“Tis the season to be jolly…”

Christmas seems to be a bit like coriander – you love it, or you hate it.

I am a big fan of both! I look forward to fruit mince pies being sold in the stores from September, the displays, the colour schemes and themes, the carols, and most of all, the anticipation! Planning the perfect menu, searching creative and fun recipes, Carols playing in the background, scents of cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, mangoes, cherries, and frankincense throughout the house. Hi, my name is Denise and I am a Christmas Control Freak… I have been a Christmas Control Freak (CCF) since I was a little girl. 

As a child, Christmas really didn’t deliver…it was never quite the hype TV, or books made it out to be. Like most people with a trauma history, my childhood memories are quite often fragmented. I don’t really recall many actual Christmas’s before the age of 9 and it’s more a vague collection of memories over the years. A childhood Christmas cluster if you will. 
Here’s what I remember: 

My dad worked long hours and relied heavily on alcohol to cope with life. As an adult, I recognise now that he had some mental health issues, but as a child, and especially back in the 70s and  80s, this wasn’t really talked about. In fact I don’t think I even knew the terms depression or anxiety until I was working. Mum worked shifts, often double, and the last thing she was able to do after her long days was to decorate or be festive. Eventually, I decided at some point, to be in charge of Christmas. 

From the age of 7 or 8, I put the tree up each year and decorated it. I decorated the house, and yes I’m sure that my younger brother probably helped, but the version I remember is that I did most of the work. I would use every piece of tinsel, bauble and kitsch decoration we had. Every single decoration my brother and I made at school helped fill in the gaps of a fairly sparse tree. Lights went every which way and there was no rhyme or reason to the decoration, but certainly a whole lot of excitement and a promise of what never really eventuated.

Each year, Christmas seemed so very disappointing and it wasn’t something that was ever really talked about, well at least to us as children. Each year, I told myself “if only…I make better decorations, use brighter colours, use more/less this or that” or a version including people “maybe if I smiled more, was more quiet, I didn’t yell at my brother as much” etc. It didn’t occur to me until much later, when I became an adult that of course Christmas was disappointing, because it was never about the presents, the food, the amount of people who attended our Christmas Day lunch (My mother was a big believer in inviting Christmas “adoptees”, the acquaintances whose own family weren’t around for whatever reasons, or good friends and their families.) Christmas was ment to be about connecting on a deeper level, the heartfelt sincerity of enjoying the time with the people around you. 

Whilst I don’t doubt that other people enjoyed the fruits of my family’s labour, what they didn’t see was the frantic cleaning at midnight when mum got home, the cooking that took days to prepare, the heat of the oven in the mid 40 degree Perth days, and tempers that would rise with the temperature. The displaced anger, frustration and grief over my parents own families who were estranged or still in Burma.

My favourite memory of Christmas, in fact one of my most cherished memories of all time, is my brother and I holding hands and dancing around the Christmas Tree “the baby is born” repeatedly. My mother’s brother and his wife lived with us for a number of years. My little cousin was born a week before Christmas. Best gift ever. That little baby was, and still is, one of the sweetest and purest of heart people I know.  

That Christmas, because we knew we had a little cousin coming soon, my brother and I made our own versions of Baby’s 1stChristmas and filled the tree with only pastel pink and blue decorations. Once we got the announcement of “It’s a boy”, The pink decorations were taken off the tree and given new places around the table, shelves and door handles. 

Looking back, that’s when Denise the Christmas Control Freak was born. The tree had a theme, everyone was sooooooo happy, there was lots of laughing, and joy, and, and, and…finally a Christmas that delivered. I was a 9 year old that made the connection that a perfect Christmas tree delivered a perfect Christmas. 

Fast forward to adult years with my own family. The perfect Christmas meant a colour scheme or theme throughout the house, including perfect seafood – fresh not frozen. Perfect turkey, nut crusted ham, home made fruit mince pies – with the fruit macerating in rum or brandy since November. The decorations outside perfectly coordinated with the decorations inside, and the tree you ask? The tree was always, always absolutely perfect. I still decorated it myself you see. My two little ones each had their own trees to decorate with their own beautiful decorations made with love from playgroups, kindy, school and home (see what I did there?) I even justified that they could keep their special trees in their own rooms because of how beautiful their arrangements were, and their friends could enjoy their trees without worrying about the big tree in the lounge. Their trees even got extra special crackers to put in the spaces that may not have had decorations. 

