How to survive Christmas with your family

By at home

‘Tis the season to be jolly, but beware: unrealistic expectations, family tensions and Buck’s Fizz for breakfast can combine to create an atmosphere sadly lacking in peace and goodwill…

Christmas comes just once a year, but for many, this time of year can be the most stressful of all. ‘Many parents – particularly mothers – put themselves under pressure to create a perfect Christmas for the family,’ says Suzie Hayman, agony aunt, author and trustee of parenting charity Parentline Plus*. ‘It’s natural to want everyone to have a good time, but families should share the workload, rather than leaving it to one person – usually Mum – to organise everything.’ A happy family is probably top of your wish list but, at Christmas, relationships can feel the strain and snap before you’ve pulled a single cracker. Here’s some expert advice on how to handle your nearest and dearest so you can all enjoy a stress-free celebration.

Your other half
‘He doesn’t pull his weight’
It’s no secret that most men are incapable of buying and wrapping presents (bar a last-minute Christmas Eve dash). Ditto organising the festive food, making guests’ beds and entertaining great-aunt Ethel. So it’s not surprising that for many women, the ‘holiday’ is a marathon of shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing-up, cooking, changing beds, cooking and, er… did we mention cooking? ‘The key to getting your partner to help is to be direct,’ says Relate counsellor, Paula Hall. ‘Men don’t respond well to subtle requests, so explain exactly what jobs need doing, and give him a deadline.’

That’s the spirit


  • Planning ahead is paramount. Talk to your other half and work out what you both want to do: if you can’t face putting anyone up, investigate other options, for instance B&Bs, eating out or day visits. Remember, it’s your Christmas as well as everyone else’s.
  • List everything that needs doing, with dates. Split the jobs between you, sharing out the good (choosing the tree with the kids) and not so good chores (the supermarket shop). Appeal to his machismo, suggests Paula: ‘Few men can resist showing off how they can shift that heavy tree.’
  • Sharing the jobs goes for everything from deciding who’s coming over, to ordering the turkey and buying presents (shopping online can save days). Ask visitors to bring wine, dessert or cheese and buy, make and freeze as much in advance as you can.

The mother -in-law
‘She wants to do it her way’
It’s been a while since your mother-in-law lectured you on the best breastfeeding technique, but since then you’ve endured years of her ‘constructive’ criticism of your cleaning, cooking and wifely ways. She’ll be staying for the duration, so you need a plan…

That’s the spirit

  • ‘Mothers-in-law often want to take charge, even in your home,’ says agony aunt Suzie Hayman. ‘Instead of taking it personally and feeling belittled, let her help out. Turn the situation around and thank her for helping.
  • Be yourself: if you’re more career woman than homemaker, don’t feel pressured to don a Cath Kidston apron and start sticking cloves into onions (bread sauce comes in packets).
  • (Having said that), resolve to be magnanimous: if adding sherry to the gravy will make the old dragon happy, let her (and have a sneaky slug while she’s stirring). In the grand scheme of things, what difference will it make? Regard Christmas dinner as just another Sunday roast, not the Meal Of The Year.
  • Stand firm on the big decisions (‘the children can see their friends on Boxing Day’), but do submit gracefully on details (if only your in-laws like Christmas pudding, provide a small one just for them).
  • Do not snarl: ‘Here’s your flaming pudding’, as you serve it up; instead, smile sweetly and bask in the warm blue glow of their gratitude.

The Stepchildren
‘They don’t feel at home’
One in three people in the UK is part of a stepfamily, so it’s not uncommon for children to spend Christmas away from one parent, in a home that’s not their main base. ‘The best way to make stepchildren feel part of the family is to treat them exactly the same as your other children,’ says Suzie. ‘That means no favouritism: they need to feel one of the family, rather than a guest.’

