10 Survival Tips for Christmas

Tis the season to be jolly’ so the carol goes, but when Chico Marx said to Groucho, ‘There ain’t no Sanity Clause!’ he had a point.

While aiming to be bright and merry, I know Christmas can be stressful as we try to fit hoards of extra activities into our schedules and all around us there are reminders that the clock is ticking down to the day. Factor in long hours spent with family members and a huge dollop of over indulgence and I’m wondering if Santa got the best deal – popping in unseen when everyone is asleep. Enough of the bar humbug!

Tree with Christmas lightsWhether you will be ensconced with family or an expat making a Skype call home, I hope these practical tips and thoughts on resilience will help ease the path to a happy Christmas.

1. Think positive, but be realistic; how do you normally feel the day after Christmas? What words does it conjure up for you and what would you like to be different this year?

2. When you feel your inner eight year old (the badly behaved part) about to respond to something your sibling throws out there, it’s probably time to make your excuses and leave (or at least pay a visit to the smallest room in the house). There you can take a few slow, deep breaths and ask yourself if you really want to bite or let it go.

3. Close your eyes and imagine anyone who is annoying you wrapped in a ball of golden stringy light – preferably without a piece of the string around their neck – sound weird? Try it anyway or imagine your own positive image and aim to keep interactions authentic and respectful.

4. Family gatherings can be a breeding ground for attention and admiration seeking behaviours. Maintain distance from anyone who is really gunning to push your buttons, you could also change the subject by having a few positive things ready to say.

5. Drink a glass of water between alcoholic ones and eat light between the feasts (avoid sugar, fats and processed carbohydrates if you can, at those times).

6. Plan longer journeys and if you need to, check the weather forecast and traffic hotspots before setting off to avoid disappointment and stress.

7. Get out in the fresh air and take some of your favourite exercise (or if you don’t have one, choose the one you loath least) it will boost happy hormones into your system. A family walk together is a shared experience and might pass time in a positive way.

8. Enjoy the company of young children and their presents, if they become fractious give them a fair warning before disciplining them and make sure everyone gets enough sleep.

9. Spreading a little goodwill can make you feel nice; contact someone who you imagine would like to hear from you. Remember John Lennon said, ‘And so this is Christmas . . . what have you done?

10. Know that you deserve to enjoy the festive season, remember what you like about it and if it still proves challenging, take heart, it will soon be over.


Forgive me one last quotation, ‘A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together,’ author Garrison Keillor.

So keep smiling and remember if you find yourself struggling at this time, you are not alone.

If you would like more help, here is a link to Mind’s 10 commandments of stress reduction at Christmas: http://www.mind.org.uk/blog/8084_10_ways_to_reduce_christmas_stress

If you have any comments or tips to add, please share them below.

Christmas in prospect; a SWOT of possibilities!

Is Christmas better in prospect than reality? Does it live up to your expectations or struggle to measure up against the picture perfect images of an ideal home beamed at you by a hungry marketing machine.

Unless you are living a very quiet life, you will have encountered advertisements for Christmas merchandise from early November. They are in the ‘pop ups’ on your computer, the television (of course), billboards lining the streets, taking up aisles of your supermarket and you’ll hear the playing of (often jaundiced) Christmas music as you browse around the shops. Sometimes it even gets in to that most personal of spaces; our mobile phones!

I wonder what effect those omnipresent messages have on you. Perhaps they do tip you into a festive mood, giving you a warm glow in readiness for what’s to come or maybe they signal the beginning of weeks of shopping for presents (that you hope will demonstrate you purchased them thoughtfully) and a massive food shop which makes you wonder how you’ll make it through to January without considerable expansion.

I have noticed all of this and there are weeks of preparations to go yet!

I don’t wish to be a curmudgeon and I’m all for celebrating the birth of Christ, but the expectation to have a good one can weigh heavy at this time of year, particularly if there is another challenge to factor in.

Expats may feel they want to (or have to) travel to see family at Christmas, which adds a whole level of complexity to preparations. Such as what to do about presents – they can’t all be transported in suitcases and then there’s where to lodge – you don’t want to outstay your welcome and pressure to see everyone while you are back and so on.

For others who long for the familiarity of a family Christmas in their ‘home’ country, they will miss the people and special traditions. It can be difficult to get through Christmas day in a far off place…

Or in fact they may be really glad to be away from it all and possibly feeling guilty to boot – or not!

My memoir An Inconvenient Posting recounts my feelings on our first Christmas in Texas:

‘I yearned for family and aspects of home that made it feel like Christmas; cold weather, dark afternoons, the Queen’s speech, dubious television Christmas specials and wrinkly relatives.’

Christmas is especially difficult for those experiencing loss of some kind; when it feels like the rest of the world is in festive mood (clearly an illusion) how do you make it bearable? Some people may be reminded of happier times gone by, or be anxious how this Christmas will pan out when so much has changed in the last twelve months. They may just want it to be over and long for a distraction of some kind…

What are your pluses and minuses? I have thought of a few. I imagine you have others you could add to your own SWOT of thoughts (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats). Possibly some of the ‘strengths’ I’ve noted might be considered a ‘weakness’ or vice versa.


Lots of social events.

Break from work.

The relief of knowing its done for another year.

Community coming together through events such as Christmas lights being turned on, carol services, school fairs, grottos etc.

Enjoy traditions; Christmas pudding, smell of pine needles in the house, stockings hung on the fireplace, a garland on the front door or maybe a bbq on the beach if you are in a warm a climate!


Loss of routine.

Might be exhausting

Hours spent writing cards and wrapping presents.

