‘Tis the season to be cheerful, but beware: family tensions, unrealistic expectations and Buck’s Fizz for breakfast can combine to create an atmosphere sadly lacking in peace and goodwill…
Christmas only comes once a year, but it can be the most stressful time. ‘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. ‘Of course it’s natural to want everyone to have a good time, but families should pull together and 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
Even the closest bonds are tested at this time of year
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). And the same often goes for organising the festive food, making guests’ beds and entertaining great-aunt Ethel throughout the day. 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… more cooking. ‘The key to getting your partner to help is to be direct,’ says counsellor Paula Hall (www.paulahall.co.uk).
‘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, this is 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 (thesupermarket shop). And remember to 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, 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.
Interfering mother-in-laws are de riguer, but it doesn’t have to be this way during the festive celebrations
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 will be staying for the duration, so you need a plan…
THAT’S THE SPIRIT
‘Mothers-in-law often want to take charge, even in someone else’s home,’ says Suzie. ‘Instead of taking it personally and feeling belittled, let her help out.
Turn the situation around and thank her.’ Be yourself: if you’re more of a career woman than a homemaker, don’t feel pressured to don a Cath Kidston apron and start sticking cloves into onions (bread sauce comes in packets, you know). (Having said that), resolve to be magnanimous: if adding sherry to the gravy will make her 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 as opposed to the meal of the year. Stand fi rm on the big decisions (‘the children can see their friends on Boxing Day’), but have scope for changing little details (for example, if only your in-laws like Christmas pudding, provide a small one just for them and make chocolate cake for everyone else). Don’t snarl: ‘Here’s your fl aming pudding’ as you serve it up; instead, smile sweetly and bask in the warm blue
glow of their gratitude (hopefully). >
Welcoming your partner’s children into your family or vice versa, especially at Christmas, is rarely easy
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. ‘This 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 stepsiblings are normal, especially in the early days
when everyone’s still getting to know each other. But ensure that you are 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).
You may feel the ‘oldies’ slow you down, but it’s important that you cater to them this holiday, too
THEY’RE SO SET IN THEIR WAYS
The older generation can fi nd the lifestyles of the young exhausting: adults who haven’t yet retired often live at a frantic pace, with little time for social niceties or simply sitting still. Elderly relations can feel vulnerable when they are away from home comforts, so if you suspect your parents would prefer not to travel, offer to visit them instead – 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 early on, and respect their wishes. Stuck in the ‘alternate years’ arrangement with both sets of parents? It’s difficult to break a precedent, however 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 (£8.99, Amazon). ‘Tell parents what you would 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 specifi c job to do: whether it’s peeling veg 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 involves 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, and we might appreciate somewhere quiet to put our feet up after lunch,’ says Jane.