I SPOTTED my first Christmas tree this week. Since childhood it’s been a ritual every year to be the first in the car to see one and shout it out to the rest of the family. Every year witnessing one gets earlier and every year the buzz and pressure around Christmas seems to have exponentially grown, sometimes to a frenzy.

I hadn’t quite realised how much, until I was chair of the local school PTA and I asked one of the other mums to do something PTA-related. “DO. NOT. ASK. ME. Can’t do anything ’til January now.” Her breathing was slightly fast, eyes narrowed with stress. It was November 12th. And she had a spreadsheet and a timetable that she was behind on. I thought about her as I drove past the Christmas tree, wondering how she’d be coping with not knowing what shape or form her big Christmas might take in the year of the pandemic. It certainly wouldn’t be normal.

Because normal Christmases are so much fun, aren’t they? The rammed shopping centres, the queues to see Santa, the crying exhausted weans, the buying presents for people you don’t REALLY know, the extended overdraft, the month-long search for the perfect Christmas Day outfit, the raised expectations, the cheap plastic stocking fillers that end up in landfill by January, the office Christmas party shenanigans, the house full of extended family with a variety of questionable ‘views’, the crush of the travelling home for Christmas, the cooking which involves getting 12 different food items to that state of perfect unctuousness at precisely the same moment, and of course, we have to mention, the comedown, clean-up and dreaded hangover.

This is the Christmas experience we’ve all been sold as being the perfect Christmas. We’ve become conditioned to believe it’s going to be full-on fun and festivities. And if it’s not, somehow we’ve failed. I know it’s not the sole reason, but will lockdown part 2 really be worth it just to ‘enjoy’ this again?

Alternatively we could reclaim Christmas, make it our own version of Christmas, reinvent it – stripped back and personal. My favourite and most memorable Christmases were spent in Fife with my parents-in-law, fierce atheists who nonetheless enjoyed the traditional coming together of close family at Christmas.

As they became older the stress of cooking a full traditional Christmas dinner became too much, so I would marinate a leg of lamb in Asian spices, cook up a couple of curries and loads of pilau rice, and raita (in a gravy boat obviously), load everything into the car with kids and husband and drive to Dunfermline. The first time I remember being nervous, wondering if they might think my simple and cheap twist on a traditional Christmas might be a step too far but my formidable father-in-law’s love of curry thankfully over-rode that, and this template became de rigeur for many years to come.

Eid was similarly reinvented for us this year. Last year’s Eid clothes were liberated from the back of the wardrobe, wee gifts, a big meal (curry again) and a Zoom video call with my parents, all organised the day before because we didn’t know what new restrictions there would be until the last minute. The lack of build-up proving to be a welcome bonus for my teenagers in troubled and uncertain times, allowing us all to focus on family and togetherness instead of the unwelcome commerciality around Eid. Hindu friends who just celebrated Diwali told me that this year had been precious because for the first time they had the time and space to properly focus on the meaning of Diwali – the triumph of good over evil – rather than travel to England to see family, which is what they usually would do.

This pandemic gives the perfect excuse for the estimated 2 billion people who celebrate Christmas worldwide to do things differently, less pressured. We can cut down on emissions by not travelling to see family, and firing up the FaceTime instead, with a promise that 2021 will bring a proper visit.

To that slightly homophobic aunt and uncle: “Sorry, because of the restrictions we won't be able to have you this year.” To the impossible-to-buy-for cousin: “Because charities have struggled to collect as much money this year, we’re not buying gifts but donating money to a charity.” If you’ve hated turkey all your life and would like to try something new, but the partner is a stickler for tradition: “We didn’t go on holiday this year so I’ve decided to go for a Spanish theme for Christmas and have seafood paella.”

Instead of business as usual, Christmas can be reinvented if you want to try. With a vaccine thankfully around the corner, you might not get this chance again, and who knows you might even prefer it.

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