By the time you read this Christmas will be over but I still wanted to share with you the remainder of my Alternative Advent Calendar. Maybe one of the ideas will feel relevant to you in this ‘in-between’ time, as we start to think about a new year.

For me this year Christmas has been good. Lots of happy memories made. When I think about my favourite moments, they are not about presents, or meticulously planned meals or parties, they are the time I spent with those I love most, sharing a laugh, or dancing in the kitchen, or snuggled on the sofa. It was the private joke with my ten year old where we understood each other by simply raising our eyebrows, or the handmade card my eldest left on my bed for me tonight, or the walk round the block in the rain with my husband after we had finished clearing up after dinner.

Next year I’m going to try and remember these things and stop stressing about the stuff that doesn’t really matter.

Hope you have had a great Christmas. Here is the final instalment of my alternative advent calendar. Hope you enjoy it.

December 17th
The Gift of Imperfection.

A confession. 
I am a little embarrassed to admit to this.
After all, I am the person who writes this Alternative Advent Calendar, who encourages us to remember what really matters, who reminds us that stuff is not what matters but people, who urges honesty over perfectionism…

And yet.

Today we had an impromptu family gathering. Two of my sisters, their husbands and kids came over for the afternoon. Six adults and eight kids sat down to dinner; pulled pork I made yesterday and a homemade crumble my eldest made today. It was fun and chaotic and I enjoyed it entirely. I patted myself on the back. This relaxed Christmas seemed to be going pretty well.

I moved the table to fit the chairs around it. As I did, I brushed against the Christmas tree. And, to my horror, a week before the big day, a flutter of needles hit the ground. I ran my fingers along a branch and was gutted when I realised how dry my tree really was. I wonder if it will survive the week. If it will still be green next Sunday.

I am ashamed to say I have mentioned this four times to my husband today. And I keep getting the sad feeling about it.

I know. Seriously?
It’s a tree. Who cares?

But I do. Despite my protestations, I wanted everything to be perfect. I wanted a Christmas full of memory making specialness.

And so I am reminding myself again that perfectionism is death.
Did you hear that?
Death.
Anne Lamott says:
‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.’

Let’s celebrate imperfection. Let’s relax and go with the flow. Let’s be open to change and things not working out as we planned.

Give yourself the gift of Imperfection today.

December 18th
The Gift of Beauty.

My favourite quote ever is :
‘Beauty will save the world’.*
This is my favourite collection of words. 

And I believe it.

Beauty restores. Beauty comforts. Beauty heals.

Beauty brings hope when all looks hopeless. Beauty reminds us of the possibility of goodness in the world.
Beauty saves.

I have friends who know I am a beauty seeker.
One of these lovely ones text me today to tell me that she kept catching glimpses of the river from the bus she was on. She prompted me to get out of the house and soak up some beauty.

On these days when the evening comes around really quickly you have to chase down the beauty while you can.

I am grateful for beauty, for the river at the bottom of the road and for friends who know me well enough to know what I love.

Give yourself the gift of Beauty today. Seek it out. Soak it in. On these dark days, let hope rise.

December 19th
The Gift of Reflection.

Before we get to next week and we start to think about what we hope for the year to come, give yourself the gift of looking back.

At around this time my husband and I have a lot of conversations about what this year has been full of: what have we learnt? what was our favourite moment? what times were difficult? what could we have done differently?

These conversations can be humorous and fill us with gratitude as we remember highlights: things the kids have said, times of celebration, holidays and achievements. These conversations can be revealing as we realise which moments or events have shaped us the most, which times were restorative and which drained us of energy. Sometimes these conversations can be challenging as we remember disagreements or times we were hurt or tired or grieving.

Whatever the year has been like it is worth discussing. Looking back can give you the courage and commitment to make changes you need to make, it can put things into perspective and it can help you to make plans.

For me I have two stand out highlights of the year, travelling to America on my own (a witness to my greatly improved health and confidence) and a retreat I helped organise with my husband (a sign of how our worlds and influence has begun overlapping – which after 15 years of working entirely separately feels both strange and good).
What about you?

Give yourself the gift of Refection today. Find a loved one and take some time to think back over the year. How have you changed? What have you learnt? What have been your highlights and lowlights?
You might be surprised what you discover. It might help you make plans for the year to come. It might help you decide what is going to bring you life to the full as you approach 2017?
Give yourself the gift of Reflection today.

