Or is it enjoying the people around you? Learn to strive for excellence, not perfection. Ask for help. Saving energy to enjoy the holiday is really important."
For Jean, following this advice meant having the time to reflect on the wonder of Christmas through her then three-year-old son, Griffin. "Instead of hyperventilating in the kitchen because I forgot something, I got to sit back and enjoy Christmas for what it is – love, friends and family."
Wondering how to make your Christmas a little more imperfect? Here are some thoughts.
Decide what you want from the holiday, then write down a plan to do it. "Keep your attention to detail and your energy," says April Clay, a Calgary-based psychologist, "but replace 'perfect Christmas' with something you really want, like 'restful' or 'fun.'"
A few weeks before the event, send out a group e-mail with a detailed potluck list, based on known skills and preferences.
You love the delft pattern you inherited, but an informal Christmas dinner may not be the place to use it, especially for a big crowd with youngsters. Most dollar stores carry cheap-and-cheerful china and cutlery that can be used for other big events. You may be hosting dinner for a regiment, but ask your guest chefs to cook for a platoon. "I told everyone to prepare for 22, but we had too much leftover food," says Jean, who suggests cooking for 60 to 70 per cent of your guests. "This year, I'll ask them to cook for 15."
What to do when dinner's still an hour away – and everyone's salivating in the kitchen. Occupy guests with a few simple, family-oriented games, such as:
• 20 Christmas Questions: Write out questions such as, "What was your favourite toy?" Place them in a bowl. Each guest gets to answer one.
• Christmas Pictionary: On index cards, write out easy-to-hard Christmas-themed words such as "Santa," "ornament" or "carols." Divide guests into teams, hand out paper and pencils, and take turns drawing and guessing.
• 14 easy appetizers
• A personal coach's tips for managing holiday stress
• Canadian Living's 50-day holiday countdown
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