Why there’s no Elf on the Shelf in my house and other Christmas musings

Child of the eighties, born in December, and the middle one of three siblings, the twelfth month of every year was defined by increasing levels of anticipation. The longest 25 days of the diary were punctuated by moments of ecstasy every 72 hours when it was my turn to open the advent calendar.

We’d have a new one each year but with three of us sharing the words “my turn” were wet-myself-wondrous. Hopping-on-the-spot levels of anticipation were reminiscent of the need-a-wee-shapes I would break at every summer service station stop.

I’d hold my breath and listen for that tiny satisfying crack that told me this one hadn’t been tampered with by sneaky sibling digits, and with barely contained excitement I’d ease that door open to reveal…

…a picture.

No toy to add to a ready-made scene, no present exquisitely wrapped, not even a chocolate to chew in determined enjoyment despite it tasting upsettingly similar to the cardboard it came in.

Nope, just a picture.

And I bloody loved it.

I’d fend off envy that it was my siblings’ turn by fetching down the previous years’ calendars from the loft. I’d play with them endlessly, pretending it was the first time I’d ever opened those doors, even though their edges would never again meet quite as closely as they once had. Occasionally I’d take a cheeky peek at number 24 way before its time.

We would buy our family Christmas tree on whichever weekend fell closest to my birthday, a tradition which meant we were often more than half-way through December before twinkling lights and tinsel made an appearance in our home.

It’s a tradition that my parents still uphold, although these days I wonder whether it was borne from reducing the necessary daily hoovering in the days before non-drop trees. Every slammed door would be followed by the whispers of branches unsheathing themselves needle by needle, and in a house full of teenagers it’s a wonder it wasn’t bald by the time Christmas Day rolled around.

It is these kinds of memories I have returned to several times over the last few weeks. I’ve been jokingly justifying my decisions not to participate in Elf on the Shelf, not to buy and wrap up 24 tiny presents or books for each child, or to think up 24 festive-fun activities to open each morning.

I’ve called myself “lazy” while not actually thinking I am, and wondered where people get the money, but underneath it all I’ve also spent too much time thinking that perhaps my children are being served the festive equivalent of chicken on Christmas Day – it kind of looks the same but is just a bit everyday.

Whenever I’ve told my daughter that No, the Christmas Elf has not filled the advent calendar up yet because she’s waiting for you to get dressed, I’ve wondered if I’m just being heartless and cruel.

When a crafting-induced fit of rebellion saw me throw the remnants of our creativity out of the back door, I spied an opportunity and used the sprinkling of sparkly stuff and lonely purple pompom as evidence of the Christmas Elf’s visit. My heart broke a little as I watched the girl wander in her socks into the garden shouting for Rudolph, worried that he might be stranded, and I marveled in mildly-appreciative horror at my own manipulative cynicism.

Despite my more machiavellian tendencies however, this year in particular I have felt the pressure of making Christmas “come alive” for my little girl. She’s four now, is really feeling the festive flavour, and her pleasure when The Big Man in red paid a visit to the nursery Christmas party made me kick myself hard for scorning the annual stampede to book tickets to the best grotto in town. It sells out by the end of August.

We call her our “magic”. Originating in the mists of time impenetrably fogged by too many sleepless nights, it’s a pet name which has come to represent the wonder with which we look at her as she spells her own name and other ubiquitous rites of passage that nonetheless stop us in our tracks.

But what if I’m depriving my magic, of her’s?

And so here we are again, caught up in the same old guilt-ridden cycle. Its spidery-tentacles stretch out around us like a creepy hangover from the horribly comercialised Halloween. They’re so transparent they are easily overlooked, until we find ourselves observing what other people are doing, how other people are celebrating, and wonder if we are getting it wrong.

I wonder if I should have done Elf on the Shelf. I’m full of admiration for some of the brilliance I have witnessed on social media (that wily mistress with her kleptomaniac tendencies for joy) but I guiltily feel like I’m under enough pressure as it is.

“Just” this one more thing to do might be the elf that broke the reindeer’s back, and the price-tag of the “real thing” makes me wince at the thought that this is just another idea dreamed up by commercial interests who’re exploiting the lucrative fertile ground of middle class parent’s concerns about being and doing “enough”.

But then I think enough.

Because Christmas will be magical because Christmas is magical.

