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The financier, campaigner and author on festive rituals, memorable moments and learning to do less and enjoy everything more

The festive season brings with it a flurry of emotions, from excitement and celebrations to busy preparations and time to reflect. We asked Baroness Helena Morrissey about what this time of year means to her, and how she looks after the wellbeing of herself and others at Christmastime.

What epitomises Christmas for you?

Christmas centres around my family – my husband and I have nine children, so Santa has always been quite busy in our household! My eldest daughter and her son, my eldest grandchild, also both celebrate their birthdays on Christmas Day, so the whole day is one long celebration of family life!

How do you usually celebrate during the festive season? Are there any traditions, or rituals, that signify this time of year for you?

We go completely overboard on family traditions. Trees (mainly fake) ‘must’ be decorated in certain ways (a fun tree, a traditional tree and a ‘memories’ tree), we make and decorate a gingerbread village, hold our own Christmas Eve carol service, indulge in lots of baking, and enjoy a big countdown with various family activities including ice-skating, a show and different celebrations with our extended family.

How will you be celebrating this year? Will you be doing anything different to usual?

At the moment, I’m worried that we won’t be able to all get together – especially with my parents who are in their 80s and my sister and her family. The family activities schedule is also looking sparse with so many attractions closed, though we have booked to see the light show at Kew Gardens as something new.

"Having the whole family together would be the best Christmas gift"

Baroness Helena Morrissey

What has been your most memorable Christmas, and why?

That’s tricky – giving birth to my beautiful eldest daughter on Christmas Day in 1994 was obviously very memorable, but so was being present at the birth of her son on Christmas Day in 2017! (Weirdly, the births even took place at the same hospital). But I’m going to choose last year; on Christmas Eve that same daughter, her husband and their two young children arrived from California – it was a complete and absolutely wonderful surprise to me (and even more surprising that my husband had kept the secret!).

Cooking is often seen as a cathartic pastime, who does the festive cooking in your home?

My husband does all the serious cooking, including Christmas lunch. (Thank goodness, as he’s a great cook and I am… not!) The rest of us do lots of baking and menial tasks like washing up and laying and clearing the table.

Does the festive period bring any challenges for you? If so, how do you approach/manage them?

When our children were young and I was working fulltime as a CEO, I found the run-up to Christmas quite exhausting. I would be trying to get everything on everyone’s lists, decorate the house and create lovely experiences and happy memories. I ended up taking on too much and developing a horrible chest infection several years in a row. It was clearly my body telling me to slow down. Of course, the over-busyness that’s often associated with the festive season is largely self-inflicted; my husband has always been good at encouraging me to take breaks, relax more and just skip things on the to-do list if it all gets overwhelming. As he pointed out, me in a state of collapse wouldn’t make for a great Christmas for our children! He’s right, of course, and gradually I learned to do less and to enjoy everything more.

The festive season can be quite busy and stressful. What have you found helps you to relax, and stay calm and positive, during this time?

We watch a lot of movies together as a family and it’s a great relaxing time at the end of a busy day, especially in a cosy sitting room while roasting marshmallows on the fire. And we play silly games!

What do you think is the best way to give back and help others at this time of year?

This year – because of the pandemic – it’s especially important to think of those who might be alone. As I write this, it’s not clear whether people will even be able to meet up with anyone outside their ‘household’ at Christmas. If we can’t invite them to our house, we’ll be doing a lot of FaceTiming!

"Gradually, I’ve learned to do less and to enjoy everything more"

Baroness Helena Morrissey

What is the most meaningful gift you could give to someone?

Something that’s taken time to put together – like a personalised photo album filled with special pictures. Or something you’ve overheard the recipient admiring, without them realising you were listening.

What would you most like to receive this year?

Having the whole family together would be the best Christmas gift.

What’s your festive wrapping style? 

My festive wrapping style is ‘more is more’ – I like big ribbons and bows – but I do recycle a lot of them from year to year!

Do you have a favourite Christmas song?

I am more into carols – my favourite is ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’

Reflecting on the past year and all of its challenges, could you share with us a positive that you discovered amid the adversity, or something you learned that you’ll be taking forward with you into 2021?

I think we’ve learned what we really value – especially when it’s been taken away. We took our liberty for granted and I don’t think we’ll do that again for a long time.

Baroness Helena Morrissey is a financier, campaigner and author with over three decades’ experience in financial services. She is the founder of the 30% club, which campaigns for better gender-balanced boards. Helena entered the House of Lords in September 2020 and was appointed a Dame in 2017. Her first book, A Good Time to be a Girl, was described by Forbes magazine as one of the five most empowering books for women in 2018. Helena is married with nine children. 30percentclub.org

The Royal Exchange is partnering with Mind in the City, Hackney and Waltham Forest to encourage conversations about mental health, wellbeing and community spirit. For further information on Mind in the City, its support services and how you can get involved with fundraising or volunteering, please visit: mindchwf.org.uk