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XX Notes: Boardom Is Not Allowed This Christmas

Published on: 7 Dec, 2020
Updated on: 8 Dec, 2020

Maria Rayner

Maria Rayner‘s observational, fortnightly column from a woman’s perspective…

Up early stuffing the turkey. Thumbing through the battered Robert Carrier for the most impressive side dishes. Decking the halls with yellow, pink and green streamers and matching balloons. Hitting the shops with a long to-do list. My Dad’s energy levels were built for the festive season. So last week’s headlines made me stop and think.

“Women carry the burden of creating and maintaining family traditions and activities at Christmas.” Claimed a report from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). Cue howls of indignation and complaints of sexism.

The battered Robert Carrier

A closer look at the document revealed a list of insights about festivals under Covid-19 and suggestions of how to promote messaging leading to safer behaviours. That is: how do we square the circle of the conflicting advice: to avoid other people but enjoy Christmas with friends and family.

The paragraph concluded: “Messaging should be supportive of women adapting traditions and encouraging those around them to share the burden and to be supportive of any alterations to adapt for Covid-19 restrictions.”

Again, righteous indignation. How patronising. How presumptive. Sky’s Sophy Ridge tweeted: “What century are we in?”

Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey, who is never shy of confronting sexist truisms, discovered although this burden is a reality, it irritates us.

The behavioural scientist she consulted explained women often take the lead at Christmas because they enjoy it or are just better than the males around them. The more they organise, the better they get, the more the other partner takes a back-seat role.

So did I grow up in a quiche-eating, gender-equal environment? Come off it: Seventies Cornwall? My mother did the day-to-day cooking, but Saturday night was a time for dad to perform at the stove: extra-long spaghetti, fresh roadkill flavoured with one of Carrier’s unfamiliar herbs, a stirfry on an oil-seasoned wok that no one else was allowed to touch.

My Dad was our Saturday night and Christmas cook. The wheelbarrow delivery is a new family tradition.

Christmas lunch was a similar event, although let’s not be harsh, he had once worked as a chef.

The same with the decorations: bolder and brighter, higher and louder. Though who was budgeting the present list and wrapping my great aunt’s bubble-bath, getting excited children into bed on Christmas Eve and working out what to do with five days of leftovers? The boring stuff.

The report’s insights are taken from another, longer Sage document, which examines how Christmas as a festivity affects people’s mental health.

Younger people aged 18 to 24 are most likely to get an uplift at Christmas, with 51 per cent of women feeling stressed and anxious, compared to 35 per cent of men.

Many will be sad Christmas cannot be a big event this year, but there may be just as many feeling relieved of the pressure to host the perfect celebration for extended family lasting several days.

Yet the report does recognise planning a Christmas during a pandemic brings its own headaches. If you are the person deemed responsible for upholding traditions, how do you decide which ones to maintain and to drop?

Remember the great flood of December 2013? I fed 16 that day with intermittent power cuts. We still had a turkey (courtesy of a neighbouring angel with an Aga), all the trimmings, crackers, pudding and games. Even the electricity came on in time for Doctor Who. We ate later than usual, and there were more candles, but most of our usual rituals were observed.

A turkey with all the trimmings.

In 2020, we have been asked to limit our social interactions to three households and no sleepovers.

With our students returning we are counted as one bubble. Sadly, some participants from 2013 are no longer with us. We could have my sister-in-law’s family but, being older, two of her children are now counted as separate bubbles. If they all ate with us that would be four bubbles, too frothy.

And we won’t go into my sister’s “Aero”. Meaning it’s a no-brainer to ditch the rellies. (No offence, if you’re reading.)

But a Christmas without board games? That’s what the official advice says.

It’s the perfect excuse for those like my husband. He once faked a back injury on a Christmas morning walk, to lie down in a dark, quiet room and have an excuse to get out of the family Monopoly.

But the rest of us would be distraught if we followed government advice to swap Catan for charades and Quirkle for quizzes. In fact, I think my daughter, bruised by too many Zoom rugby socials, would refuse to come home.

The messaging was clumsy, but the intention was sound. Whoever the burden of festive organization falls on in your family, be kind, be understanding, be supportive. We may find some of those traditions are replaced by something more joyous.

And who powered through to deliver Christmas in the outages of 2013, human dynamo Dad, of course.

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