There’s no shortage of advice on how to combat holiday stress, including directives to think ahead, make lists, delegate and above all, keep it simple. But even after distilling this strategy (and an alcoholic verb seems appropriate here) the core issue for me remains either doing what I already know is too much, or else forfeiting a cherished tradition and thereby disappointing someone. Anyone. And let’s be honest, family members know how to select the skewer devised especially for the heart and will use it ruthlessly if shortbread — or lack of — is at risk. “But how can it even be Christmas without [insert labour-intensive baked goods of your choice here]. You always make that!” This, delivered in a winsome Tiny Tim voice, can usually unsettle most mothers even if the reclining someone is conversing with you in between festive blasts of Grand Theft Auto (Of course Tiny Tim had a crutch instead of a controller but I’ll leave that comparative analysis alone for now.)
The enemies of the exhausted cook during the holiday season are many. But social media in its varying guises is the worst. Take Pinterest: an enjoyable hour here and there allows us to create the sumptuous illusion of being productive, creative and ahead-of-the-game but ultimately there’s the (cranberry-vanilla infused) rub! Rather than actually making that Christmas cake with the lemon-based royal icing and artfully scattering some tiny silver balls (it’s like they’ve been shot from miniature muskets, I always feel) we are slowly becoming overwhelmed by more and more (albeit extremely cool) things to do while not having the time to actually follow through.
Facebook is equally unhelpful. We’re taunted by perfect photos of other people’s apparent realities. Everyone else’s family is “kicking back with mulled wine and the whole house smells of cinnamon! Life is good.” Am I the only one still folding laundry at 9:45 in the evening so that my children don’t have to dress by the light of the dryer? There’s also a strange hollowness in all this documentation. Lately, I have watched many people carefully “styling” their meals before posting online and I can’t help but feel how much it detracts from the whole experience. Similarly, seeing a neon shovel-full of Andy Warhol-hued chestnuts on Instagram will never rival buying them from a genuine vendor on a bitingly cold afternoon and singeing fingertips as you walk along eating them in the street: hot, meaty and fragrant from a striped paper cone.
There’s also the allure of the wide open internet itself. The quest begins legitimately enough when I’m searching for a misplaced recipe. But before you know it, I’m obsessed with learning how to make my own soap from violets, which leads quite naturally to a fascinating piece on how wearing more stripes will allow me to acquire Parisian chic, and then a quick look-see just to confirm that actor Chris Hemsworth is going to be road-worthy as James Hunt. He is, by the way, but it’s now 12:30 in the morning….
Stories abound of traditional dusty fruitcakes still being desperately passed around years later but mine is not amongst them. I’ve heard family scorn about “those store-bought cakes” only containing traces of cherry DNA. Perhaps these so-called inferior cakes have not enjoyed the meaningful relationship that mine have with Sailor Jerry. I cannot say — but I do know that the Facebook status of my Christmas cake tin will be “Just Crumbs Now.”
SUE SUTHERLAND WOOD is a freelance writer who also works in the London Public Library system. She lives in London with her teenage sons and a floating population of dogs and cats.