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The author and style expert on enjoying time off schedule, being a good listener and balancing indulgence with healthy habits

The festive season brings with it a flurry of emotions, from excitement and celebrations to busy preparations and time to reflect. We asked Michelle Ogundehin – author, style expert and former editor-in-chief of Elle Decoration UK – 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?

A reprieve from emails. Constant snacking. Wearing my pyjamas all day. Reading books in bed. And too much chocolate. Although in truth, I’m not sure you can ever have too much quality chocolate.

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

My only true Christmas ritual is to always buy a real tree and have it up and decorated by 1 December at the very latest. We use baubles that have been collected over the years, including every single one that my son has ever made, from his first handprint reindeers to this year’s slightly more sophisticated toilet tube angels (he’s six). Then everything else is left deliberately up for grabs. The whole point of a holiday for me is to not have a schedule, or any fixed routines.

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

Despite the lockdowns, it’s been an incredibly busy year for me – I launched a book and filmed a new series of Interior Design Masters, among other things – as well as a stressful one for all the obvious reasons, so I really need, and want, to now properly stop. To be able to wake up each morning and think what shall I do today? And to allow that it might be nothing. This is my idea of bliss. That said, I like to get outside as much as possible, and I have two dogs, so I suspect lots of walking and talking will figure in there somehow.

"Keep the board games flowing as well as the TV. It's perfectly possible to have fun, but to be healthy and emotionally balanced too"

Michelle Ogundehin

What has been your most memorable Christmas, and why?

Without doubt that would be the first Christmas after my son was born. Christmas can become so horribly commercial, and we can be so easily seduced into thinking that we need more than we do. But with the presence of my baby son, I recognised that with a roof over my head, work that I enjoy, and food in the fridge, I already had my best gifts ever. Since that moment, I’ve honestly not wanted for anything material. It’s more a case of maintenance from here on in!

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

I think many people feel the pressure to entertain, or create a lavish feast, even if just for their immediate family. And I’ve done this too. Run myself ragged trying to juggle courses, keep everything hot, and paid absurd amounts for a turkey when I prefer roast lamb! Ever since that realisation, I buy only what we like to eat at any other time of the year, cook as if it were a regular Sunday lunch, but stock up a little more on the indulgent sweet treats, chocs and drinks. It’s still a special time because we have gifts to share and time together, but not succumbing to all the ‘special Christmas fare’ instantly removes a whole bunch of unnecessary societally induced stress. Not to mention cost.

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?

The way you start each day depends on how you finish each day, at any time of year. So, getting enough sleep is absolutely vital for me. Also, daily exercise and getting outside. At Christmas, it can be so tempting to just turn up the thermostat, and hole up for the duration slumped on the sofa on a Netflix binge. And then we wonder why stress levels rise and tempers get frayed. Instead, I’d counsel that if we’re going to eat, drink and indulge more than usual, then we need to keep equal pace with the good stuff as well. A walk after every lunchtime is a great start. Keep drinking plenty of water so you stay hydrated. And keep the board games flowing as well as the TV. It’s perfectly possible to have fun, but to be healthy and emotionally balanced too.

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

Be a good listening ear and stay sober. Most people love to talk, but so few of us are good at proper active listening, for instance, really hearing what someone is saying rather than just waiting to jump in with your own opinions.

"Be a good listening ear and stay sober. Most people love to talk, but so few of us are good at proper active listening"

Michelle Ogundehin

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

My time.

What would you most like to receive this year?

Quiet time for myself.

Do you have a favourite Christmas song?

No. But anything by Bing Crosby would probably make me smile.

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

So many things that I learnt but probably the most profound was a real recognition of my need for silence when I’m writing. To be able to deep dive into my thoughts is as vital for me as breathing. And that’s just not possible with CBeebies on in the background.

Michelle Ogundehin is internationally renowned as a thought-leader on trends, colour and style. Originally trained as an architect and the former Editor-in-Chief of ELLE Decoration UK, she contributes to many prestigious publications worldwide. She is also the lead judge on the BBC2/Netflix series Interior Design Masters, and the author of new book Happy Inside: How to harness the Power of Home for Health and Happiness — a game-changing guide to living well. Learn more about Michelle’s work at michelleogundehin.com and follow her on Instagram at @michelleogundehin  

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