Book Review: Reviving Advent, Reclaiming Christmas

Reviving Advent, Reclaiming Christmas by Ruth Grayson. Grove Books Ltd 2015

I have called this a book review but it would be more accurate to call it a booklet review. It is only 25 pages long but Ruth Grayson manages to give plenty of food for thought in this slim volume. Reading it made me realise how little thought I have given to Advent and that I have tended to see it as a countdown to Christmas rather than an important time of reflection in its own right. Grayson compares it with Lent and points out that there are many more resources to guide us through Lent than there are for Advent, which is ‘remarkable’ considering how important Christmas is in the church calendar. She suggests that this indicates a lack of time to spend in quiet reflection because the festive season is so busy, one of the problems she is keen for the church to tackle.

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The Clergy Family Christmas: Tackling the Challenges

My previous post outlined some of the challenges which may be faced by a CS at Christmas. Below is a list of thoughts on dealing with these pressures. Some are practical, others are about our own perspective on Christmas. The more I think on it the more I feel that we need to reassess our approach, as individuals and as a church, to Christmas. Is the exhaustion of so many clergy and CSs (and often many other people within and outside the church) by the 25th a sign of a deeper problem? I would argue that it is and that many of us need to find a new way of doing things so that Christmas can be a joy-giver rather than a joy-stealer.

  1. 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 not necessary and could be prevented with a bit of common sense and compassion. So I try to avoid encouraging CSs to grin and bear whatever sacrifice others require of them as the unnecessary difficulties many experience was my main motivation for starting this blog. 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. So you probably will have to accept that being married to an ordained person will require the sacrifice that religious festivals will be different for you 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. Keep communicating with your spouse and let them know how you feel, not to make them feel guilty but so you can be supported. Keeping your feelings under wraps often just leads to brewing resentment and then some sort of explosion further down the line.

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

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. If getting the tree as a family is an important tradition put that in the diary so it can’t be booked up by something else. By having time set aside for family and friends you will all be better able to spread the joy of the season to others. It is a sad state of affairs when the people most closely involved in Christmas in the church are the ones who come to find the least joy in that time of the year through being overworked.

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 truly 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 all be a failure. However it is worth taking a step back and asking whether all of these things really do have to be done then at all 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. We’ve had years where New Year’s Eve has been our second Christmas with extended family and it has been lovely to enjoy it with a husband who has had most of the week off and is well rested. 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 family time 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

I mentioned in my previous post that 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

There is an upside to most situations. Last year my OH did a christingle service which I took our toddler and baby along to, worrying it could be a bit challenging to manage Mikey on my own in such a big space as his little brother was only 6 weeks old. OH had a giant model of a christingle orange and had used dried figs as raisins. He recklessly left the open packet of figs on a pew at the front…and Mikey stopped running around for long enough to help himself, which then encouraged the other small children to tuck in too. There is a lot to be said for not feeling embarassed when this sort of thing happens because said child’s father is the one taking the service. It was also lovely that once other parents saw Mikey running around causing mischief they stopped trying to hang on to their own toddlers, making for a more relaxed time for everyone. Take the blessings where you find them, once you conciously try to notice them you find more and more even if you are simultaneously having a hard time.

My perspective is limited by the fact that our children are small and have no preconceived ideas of how Christmas should be. Our family Christmases will always have been formed to fit with the church schedule and will be their ‘normal’. I would guess that it can be harder helping older children to adjust to the change and that they will miss the parent who has to be very busy at this time of year. If you know other clergy families who have been through this it may well be worth seeking advice on how they coped. The CS support groups on Facebook are great places to ask what other people do and find inspiration for forming your own way of doing things. You never know, you may find rethinking Christmas leads you to a far more joyful way of experiencing the season….but if that doesn’t happen remember your fellow CSs know what you’re going through, you are not alone even if the festive season feels like a lonely time.