That’s the spirit

  • Involve stepchildren in planning Christmas: let them help choose and decorate the tree. Start new family traditions, such as a night-time stroll around the neighbourhood on Christmas Eve to look at the lights.
  • Promote give and take. Ensure that all children do an equal amount of age-appropriate chores and get an equal number of, or value of, presents.
  • Don’t try to force friendships: frosty relations between step siblings is normal, especially in the early
  • days when everyone’s still getting to know each other. Be scrupulously fair when setting boundaries and refereeing arguments.
  • Get older stepchildren or teenagers on side by giving them special responsibilities; talk to them to make sure they don’t dash younger ones’ expectations (a three-year-old won’t take kindly to their new ‘big brother’ spilling the beans about the beardy man in the red suit).

Elderly Parents
‘They’re so set in their ways’
The older generation can find the lifestyles of the young (under 60? that means you) exhausting: we live at a frantic pace, with little time for social niceties or simply sitting still. Elderly relations can feel vulnerable away from home comforts, so if you suspect your parents would prefer not to travel, offer to visit them – and stay in a nearby hotel or B&B if you don’t want to put them out. Find out what they’d like to do, and respect their wishes.

Stuck in the alternate years arrangement with both sets of parents? It’s difficult to break a precedent, but don’t be afraid to suggest an alternative: perhaps you could have a big family gathering in early December or the New Year? ‘Grandparents have their uses and most of us really like to be useful,’ says Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, grandmother of six and author of The Good Granny Guide: Or How To Be A Modern Grandmother (Short Books Ltd, £8.99). ‘Tell parents what you’d like them to bring (mince pies, pudding or brandy butter? Or all three?).’

That’s the spirit

  • Make the most of your elderly relations. ‘Give your parents a specific job to do: whether it’s peeling vegetables or laying the table, they’ll be happy to help,’ advises Jane. ‘Grandparents love spending time with the children and are always happy to be left holding the baby. We also like introducing older grandchildren to traditional games: once the TV and electronic games are switched off, it’s surprising how much children enjoy playing them. We oldies are probably the only ones who know the rules of Old Maid, Consequences and Up Jenkins.’
  • Avoid confrontation: if you know your parents will only be with you for a day or two, why not make a concerted effort to keep the peace, even if that does involve watching the Queen’s Speech?
  • Be sensitive to their needs. ‘Please try to remember that elderly people get tired a lot more easily than we used to. We might appreciate somewhere quiet to put our feet up after lunch,’ says Jane.

The Children
‘They’re so spoilt… and yet they still want more!’
This year, Santa’s budget may be severely limited by the recession-hit bank of Mum and Dad. Even if money isn’t tight, most parents worry about their children being too materialistic and want them to appreciate other pleasures, such as time spent with family and friends. ‘Children soon realise that Christmas is much more fun for them if you’re not too frazzled from cooking and hosting to play with them,’ says Suzie Hayman. ‘Involve them in the planning, and enlist their help in peeling veg or tidying away the wrapping paper.’

That’s the spirit

  • ‘Children need to understand that most households have a limited amount of money to spend,’ says Suzie. ‘The Father Christmas myth isn’t helpful: if your kids don’t receive the presents they want, they won’t understand why he didn’t bring them. It’s important for children to know that presents don’t arrive by magic; Mum and Dad work hard to earn money to buy them.’ To let young believers down gently, go along with the myth that Santa brings the small stocking presents, but make sure they know everything under the tree is from other people.
  • Gift lists can be controversial. Better, perhaps, to subtly find out what your children would like,
  • Help younger family members experience the joy of giving. Confer with your partner or another adult and get your children to choose, buy or make and wrap small gifts for the family. Ideally, start this well before Christmas, to give them time to save their pocket money. No cash? They could make tasty treats, such as biscuits and cakes, or jazz up old items, such as photo frames.
  • Mucking in is good for all ages. ‘On Christmas Day, set children a manageable task and don’t hover around to see if they can cope: leave them to it,’ says Suzie.


Photographs: Getty Images

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