Chrissie Russell: 'Festive burnout: Why women still do everything at Christmas'

Rudolph might have the song but did you know Santa’s reindeer are actually girls? Males lose their antlers in the winter so the be-antlered beauties we’re picturing pulling the sleigh are females. All those toy deliveries are done under girl-power.

And I’ll bet my bottom dollar that it’s Mrs Claus who looks after the elves all year, sources the pressies and programmes the sleigh’s sat-nav, only for himself to put in one 24-hour shift and take all the glory as Father Christmas. Ho,ho,ho indeed, no wonder he’s laughing – we all know it’s the mammies of Christmas doing all the work to make the season jolly.

As numerous polls have revealed, Christmas cheer tends to fall under the banner of wifework. One survey of women polled revealed that 85pc of women reported being solely responsible for the delegation of festive tasks – with most adding that they ended up doing them themselves anyway. Some 70pc of women do all the wrapping and 65pc write all cards. One survey in Australia revealed that one in three women devotes the equivalent to a week (a whopping 168 hours!) to Christmas prep. By comparison, one in three men reported completing their Christmas duties in less than half a day.

“I think mums always take the lead when it comes to the Christmas preparations including decorating the house, food preparation for the festivities and gift sourcing” says Dublin mum Jenny Gleeson, who runs cake-making business, Sweetie Pie. “Running my own business means I can work my schedule around family stuff like decorating the house or sourcing school concert outfits and food shopping. I feel lucky I’m not under massive pressure, even if that means working ’til midnight.”

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Vicki O’Callaghan, who runs an online children’s clothing business, babyboo.ie, agrees. “I know from the orders coming through that it’s not just my house where the mum is the one doing the lion’s share of the Christmas preparations.” She reckons “the idea of purchasing Christmas pjs and a bespoke Christmas bib is really the kind of detail only a mum would think of for the festive season.”

She’s right, isn’t she? Dads (and I know this is a sweeping generalisation but that doesn’t mean it’s not right) are often good at spotting the big tasks (buy a tree, buy a turkey) and even taking direction on smaller ones (yes, I can peel those spuds), but they’re just not wired to remember what sherry granny likes, what you bought great aunt Maud last year or buying a Christmas decoration for the baby so everyone is represented on the tree.

In recent weeks I’ve decorated three Christmas trees (and redecorated once the children had gone to bed), secured a Joseph costume for the school play (and name tagged all bits of it), bought pressies for all family members, organised trips to Santa’s grotto and created another one in the attic. I’ve been planning canapés since October for a Christmas brunch for 11. I’ve arranged Christmas get-togethers, trying to accommodate everyone. I’ve bought toys for the friends we’re seeing this year who I forgot to buy for last year and was embarrassed when they handed us a gift. I’ve a running mental log of who has given us what gift bag so as not to hand it back to them when I recycle them this year. These sort of issues don’t tend to feature in a lot of Christmas songs but they matter.

Let’s not kid ourselves that the gender imbalance on who manages these kind of household tasks is anything new. Just this year research by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and ESRI found that women spend twice as much time on housework and the kids as men.

We might grumble, but it’s ingrained in us. Not one of the mums I chatted to seriously considered that Christmas could be done any other way.

“It’s difficult to undo centuries and generations of imbalance on gender distribution of labour,” explains feminist activist Ailbhe Smyth. “I’m not blaming women in any way but the truth of the matter is that whenever you’ve done a job for a long time and your mother, grandmother and great-grandmother have been doing it, then it’s in your DNA, you know you can do it and you can do it quickly and effectively. But it’s not about women being ‘better’ and men not being suited to Christmas labour. It’s about training and being used to these things.”

Ailbhe would love to see more done in families and schools to make boys aware at a young age of the importance of being equally involved and engaged in running and caring for a family and the value of that unpaid work. “I believe they need to be taught about families and how they function,” she says.

She adds: “We don’t place a monetary value on work done inside the family and men are accustomed to seeing their work valued whereas for women, seeing everyone is happy and okay is numeration enough.”

But what if, like me, you’re secretly quite happy with the status quo? Yes, I might whinge, but I love being chief elf, donning my pinny to make reindeer gingerbread with my kids while my husband’s at the office. He works hard and does his bit of the housework the rest of the year. If I’m happy (like Santa’s reindeer) to take the reins at Christmas does it make me a bad feminist?

“No,” laughs Ailbhe. “But I think on the 6th of January give him the pinny and tell him that this is the first of many days where he’ll be doing his equal share.

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