A lot of travelling to see people.

For the providers, it goes on for weeks.


Might see people you don’t get to meet very often; older children are often at home.

Excuse to spend time with extended family.

Play games/bond with children.

Nice presents!

Can put your feet up and read or watch TV.

Time to be thankful for what you’ve got and hopefully feel good about it.

Opportunity to give to others.


Feeling you have to attend functions you are not keen on.

Over doing it at the Xmas party.

Pressure to finish work tasks and others “before Xmas” events.

Too much pressure to shop.

Might get the wrong presents.

Too much time with family!

Enforced time together can lead to tensions and flare ups.


Wherever you are and whatever you are doing on the 25th December, Christian or not, celebrating or not, I hope you are feeling okay about the run up to it.

If you would you like to read more about Christmas as an expat and how I faired you can buy An Inconvenient Posting by Laura J Stephens published by Summertime Publishing on Amazon.

The Magic of Christmas, it Comes and Goes… (Article for Among Worlds Magazine 2010)

My family’s early bird approach to Christmas day might explain why it is the earliest memory I have of being tired as a child. Struggling each Christmas to subdue my immense excitement and go to sleep, I would wake up soon after sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 am the following ‘day’.

In the nano second that I hovered between sleep and waking up, I knew, even before I opened my eyes that it was Christmas day at last. It was still dark and my face would be cold, the only part of me exposed above the blankets. It was the 1960’s and we had central heating, but not the kind that turned itself on in the morning. Living in County Durham, in the north of England it was essential to emerge from bed with socks, slippers and a fleecy dressing gown tied tightly at the waist.

I would wait in my little mustard bedroom (a strangely fashionable colour at the time) imagining the scene downstairs; three piles of presents in front of the brick fire place in the living room; one for myself and one each for my older brothers. I willed my brothers to wake up so I could follow them down and begin unwrapping my gifts. I never really believed that Santa Claus had brought them – even though we had a chimney big enough to accommodate him. My brothers were keen to confirm what I suspected; that “Mum and Dad have done it all”.

I didn’t have to wait very long on those Christmas mornings; padding around the house in the small hours like cat burglars, one of us would plug in the tree lights while we surveyed the equidistant piles of presents. Crossed legged and quietly ecstatic in the half light, with pine tree smell enveloping us, I would carefully go through my pile and place each present in what I felt might be an order of priority (a technique I’d learnt to prolong the anticipation and fun I think).

Later on in my childhood I would be amazed to learn that some families opened their presents after breakfast, lunch-time or even later in the day – after the Queen’s 3 pm speech. I was in awe of the restraint this must have required and also a little sorry for those friends! In our house we would save the chocolates until after breakfast, but the board games, Jackie Annual, Etch-a-Sketch, poster paints and dolly’s paraphernalia had all become completely familiar to me by the time our parents got up. I liked it that way, after all, I’d already waited a year for that most sacred day to be counted off the Reader’s Digest calendar, why wait any longer.

My early Christmases were some of the most special – a common phenomenon, I imagine? After a relocation to the south of England when I was nearly eight, the festivities lost some of their intensity, that moment of innocence had passed. Much later, when I had my own young children I experienced again the special pleasure of Christmas, reliving some of my own family’s traditions and combining them with my husband’s; he cooks scrambled egg and smoked salmon for breakfast (not a particularly Welsh tradition, a place where simple food is valued and unnecessary mixtures scorned!).

With motherhood there also came the responsibility of making it all happen and a little cynicism around whether the massive input was worth the output. In Britain, like most westernised countries, our monstrously early build up seems to begin just after ‘summer’ subsides with Christmas cards and wrapping paper on sale for around a third of the year.

We are currently living in Houston – I suspect if it wasn’t for the hysteria around Halloween there would be nothing to stem the flow of Christmas crapola filling our trolleys even earlier. That said, on our first overseas posting to Singapore, I was surprised to find that the commercial build-up really did contribute to the overall experience of Christmas; a maddening discovery. Being a shining example of a culturally and religiously mixed society, demand for Yule tide goods was diluted in Singapore. As my first Christmas in Singapore came close, I felt quite panicked at the lack of festive items (no crackers) it was late November by the time stocks of Christmas goodies arrived. Presumably my over reaction to this was rooted in an unquestioning desire to yet again provide a near perfect crimble for my family.

That first Christmas was memorable for all the wrong reasons; we had recently arrived from the UK, naive about culture shock and without extended family around us, it was tough trying to cope with the other missing elements as well; the familiar TV specials, fresh Brussels sprouts, After Eight chocolate mints, going to church in mittens and a brisk walk before it went dark at 4:00 pm – I could go on.

By our second Christmas in South East Asia not only had I put into perspective what we didn’t have; we were fortunate to have grandparents staying with us and by a further stroke of good luck some old friends who had moved nearby. The wine flowed, the roast potatoes were cooked to crispy perfection and although the day was still strange by comparison, I made it through with dry eyes. What mattered was that we were sharing the experience again. And a turkey dinner eaten in the sapping equatorial heat, worked off in the condominium pool would certainly be something to remember, not something to forget!

On reflection it seems to matter more who we are close to rather than where we are on Christmas day. This year I will strive once again to focus on the fundamentals – remembering why we celebrate Christmas and enjoying and being thankful for the giving and receiving.

You can read more of my adventures in ‘An Inconvenient Posting: An expat wife’s memoir of lost identity’ published by Summertime Publishing.

Do you have any festive traditions, quirky or otherwise, you’d like to share? Click on ‘Leave a reply’ below.