December 20th
The Gift of a ‘me too’ friend.

After Mary had what must have been an exceptionally strange and scary night when the angel visited her and told her she was to carry and give birth to the messiah, the first thing she did was to go and visit her cousin, Elizabeth.

When the usual or unexpected things happen we need someone to bear witness to what has happened. Talking is the way we begin to make sense of it, to come to terms with it, to accept it.

When Mary went to visit Elizabeth not only did she find a trusted friend with whom to share her burden of great news, but she also found a ‘me too’ friend.
Luke’s gospel describes how the angel spoke to Mary not only of the miraculous events that were to happen through her, but he also told her about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, happening in her later years although she was not able to carry a child.

Elizabeth’s story is important in its own right but I love this detail in the gospel, this personal touch, this gift of comfort to Mary that she would have someone who knew something of what she was going through. Yes, she was the only woman in the whole of time who would ever carry the saviour of the world, but at her right hand, her own flesh and blood was also experiencing a miraculous pregnancy, had also been visited by an angel. She had a ‘me too’ friend.

We need these people in our lives.
Over the past seven or so years I have battled with anxiety and depression. I know the importance of a ‘me too’ friend. When I was first diagnosed a friend turned up unexpectedly in my front room and shared with me that he was going through the same things. We laughed at the similarity and wondered at the timing of this conversation – just when we had thought we were alone in feeling how we did.

Without ‘me too’ friends we can live a life in secret, which often ends up a life of shame, where we think no one could have experienced what we are going through, no one could understand. We pull away from people, we forget, or refuse, to share who we really are. We live half a life.

You cannot give yourself the gift of a ‘me too’ friend, and I cannot find one for you (I wish I could) but if you do not have one you can start the process by being honest about how you really feel, you might be surprised at how quickly you find you are not alone. And if you are fortunate enough to have a ‘me too’ friend why not text them to thank them for being that person in your life?

December 21st
The Gift of Comfort.

If you look closely you may notice that yesterday I used the words ‘the gift of comfort’ to describe the gift Elizabeth was to Mary, someone who could share with her and be there for her.

We are not very good at allowing ourselves the gift of comfort. The word has become allied to images of slovenly behaviour and excess. We use the word to talk about clothing that is generous around the waist, chairs that invite relaxation and food that is indulgent and lacking in nutrition.

But we are in need of comfort.
The world is a scary place. The events of the past few days, as well as the past year, and all the years that went before, prove this.
And we are here. We can feel vulnerable, prone to despair, lonely, even desperate.

So often we think the answer is always action. Move on quickly so we don’t have to think about it, busy ourselves with activities so we can feel we are doing something about it, distract ourselves with pleasure to help us forget.

But there is one thing we rarely remember to do. We forget to give ourselves the gift of comfort.

I was with a friend today who is grieving. It was hard to know how to comfort, but we talked and did not rush. There was silence and companionship. We sat with the reality of the past week. We cried. We hugged. In our inexpert ways we offered comfort.

This coming weekend we celebrate the birth of Jesus who was sent to earth so we would have a saviour who knew what it was to be human, to need comfort.

If Christmas is difficult for you, as it is for so many, how can you begin to offer yourself the gift of comfort?

Maybe it is about gathering with close friends and honestly sharing how you are feeling.
Maybe it is about being outside and allowing the indifference of nature to comfort you.
Maybe it is about giving yourself permission to have a good cry (as my therapist would say ‘all crying is therapeutic’.)

It is going to look different for everyone, but, especially if this is a hard time, stop and think about how you can offer yourself the gift of comfort this Christmas. Comfort is not a guilty pleasure, it is a necessary balm that enables healing to begin.
Give yourself the gift of Comfort today.

December 22nd
The Gift of Less

I know it might seem too late in the day to be suggesting this, but it is still possible to give yourself the gift of Less this Christmas. 
Less stuff, less stress, less busyness.

I love Christmas and I used to think the more I did the better it would be. If I had ALL the food and ALL the decorations and if I went to ALL the carol services and ALL the parties then I would have the best Christmas.
.
But, even with something you love, it is possible to fill your plate so full of good things you have no time to enjoy any of it.

The next few days can very easily get overwhelming. The kids can become fraught and overtired, and so can I.
So this year, I am having a Less Christmas. I have still bought and wrapped gifts and I have still got cupboards full of food, but, for me, this year is simpler. I have arranged fewer outings and activities for the kids and we are generally going slower. It feels good.

