Curating Your Christmas

Deborah Sloan
6 min readDec 22, 2023


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I was having a conversation with an eleven-year-old. He’d been parented well because he seemed to have that ability to politely engage with adults who had no idea how to engage with children. He could tolerate banal topics. We’d covered when he was finishing school, his plans for the holidays, the tidiness of his room, what he wanted to be when he grew up. He was at a difficult age, so we’d avoided the man with the beard. All around us, people were scurrying about clothed in red and green. They were clutching cards because people who go to church still do that kind of thing. Mince pies were circulating. “Are you all set?” they kept asking each other. But it seemed being all set didn’t have anything to do with welcoming their saviour. It meant their wrapping had been successfully completed. I realised this eleven-year-old boy might deal with my gallstones in the future. He might extract my elderly molars, manage the sale of my forever house, fly me to the moon. Before long, eleven-year-olds would be running the country.

“You’ll probably never know the words to Once in Royal David’s City,” I said. The conversation had taken a weird turn. I’d concluded his childhood was missing something, maybe carol theology, especially the one always sung at the start of the festival of nine lessons, the first verse a cappella, a soprano leading the procession, the full choir and organ joining in for the second verse. It’s a magical moment. But, at the service we’d just attended, it hadn’t opened proceedings. The moment had passed. Carols were unsung. I didn’t recognise the alternative words to Away in a Manger. O Come All Ye had invoked the unfaithful. O Come O Come Emmanuel had possibly been banned. There were no flocks, little towns, silent nights, first Nowells. The herald angels didn’t hark. We sang Crown Him with Many Crowns, the Xmas mix. Even the potentate of time had been cancelled. Everything had been tweaked for a modern audience, a busy, time-poor one who could only cope with five lessons. I craved more, not necessarily a return to the back-to-basics nostalgias of the past but a complete re-telling of the story, an annual reminder of why we are here, the fall of humanity, the promise of the Messiah, the birth of Jesus. The minister talked about journeys — Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the shepherds from the fields, the Magi from the East, the incarnation. He described how both the common and the privileged men had come to find Jesus. Jesus was for everyone. But the women were absent. I had to imagine a shepherdess touching the manger, reaching her hand out to stroke his face in the lowly cattle shed. Mary’s part had been seriously underplayed. When she wrote Once in Royal David’s City, Cecil Frances Alexander had taken doctrines, simplified them, and put a mother upfront.

In the week leading up to Christmas, two men were talking on a podcast about their midlife faith crisis. Faith had become too complicated, they said. There were too many religious hoops to jump through. People were always made to feel guilty or inadequate. There were toxic systems which strangled them. We hadn’t just lost the true meaning of Christmas. We’d lost everything Christ stood for. When the first Bishop of Truro devised the inaugural nine lessons in the 1880s, it was to bring the community out of the pubs and lift them to a higher place. It was for the poor and mean and lowly. It wasn’t meant for the middle classes and the already blessed and the intellectuals and the ones whose addictions like social media and validation supposedly come lower down the addictive pecking order. “Love and kindness,” the two men said, “love and kindness”. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s why we’re here. We are food for each other’s journey”.

And I thought about the relief it would be to not give presents but just be gifts to each other, the joy I would feel at abandoning ritualistic over-indulgent obligations and replacing them with a simple act of gathering with people who feed my spirit because really if you ask most of us what we are most looking forward to at Christmas, it’s “a rest”. Gaby Roslin asked Nigella Lawson on The Zoe Ball Breakfast Show if she was all set for Christmas. Nigella was pretty confident she was. She had her packages wrapped under her Norway spruce. There was a discussion about ironing boards. They’re just the right height for wrapping, no back-breaking bends. But Nigella didn’t own one. She steamed her clothes. That’s why she was slightly crumpled, she said. She usually had batter on her sleeve. She always got her hair stuck under the cello tape.

Nigella’s one-off special Amsterdam Christmas would air on the evening of the winter solstice. Millions would watch her cook. They would never cook any of it. Most of the bestselling non-fiction in December 2023 involved air fryers. On Channel 4, Aldi were sharing their Christmas secrets. They were searching for a star item to dazzle shoppers. They had a bottomless pigs in blankets pop-up restaurant. They were creating pork-flavoured ice cream minus the bacon bits. There was a showstopping giant chocolate bauble filled with velvety salted caramel sauce. In the battle of the supermarkets, Marks and Spencer had only managed to come up with bao bun snowmen. We’d done it with the music. We were doing it with the food too, always trying to up Christmas to another level, make it better than last year’s version. It was becoming as fickle as the iPhone. In January, we’d punish ourselves for our sins. The shelves would be cleared of recipes, filled with fitness plans. But exercise doesn’t make you thin. I’ve tried it.

I listened to Janice Hallett on Radio 4. She’d written a panto murder mystery where a long-dead Santa falls out of a very dodgy beanstalk. She was explaining Agatha Christie. “People love cosy crime specifically at this time of year because it’s like getting snuggled up and doing a good puzzle,” the presenter said. “The thing about cosy crime is you know when you start that first page that by the last page everything will have been sorted out, the crime solved, the murderer brought to justice. It will all be tied up with a bow at the end,” said Janice. And I realised one of the things I was most looking forward to at Christmas was Murder Is Easy. I needed to get that reassurance, it all tied up neatly from somewhere.

And I thought about how it takes guts to curate your own Christmas, the one where just like life, you get rid of what no longer serves you and replace it with what does. Mine isn’t quite there yet. It might take two generations to wipe out some traditions. But my Christmas has clear worktops and the nativity and cathedrals and a playlist of dark songs about drinking each other under the table and smoked salmon and candles. I’ve been heading to the spa as it gets dark for my Advent contemplation. There’s a sauna, looking out towards the sea. They play all the carols in there.

“Solitude is precious,” said Nigella. “It feels like being draped in cashmere, rather than encased in bri-nylon. I adore company and chat, but I begin to fray if I have people in my air space all the time”.

“Do you like wrapping?” I asked the eleven-year-old. “I’m not doing any this year”. I may have said it out loud.

This Christmas, I wish you rest and air space, not being all set and the guts to curate your own Christmas.

My Christmas tips…

1. Janice Hallett’s new book is The Christmas Appeal.

2. The adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder Is Easy is available to watch on 27 December.

3. Once in Royal David’s City is available from King’s College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve.

4. I suggest you also play this on Christmas Eve - Smith & Burrows This Ain’t New Jersey.

“I ask you how you’re feeling. You answer I am aging”.



Deborah Sloan

I am no publishing here but am now on Substack at I write about leaving things in midlife.