Claire Hailwood recalls the moment when she realised her Christmas routine really had to change


The elf on the shelf was when it all changed for me.

I’m not sure how many people can claim that a red elf getting up to mischief for 24 days changed their Christmas but I can!

I have four children so the run up to Christmas is full of fayres, nativity plays, parties, Christmas jumper days and so much more. Figuring out how to manage the calendar and those rhythms with associated taxi requirements alongside preparations for a wider family and church Christmas with all that can bring means the mental load increases exponentially in December.

I didn’t realise it at the time because it happened gradually, but I got sucked in to yearning for a ‘perfect’ Christmas, feeling that I needed to do all the things I saw and heard other people doing. I longed for matching PJs, for Christmas baking sessions, for gorgeous pictures in wintry scenes, for my presents to be wrapped in matching paper and became anxious at the thought that my children may not have magical Christmas memories FOREVER…

And then I felt guilty that we weren’t remembering the real reason for Christmas so redoubled my efforts to ensure that was front and centre of all we did. That made a difference but alongside the other stuff I continued, it increased the mental load yet more.

One day in early December a few years ago one of my kids asked (very innocently) if we were going to do elf on the shelf. I’d never heard of it, so I did what every good parent did and checked on Instagram and then, my second bigger mistake, on Pinterest.

The creativity and mischief of it blew my mind.

And it tipped me over the edge - it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That particular year I’d driven around four different shops trying to get advent calendars because I hadn’t remembered to buy them in time. If you don’t already know this, by 30th November there’s not a lot of choice left when it comes to advent calendars. The thought of needing to do something creative with an elf every day was too much.

This is NOT an anti elf on the shelf post. Some of you love it and it gives you joy as well as your kids - I get it and I’m glad you all love it. It’s what this ‘elf on the shelf’ moment represents that’s important.

For me it was the switch that made me reconsider what was important.

I needed to redress the balance of how we approached the Christmas period.

I needed to take an honest look at what was influencing what we did.

I needed to interrogate why we did things especially the bits that caused us most stress or anxiety.

We asked whether some (or any) of it was in line with what we believed and valued, whether it sparked joy or gratitude. And most importantly whether it gave any glory to God.

It required vulnerability, honesty and courage.

And, I’ll continue to be truthful, it wasn’t a nice process at times, as I had to confront things that I had made idols albeit Christmassy looking ones. There were things that we haven’t done since that Christmas as well as lots of things that we’ve done more of.

Now, before you think that our Christmas is now devoid of any joy, sparkle or fun, it’s really not.

Many things remain - we still do advent calendars but it’s now my husband’s responsibility because he loves to be organised ahead of time. We love new PJs at Christmas, but they don’t need to match or be ‘Christmas PJs’ – they’re equally loved! We prioritise celebrating the nativity story and how we do that is flexible – most of the time it’s chaotic, sometimes there are moments of great depth. I love wrapping presents but I don’t look for inspo on insta anymore. We say ‘yes’ to lots of things and are free also to say ‘no’ to give time and space and rhythm for what matters most that year for us and our community.

This isn’t (at all) about me trying to inspire you with how ‘right’ we get Christmas – it continues to be a mental load like no other at this time of year, and a time where we continue to question how best to celebrate it – but it is about encouraging us to interrogate why we do what we do and whether it brings glory to God. And perhaps being brave enough to consider what living differently might look like amid the celebratory, joyful chaos of the season!

There’s a lovely thing circulating again this year on social media which simply says ‘the first Christmas was pretty simple, it’s ok if yours is too’.

I love that. I’m inspired, moved and challenged by it.

And as we try and figure it out again this year, as we make mistakes and get things right, we want our focus to be on Him - in whom the hopes and fears of all our years are met.