I made a decision at the beginning of December about what I wanted my Christmas to look like. I chose ‘time with those I love most’ as the remit. I am slowing down to make sure I don’t miss this in the craziness of the season.

I have planned a few lovely things to do over this coming weekend but I have also put in place some structure to enable rest and quiet, time to play games and snuggle on the couch. Yes it is all going to get a bit silly at some point and there will probably by tears from some of us, I cannot control my way to a perfect Christmas, but by allowing space for us to take the days a bit slower I am hopeful we might enjoy the time together more.

Give yourself the gift of Less this Christmas. Put a few boundaries in place for your sanity.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you will find by giving yourself less, you will have more to give to those who matter most.

December 23rd
The Gift of Grace

So here we are. Christmas Eve Eve.

Anticipation is rising. In our house the seven year old can barely contain his excitement. The list of what has to be done seems endless.

So today I offer you the gift of grace. Give grace to yourself.

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Christ, the ultimate gift of grace. He came to put things right for us so we didn’t have to spend our lives trying to make ourselves right with others, with ourselves, and ultimately with God. He came to announce an end to ladder climbing, endless striving and self effort. He came to let us off the hook, ultimately and for all time.

The weary world rejoices.

This Christmas let your self salvation projects cease. Put down your need for perfection. Lower the bar. Reduce your expectations.
The weight of everything is not in your hands.
The pressure is off.

If my truth is not your belief, please still offer yourself the gift of grace this Christmas. On this day we need it more than ever.
Relax. Release yourself from the need to meet everyone’s (unrealistic) expectations. Christmas is a day, with all that a day holds. Good, bad, ugly. Sorrow and joy. Exhaustion and celebration. It is not your responsibility.
So maybe you haven’t got everything wrapped and the turkey is dry. Maybe there is a family row that simmers all day. Maybe the Christmas tree lights are broken and someone is disappointed. It is just a day. 24 hours. Don’t busy yourself with all the things you think you need to make it special and miss the joy of being together.

Enjoy the good, don’t sweat the bad. Hold it lightly.
In a year we will be doing it all again, and we have 364 days to enjoy before then.

Offer yourself the grace to take the time you need, to have to rest you need, the space that you need. Be together. Be alone. Cry. Laugh. Let yourself off the hook.

Give yourself the gift of grace this Christmas. Please decide now that you will. Love yourself. Treat yourself with kindness.

December 24th
The Gift of Hope

And so, this is Christmas.

We’re here. The time has come.

And amongst all the wrapping paper and food and festivities I am looking for moments in which to remember the good news and the better news. (As the old Jesuit saying goes).
The good news: there is a messiah.
The better news: it’s not you.

The jig is up. The case is cracked.
The weight of the world does not sit on my shoulders.
And every time I act like it does I am forgetting the gift of Christmas.

For every one who feels life is out of control and they need to try harder to fix it. For anyone who wonders how they ended up here and are sure that if only they worked a little more they would be able to correct it and make everyone happy, hear the gift of hope today.

The weight of the world is not on your shoulders.
You do not need to do anything to find acceptance.
You do not need to try harder or sacrifice more to know love.

Remember the words of the angel to Mary, a terrified uneducated teenage girl, living in an occupied state with nothing to offer; no hard work, no ministry, no reputation or standing. He said:
“Greetings, you who are highly favoured”
“Rejoice, highly favoured one, blessed are you among women”
And this approval comes before Mary has done anything. She is already blessed, and it is not dependent on her cooperation or her behaviour.
She is favoured. Before. She is accepted, she is loved. Already.

And the angel’s words were not just for Mary.
They are also for me.
And they are also for you.

And this is the gift of hope for you this weekend: you are favoured.
Lean in to hear the whisper of truth: you are loved.

For that was and is the purpose of these events that happened thousands of years ago. For this was the reason God squeezed himself into the skin of a human and lived and died on the earth: to show you, to prove to you, that you are accepted. No ifs, no buts. No pre-requisite. Before you have done anything to earn it and whatever may happen in the future, whatever you may do. You are loved.

To let you know the weight of the world does not rest on your shoulders.

Receive the gift of hope today. You are known, loved and you belong.

Big love xx

As you clear up the decorations and start to put the house back in order may you know peace, experience rest and look forward to the coming year.