I clearly remember driving back from my aunt’s house late one Christmas Eve and being convinced I’d seen Father Christmas’s sleigh through the car window. I didn’t want him to know I’d seen him as I knew this meant a lump of coal and an unwelcome satsuma in my stocking the next morning so I shut my eyes tight.

A few hours later, around a parent-punishing 4.30am, I breathed a sigh of relief when my sack of stash was waiting at the end of my bed…

It turns out that I didn’t need to be bought anything, I didn’t even need to be told anything, the magic of Christmas and a child’s imagination was all I needed to give me beautiful memories to look back on.

I didn’t need the personalised stocking – not once did I question why my presents arrived in an old pillow case that I knew for the rest of the year lived in a drawer under my bed.

I didn’t need a box full of presents on Christmas Eve – I’m pretty sure I never thought, “Christmas is brilliant but I really wish all my presents didn’t come on the same day”.

I didn’t need an advent calendar full of gifts as well as those under the tree, and I look back relieved my parents didn’t feel they had to bankrupt themselves to create the acceptable measure of magic.

As always, if you are doing these things because you want to then deck your halls, jingle those bells and eat all the figgy pudding you can manage. But none of the songs sound quite as good if you’re only singing them because you feel you should.

The truth is, I’m sure you’ll agree, is that the lights, music, trees, smells, carols, stories, The Story, food, family, smiles, and the never-ending chocolate, together create a time of year that is already like no other.

There is no need to fill it to overflowing, because just as we will all no doubt say at the end of Christmas Day’s dining, sometimes you need to know when just one more mouthful will make you feel sick, because actually you already have enough.

The Good, The B#ad and The Money

Ten months, 725 posts, £1537.56 raised for PANDAS, giveaways, charity campaigns, immeasurable hours spent “connecting” with new friends while admiring others from afar, and somehow gaining nearly 5000 lovely followers, it’s fair to say that Instagram has solidly featured in 2016 (if by “solidly featured” you mean caused arguments with the Mr and taken up more time than a newborn).

It all started as a soapbox on which to stand shouting, I have thoughts. And I wrote them down. Please read, about the blog I had started pretty much on a whim.

An act of narcissism, a desire to reach out and connect, a need to have something that was mine, that could not be undone with a sweep of a charmingly pudgy limb, or a mixture of all four, the blog was my new baby and oh how it reveled in that role.

Before I knew it, between the gridded streets of Instagram and my amateur-hour WordPress site, my time was no longer my own. Minutes spent away were minutes spent thinking about what I’d do when we were reunited and it was/ is all relentlessly done for nothing but the love.

Much like parenthood, the world of web-logging offers few pats on the back and certainly no pennies paid. At first it’s only your mum and her mate reading the words you wrote, revised, deleted and despaired over late into the night when you really should have been sleeping, so it’s often difficult to justify quite why it feels so important.

But don’t for one second imagine the playing of even the world’s tiniest violin. The beauty of spending time doing something that pays nothing is that were it to be “turned off”, the app dispensed with, and hours each week reclaimed, no one would suffer, no one would starve, no one would be shivering in the cold.

But when all is tapped and posted, I’m attempting the long game.

The over-head-scissor-kick-let’s-make-this-a-hat-trick-goal I really want to score is writing, but while Instagram has leapt out of the gates like an over-enthusiastic hare, the blog and other writing opportunities are ambling along at the pace of a tired tortoise.

We all know how that story ends though…

In the meantime I’m grappling with The Gram as a creature I never expected it to become. It started as a bit of fun like that pint-sized puppy I excitedly borrowed from a mate for a morning before I realised that pushchairs and small confused animals on leads don’t mix.

After a few hours spent tripping each other up and repeatedly cooing, “Come on” in a voice saccharine enough to rot teeth, in that case I was happy to hand her back. But when it comes to Instagram, that most seductive of mistresses – opportunity – had slipped her hot hand in mine and was leading somewhere I’d never even considered.

I’ll happily/ slightly cringingly admit that I started to think about what life could be like if I persevered, because I realised that this funny little hobby that I’m slightly embarrassed about, which most of my almost-millienial mates don’t really understand, could actually help me achieve my aims.

But with that realisation came another, because when it comes to the rules of how to play this gridded game of The Gram, I’m groping blindly in the dark.

