Unchained Melody: Making Christmas merry again

By Melody Thomas

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year – but why does it have to be such a stress. Melody Thomas gives her top tips to enjoy the season to the fullest.

This time last year, I told my doctor I was ready to come off antidepressants. “That’s great,” she said, “But I usually recommend people wait until after Christmas.” I didn’t understand. The only plans I had were to hang out with family, read books under trees and swim at every opportunity… Why would I need to be buoyed by SSRIs?

Oh ho ho, what a beautiful fool I was. I’d gone and remembered only the great things about the silly season, repressing the stress and overwhelm that every year grows so bad we concoct plans to opt out and go camping instead (to date we haven’t followed through). Yes, Christmas is beautiful, a time where the demands of work and school melt away, leaving just the things that matter: family, food and hedonism. But it’s also an absolute shit show, relying on hours and hours of planning, purchasing, list-making and schedule coordination RIGHT at the time of year when we’re all ready to collapse. It’s like getting to the marathon finishing line only to be told “Whoops! We forgot to tell you, there’s just another 26 miles to go!”

And I know I’m not the only person who finds it a bit much. In 2018, more than half of New Zealanders reported feeling additional financial and social stress during the festive season, a statistic which will only have got worse with covid and the rising cost of living. But summer also provides the best opportunities we’ll get all year for play, rest and connection: which happen to be exactly the things we need to get through the tough stuff. How can we be sure not to squander this chance?

I’m not an expert, but I’ve done a lot of thinking, googling and talking to smart, less-stressed friends. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Favour magic over the material

When I think back on my childhood Christmases, I don’t remember a single gift. (That’s a lie, I remember one: a gymnastics Barbie I adored until I undressed her and discovered the ugly jointed limbs that enabled her to bend, and ruined any chance for me to re-dress her in skirts or short sleeves for fashion shows). My fondest memories are of Christmas Eve, when we would gather over chocolate fondue and sing carols, dipping strawberries, banana, and marshmallow into warm, melted chocolate and belting out the classics with the old CD player, the freshly-decorated tree twinkling in the background.

My friends’ best memories are similarly wholesome: a Mum sprinkling flour around her gumboots to create Santa footprints on the floor; the whole family piling into the car and driving to the wealthiest suburbs to rate their Christmas lights; Christmas stockings with cherries in the toes; freezing ocean swims the whole neighbourhood attended, and carrots with teeth marks which could only have been made by reindeer.

This is the stuff that makes Christmas magic, creating memories that can warm you for a lifetime.

Make your own traditions

Some family traditions are non-negotiable, but there might be some you can opt out of and replace with something that suits you all better. Who’s to say we can’t go camping for Christmas!? Who’s to say you can’t have a giant potluck lunch instead of dinner, or fork out for a special family experience rather than a lot of small gifts? We’re the grown-ups now! We get to make the rules! And surely every tradition started off as something random someone did once, then decided to repeat because people enjoyed it.

We recently did a Secret Santa among the adults.  All presents had to be either handmade or from an op shop, and it was the best Secret Santa we’ve ever done. Because you couldn’t just get a voucher or a last-minute something from the shops, every gift was so thoughtful, plus the random magic of the opshops brought a bit of comedy too. 10/10, will do again.

I also invented a wholesome gift-tradition you’re welcome to copy: the Christmas fruit basket. You know when you’re at the supermarket and your kids want to buy a coconut, but you say no because you know who’ll be opening the coconut and cleaning up the fleshy mess at the end? Or they beg to have a whole $5 mango to themselves but you make them share it with their sibling? For the Christmas fruit basket you take the fruits you said no to all year and you pile them all into a basket just for them, no sharing required. Because it’s summer, the most delicious fruits are in season, so it doesn’t have to be crazy expensive. And the kids love it! They run to their fruit baskets before anything else, then spend the day walking around with smug grins and juice dripping off their chins, the bellies full of actual nutrition (as well as everything else).

Spend time in nature

The pōhutukawa are in bloom (have you noticed the variety with yellow flowers? Keep an eye out!). In spring the shining cuckoo made an appearance, and her distinctive call  rings out over the top of the rustling ngahere from now until autumn (familiarise yourself with it here – once you know it you can’t miss it! It’s always a joy to hear the first call of the year, announcing that the sun has arrived).  And every rose has her lovely face turned up for admiring and inhaling.