The Clergy Family Christmas: Potential Challenges

There are mince pies in the shops and I know more than one person who could tell you to the day where we are in the Christmas countdown. So I hope I will be forgiven for bringing this topic up in October but a bit of forward thinking and planning could help in tackling the interesting experience that is Christmas in the vicarage. I know that some CSs find this a particularly challenging season, especially in the early years of ordination when it is all new. I am now approaching my 6th vicarage Christmas and will outline below the challenges I have identified through my own and others’ experiences. In a second post I will look at potential strategies for dealing with them. It is by no means an exhaustive list but I hope it will help you in thinking about how to make Christmas a joyful time rather than a joy-stealer in your home. Continue reading

Surviving and Thriving: Time Off (Section 2)

There can be a significant difference between the time clergy are entitled to take off and how much they actually take. If you also work this can make it even more challenging to get a decent amount of time together. Clergy by no means have a monopoly on over working but they do seem to have become renowned for it. As someone who has never come anywhere near being a workaholic I find the issue fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. So here are some of my musings on why clergy families may struggle to find time together and potential things you can do to help.

1) Your clergy person has too much work. Some clergy have so much work they can only get it done by working very long hours. If they realise that they have too much work the first port of call is their Archdeacon, with whom they can discuss their workload. The challenge here is that they have to recognise there is a problem. There are not many congregations who will complain that their priest is working too hard – you may be the only one who will point out that they have taken on too much.

2) You have too much work. Many spouses are in jobs which are just as demanding as clergy roles. If you do shift work you have the added pressure of not being able to guarantee you will have your day off on the same day each week. This is where you have to make the most of the clergy person’s flexible schedule and fit in time together wherever you can. As usual the key thing is to plan ahead – if you don’t carve out the space it will be filled by work or chores. Continue reading

Surviving and Thriving: Time off (section 1)

I have not done a post for a while as (very appropriately considering this post’s topic) we have been away and had family visiting. I have also been having a fun time going on to all the diocesan websites and seeking out their clergy handbooks, which I hope demonstrates my dedication to the CS cause. I now know more about diocesan policies on annual leave than is healthy but I wanted to get a clear picture of what the actual guidelines are, as moving dioceses made me realise that each area does things a bit differently. There is much to be said about how time off and clergy workloads affect clergy spouses, so I will do a couple of posts sharing my experiences.

The take home message I got from reading the handbooks is that the guidelines do allow for a decent amount of time off. The baseline minimum for all clergy seems to be:

  • 36 days a year
  • bank holidays (or time in lieu if the bank holiday is a work day)
  • 24hrs off each week

These are the basic entitlements for clergy in common tenure positions. As I understand it (please correct me if I’m wrong) those with freehold are not ‘entitled’ to this time but are encouraged to have the same amount of leave. In addition to the structured time off, most dioceses have extra guidelines. These can be found in your diocesan clergy handbook which outline policies on time off, along with lots of other information, so they are worth a read for you as well as your spouse. I will put up a separate post with links to all the handbooks (except for the odd one I couldn’t find) so that you can locate them easily if you don’t have a hard copy/want to look at what a potential future diocese does.

Most handbooks give advice on how clergy can look after themselves, and their family, whilst working 6 days a week. They encourage clergy to use the flexibility of their hours to the best of their advantage. Suggestions are:

  • Where the morning, afternoon and evening are each a ”session” try to work only 2 out of 3 sessions each day
  • If you do too many days working all 3 sessions, take a day/part of a day off elsewhere in the week
  • Have a light day per week
  • Aim for a 48-50hr working week
  • Ensure you have time each day for yourself
  • Take time in the working week to do family things/household tasks etc

If you and your clergy person use this time well it can make life much more manageable and fun. Some clergy keep the same time each day free. This means that others learn not to expect them to be available at this time. Or you can keep things flexible – we do this at the moment as our baby is not in a reliable schedule. The danger of this is that if you don’t have a set time it is easy to fill the whole day with work. To protect against this we have a set of aims: for James to spend at least 30mins with us during the day, for him to do baby bath time at least once a week and to have a significant chunk of time with the baby each week (separate from the day off). He is also very strict about using time in the week to do chores, tasks etc so that the day off really is a day off and not spent catching up on non-work related things. We’ve found you have to put thought and intention into finding a balance, to sit down and agree on what is reasonable. By writing down our aims we can easily see if they are not being met.

Of course this is all easier said than done. There are aspects of the clergy life, and life in general, which can make it a challenge to get enough time together. In my next post I will look at these difficulties and potential ways of dealing with them.