What happens, for example, when a person you are following because you enjoy their honesty (as honest as any moment frozen in time can ever be – it’s really the difference between an image captioned “Beyonce throws shade at love-rival Rhianna”, when the video reveals she was actually about to sneeze) takes cold hard cash-money from a brand?

They attach #paid to a post and the questions inevitably surface. Are they selling out? Is this honest? Where is the integrity? Does this mark a change of direction, a departure? Is it only about the money? How much loyalty do people have? Will they be mean? Will they (the horror) unfollow?

And does any of that matter anyway?

Is it good, is it bad, afterall it’s just a little #ad (does throwing some rhyme into the mix lighten the mood?), and surely we all need The Money?

And, with these agonising over-thoughts, questions and the clear paralysis of a mind too eager for approval, have I yet made it clear that I’m talking about myself?

What’s going to happen when you lovely lot realise that over the next three weeks the much-maligned #ad will be making its inaugural appearance across my feed?

Only four times it’s only four posts four posts out of many I’ll make sure the others are good really good so people don’t hate me they won’t hate me they’ll understand it’s an experiment an experience I don’t ever have to do it again don’t worry I’ll keep my “voice” I’ve wankily insisted on that and if they make me change my voice they can do one and on and on and on… the goofy-eyed, desperate hamster running on the wheel in my mind has been squeaking this way for weeks.

Because the hard, unvarnished truth is that it IS (in part) about money. You come here for honesty? Well, that is mine.

So when someone came knocking and offered to pay me to do something I would do anyway, then the slightly stroppy side of my brain stamped her foot and said well why shouldn’t I?

But call it fate, serendipity, bad or good luck, the same week I was approached, the boss of one of Instagram’s favourite families, @mother_of_daughters, was unceremoniously splattered head-to-toe in mud slung by some members of her it-turns-out-not-so-faithful following.

The awareness that around her neck hangs a World Cup winner’s medal while I reside at the foot of the GM Vauxhall Conference, didn’t make the shit in my knickers feel any less lumpy, or smell any better. That tap-fight felt nasty, personal, and ultimately hurtful for someone just trying to make a dime, and I realised there was a lot more to this than I’d thought.

The case of what’s the difference between real people endorsing products and celebrities doing it; the argument of would you really turn down the opportunity to get paid for something you do for free; the question of why should people turn down payment if they provide entertainment and support at a cost to them of time and effort; and the accusations of jealousy and #hatersgonnahate, have already been made by countless followers alongside the inimitable force that is @mother_pukka.

It’s a strong argument it’s true, but lingering in my background is an awareness that the very people (you) who have facilitated this opportunity, are the exact same ones I stand to lose by taking it.

So here is my disclaimer, a contract you can throw in my face should I fail to adhere.

I respect your opinion if you find it distasteful and I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise, I’m just hoping you won’t jump ship just yet.

The vast vastness of vast-city majority of my posts are still going to be written by me with no purpose except to offer a laugh, a thought, or a moment of compadre-ly companionship in those “It can’t just be me” moments.

This (imagine me gesturing wildly, phone in hand, towards my computer screen) is one big experiment, I’m clueless about its direction or destination, but I don’t want to let fear of what people might think stop me trying.

And, not least, if I can earn for four posts on Instagram, what I’d be paid for TWO AND A HALF DAYS as a supply teacher, it seems clear to me that 1. the world is insane, but also 2. ‘gramming, and social-media-managing offer levels of flex previously seen only on the sprung floors of the Olympics, and I think I’d be daft not to make that leap.

In the words of my esteemed leaders, Digital Mums, this really is #workthatworks (#notanAD ;-).

So imagine me now rushing to finish this blog post sat in a branch of Costa (their tea is shite but it’s cheap). Time is doubling-down on me with the imminent death of my battery – I’m many metres and several strangers away from the nearest plug socket – and the clock ticks ever closer to the time the Grandparents down tools and depart.

But having got to the end of this rather long post (soz), I want to leave you with this thought – I’m willing to admit that maybe this #paid tag isn’t all good, but perhaps it isn’t all bad either.

And truth be told, I’m hoping, really, really hoping, you can feel a tiny spark of joy for the oddest of opportunities in this world as I head off into the night to achieve the impossible – getting paid to do bath time.