If you’re staying in Pōneke, this is a great time to make the most of the city’s wonderful walks. Maybe you could make a list and see how many you can tick off? (This is a great one!) Remember the ferry to Matiu/Somes and the train to Paekakariki for the escarpment track are both half price until January!

KISS – Keep It Simple, Sexy.

I don’t know about you, but I do love to over-complicate things! Maybe this year I’ll surprise everyone and keep the options simple.

Here are some shortcuts nobody will even notice you’ve taken (though you’ll be sure to feel guilty about it anyway.)

  • Buy a pavlova and decorate it rather than making it from scratch.
  • Throw yum things in a bowl and call it trifle.
  • Make dinner a picnic or a BBQ so you don’t need to set the table.
  • Tell the kids if they don’t clean up after presents are opened you’re taking them back!
  • Tell the extended family you donated money to charity instead of getting them gifts this year … if they complain, they’re the assholes!
  • Just leave the tree up again until next year. Every day is Christmas!
  • If it’s raining and the kids are losing it, watch Elf, the best Christmas movie ever made.

Some final thoughts:

If you don’t have the energy to call out your racist uncle / conspiracy theorist aunt this year, that’s ok. It’s important to call out ignorance and hatred, but it’s also important to look after your mental health, so disengage if that’s what you need to do (and if kids witnessed it, you can always pull them aside afterwards and tell them Uncle Darren is a damn fool).

Don’t let diet culture ruin this delicious time. It’s ok to enjoy all the amazing foods! You’re not naughty or bad, it’s not a ‘guilty pleasure’, you’re just a human living their one short life to the full, and that includes treating your tastebuds. If you can manage to keep up exercise over summer (because it makes you FEEL GOOD, not because you’re ‘burning it off’) then well done! If not, pick it up again when you can, and get a buzz from gentle bush strolls and ocean swims in the meantime.

And don’t you dare let dumb ideas of what constitutes a ‘beach body’ get between you and that ocean! Life is too short to miss out on the feel of cool seawater kissing your wonderful skin.

Finally, it’s gin season. I’ve just learned gin is one of the most popular drinks among swingers. Get amongst it! (The gin that is. But why not both?

What I’m cooking

Anna Jones’ Sticky Green Bean and Chilli Paneer

This recipe is perfect for summer nights when you have zero energy but want something delicious, light and full of nutrition. You can get paneer at most supermarkets, and the recipe is easily made vegan by switching paneer for firm tofu (and a different sweetener for honey).

We serve it with rice, plus naan if we’re extra hungry, and the meal goes from very yum to outstanding with Mother’s Pickle on the side (which you can get from any Indian supermarket, or online).

I’ve also started bringing out my favourite cake recipe again, the Raspberry Buttermilk Cake from Smitten Kitchen. It’s more of an everyday cake than a celebration cake, perfect alongside a cuppa at morning or afternoon tea, and you can replace raspberries with any other fruit you like (especially tart fruit: rhubarb is one of our favourites). Don’t stress about the buttermilk, just squeeze some lemon juice into regular milk and leave it to sit for a bit and you’re good to go (proper instructions at the link).

What I’m watching

The White Lotus (Season 2)

God, it’s so good! The greatest show since Succession and Fleabag! I don’t wanna watch anything else!

The White Lotus storyline follows a group of wealthy vacationers holidaying at an idyllic resort, the geographic location changing from season to season (season 1: Maui, season 2: Sicily). As the days pass, things begin to unravel, and the picture-perfect facade crumbles to reveal dark and twisted currents in the lives of the travellers and staff.

Beautiful, trippy and unhinged. The music! The scenery! The Instagram accounts of the actors having the time of their lives on location! It’s got it all.

What I’m reading

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

I first discovered Maggie O’Farrell through her remarkable, novel Hamnet, the fictional account of the death of Shakespeare’s 11-year old son in 1596. Hamnet is devastating, grounded in the domestic yet full of magic, and astoundingly beautiful. It won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020.

I bought The Marriage Portrait on a whim from Unity Books simply because I had loved Hamnet and the cover was beautiful.The Marriage Portrait is set in Renaissance Italy, and tells the story of duchess Lucrezia de Medici, who at just 13 was married to 24-year-old Alfonso d’Este. Soon after her marriage, Lucrezia died of pulmonary tuberculosis, but rumours circulated that she had actually been poisoned on the orders of her husband. This is the version of events O’Farrell chooses to tell, and the story that results is tense, very beautiful and – like everything I’ve read from O’Farrell’s so far – stays with you long after you’ve put it down.


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