Fast forward to my own little ones becoming tweenagers. They were taught how to decorate a tree. Perfectly. From the beginning of theming and colours. Size of the decorations and the spacings. The lights and rolling and unrolling. Perfectly. 

My CCF robbed my children of the ability to appreciate a PERFECTLY decorated tree. They did not connect a perfect tree to a perfect Christmas. They connected a perfect tree to hardwork, effort, and a mother who was beyond ridiculous about the tree. They HATED a perfect tree. You see, as they got older, they learnt that their own decorations and arrangements weren’t good enough, even though I never, ever uttered words that may indicate that. They learnt that their hard work was not going to ever compete with the romantic version of Christmas in my head, so why bother? 

Fast forward to my tweens becoming teenagers. They will still help decorate the tree, but without the unrealistic expectations of perfection. They still help organise the theming and scheming of Christmas, but occasionally with the typical disdain teens may display over such uncool, and lame activities especially with a parent overseeing this. 

My faith helped me join the dots and I understood it logically, but it wasn’t until my tweens cottoned on to my “kindness of providing them their special tree” (after all, no other kids got this!) that I realised, that in order not to be like my parents, that I too failed. The ghost of Christmas past certainly came forth into Christmas present. A lesson I’m still learning. You see, I learnt that my CCF was not about PERFECTION. It was about CONNECTION. I wanted to be the parents who would take the time to be festive than working so hard family was forgotten. I wanted the Christmas cheer and hope that was so fervently dangled in movies and books. I wanted BELONGING. 

Last year, I was for the first time ever unable to decorate the Christmas tree as I was overseas. I asked my now older teens to decorate it, secure in the knowledge that they knew how to decorate it PERFECTLY. I was so looking forward to returning home in mid-December to a house filled with lovely fragrances, Joy to the World, and the colour schemes and themes that they had planned, that I asked for no photos or posts on Facebook to spoil the surprise. 

All the years that they’d been learning were also the years they’d been resenting. I got home to a barely decorated house, and a Christmas tree with large pictures of the actor Chris Pine on it. It was a Christmas “Pine” Tree, and apparently a meme. Yes, ok point taken, my darling children.
When we are ‘pining’ for the elusive romantic or idealistic version in our head, what are we actually missing out on? Whom are we robbing experiences of, not to mention the joy that we rob ourselves? For whom are we actually creating the perfect Christmas? 

I told my little childhood self it was for my family but really it was my way of trying to control circumstances that were beyond my control at the time. That pattern of behaviour (perfectionism) became a habit which was not at all helpful. Christmas can be fraught enough without the added burdens we place on ourselves and our families. Will the sky really fall in if the seafood was previously frozen, or from the supermarket rather than the fishmonger? 

Focus on the connections, rather than the perfections. Allow imperfect actions to be the new mantra. Allowing your children to enforce their right as to whom they refuse to hug or kiss (even if it’s Grandma Bertha and her hairy chin!) Backing them when family “insist on good manners” that it’s their body, and their right to privacy and protection. Advising people of your boundaries, and maintaining them even when there is fear of rejection or abandonment, fear of confrontation, guilt or shame, safety concerns or where healthy boundaries setting hasn’t been taught. It will take practice, and it does get easier. Say yes to connections, say yes to healthy boundaries, say yes to equal relationships where power and responsibility are shared. Be confident and assertive, gain the ability to separate yourself from the emotional self of other people. Allow yourself to be free from intrusions in your physical, psychological and sexual space. Maintaining clearly set boundaries means that your values, self-esteem, and self-respect are honoured. When we are truly living within our values, when we are truly supported and respected, when we find true belonging, that is when we are truly connected. 

Christmas is not about perfection. Christmas is about hope and connection. Christmas is about imperfect actions and the freedoms they provide. Hi, my name is Denise and I am no longer a Christmas Control Freak.

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