Well it is that time of year again – there are chocolate reindeer in the shops and the church fair organisers are asking for donations so it must be time for the annual Clergy Spouse (CS) Christmas post. This will be my seventh Christmas as a CS but the first remains the one I most vividly remember. Something about Christmas seemed to magnify the struggles I was already having – the sense of loneliness and displacement, of not knowing how I fit in with my OH’s calling and curacy church, feeling far away from family, friends and my previous life. I was pretty miserable despite having the company of my lovely in-laws. Since that first year I’ve often thought Christmas is a time when the challenges of CS life can be particularly keenly felt and many of us and our clergy other halves struggle with balancing church and family life. So here are some things which have helped me and which I hope will help others as you plan for the festive season. If nothing else I hope it will help you to know that if you’re having a hard time you are not alone and there is no shame in finding things difficult
- Accept, grieve, get Christmas in perspective
I often dislike people’s talk of sacrifice with reference to CSs because too often the sacrifice they are referring to is unnecessary and could be prevented with some common sense and compassion. In the case of Christmas I think that for most CSs the ‘normal’ family Christmas is a genuinely unavoidable sacrifice. I’ve found fighting the reality of this sort of sacrifice just breeds misery and resentment. Most of us have to accept that being married to an ordained person will require the sacrifice that religious festivals will be different for us to most people and to life before being married to a minister. It is kinder to yourself if you accept those things you cannot change and take time to mourn the Christmas you would be having if your OH was not ordained.
Having come out of the other side of this I have found I have been able to get some perspective on Christmas and some of the more excessive aspects of how we celebrate it in Britain (I say this as someone who cried on our first married Christmas because my OH just didn’t do my stocking as well as my mum – I find this amusing now but at the time it made me truly homesick) I’ve been able to see the many positive things in our vicarage Christmases and have learnt to hold traditions a little more lightly; after all as a Christian I have to believe that Christmas is still an important day regardless of whether I get to eat my own weight in turkey or not.
2. Put family time in the diary now and plan ahead
I feel slightly cheeky suggesting this as I am not known for my organisational skills, however I do aspire to be someone who plans ahead. As at all other times of the year your family unit is important and should be a priority for your OH. There is no getting away from the fact that things will be busy but if you put time in the diary you can ensure you get time together. It is worth thinking through as a family how you will get done all the practical things which are important to you, such as present shopping and food preparation. If getting the tree together is an important tradition put that in the diary so it can’t be booked up by something else. As ever communication is really important – do not assume that your OH will realise without being told what you expect and hope from them during Advent and Christmas. Planning ahead can also be assisted by a debrief soon after Christmas while you can still remember what went well and what you might do differently the next year.
3. Be realistic about what you can manage as a family
When both partners are heavily involved in Christmas events along with all the other aspects of their life it can lead to a very exhausted pair of people. Be realistic about what you can reasonably do. Learn to say no. Keep a close eye on the diary and ring the alarm when it is getting too full. Do not feel you have failed if you buy mince pies instead of making them from scratch (unless like me you find making mince pies and eating them fresh from the oven to be one of life’s greatest pleaures, in which case set aside time for that in your diary so you don’t miss out).
This realism also needs to extend to arrangements you make for celebrating Christmas as a family. If some of the relationships between people in your family are a source of tension or conflict combining these difficult family dynamics with a very tired vicar and/or CS may not be for the best for anyone. There is so much pressure to see family on Christmas Day you may find not everyone understands if you choose not to but it may be worth standing firm in this decision if it avoids huge amounts of stress. You can make time to see extended family at another time when you hopefully have the energy to deal with it better.
4. Christmas is just a day we happen to have labelled ‘Christmas’
There is a tremendous amount of pressure to have ‘the perfect Christmas’ and although we seem to do Christmas for all of December the climax is still the 25th. It is easy to become fixated on this one day and feel you have to have the special meal/open presents/see all your family otherwise it will be a failure. It is worth taking a step back and asking whether all of these things really do have to be done then and if they are essential elements of Christmas Day or even of Christmas altogether. If they don’t fit with your OH’s schedule could you just do things completely differently to how we have learnt to think things have to be? Having a special meal a few days later with family feels just as great as doing it on the 25th. If opening presents on Christmas Eve makes more sense why wait for the next day. If you are too tired to cook on Christmas Day why not have a tradition of having pizza in your pyjamas. Being forced to do Christmas differently each year has made me much more relaxed about how we do things and having small children has also been an eye opener – they are so easily pleased it makes me wonder if the adult world has lost the plot a bit in the way Christmas celebration is now so excessive. A bit of creativity and flexibility can go a long way and you may even find it refreshing to break with the old way of doing things.
5. Do Advent and the 12 days of Christmas
Since you are forced to some extent to be out of step with how everyone else is doing Christmas this can be an opportunity to find a calmer way of approaching the whole season. Advent used to be a time of preparation and expectation but now gets little attention as Christmas events run throughout. Ian Paul on his blog http://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/can-we-undo-the-consumer-frenzy-of-christmas/ draws attention to Ruth Grayson’s idea of reviving Advent and the 12 days of Christmas, even rescheduling church events to fall after Christmas to make Advent less busy. You may not be able to persuade your church to reschedule everything this year (although you have the Rev’s ear so you could give it a go!) but if you can revive Advent and the 12 days of Christmas in your own home you may find it takes some pressure off the 25th. I’ve found the important thing for me is having time with family and friends across the whole season of Advent and Christmas rather than focusing on what we do on just one day.
6. Do not do anything simply to fulfil expectations
Some people you encounter may have fixed ideas about how Christmas should be done both in the church and the vicarage. As ever with the expectations issue the advice is to do what you feel is right rather than what you feel (or have been told) is expected. Every family is different and just because something worked for the previous vicarage dwellers that does not mean every vicar who follows is committed to doing the same thing.
7. Make the most of the perks where you find them
If you can find at least one positive thing to focus on this can help even if overall you are finding things tough. I have learnt the hard way that many situations are out of my control but how I approach them is my responsibility. If I constantly focus on the negatives I am just destroying my own peace of mind. Finding things to be grateful for especially if they are perks of OH’s job can help me feel more positive even in the midst of challenging times. I find this is only possible though if I have allowed myself to go through point 1 above.
8. Find support
For me CSs are the ultimate support when it comes to times like Christmas because they are going through exactly the same thing and understand where you’re coming from without any explanation needed. Whether it be in person or through Facebook groups it is worth connecting with other CSs. There is a lovely sense of solidarity amongst CSs, especially at times like Christmas, which can help tackle feelings of loneliness. See previous blog posts or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how to get involved in a CS Facebook group.