Coping with Christmas. Illustration: Kate Hazell

A Christmas survival guide

The season of goodwill can be stressful—but if you add a stranger to the mix and tune out the consumerist clamour, it can be, well, okay
November 12, 2018

Depending on your experience, “family” and “Christmas” go together like tawny port and stilton or Buck’s Fizz and the hangover from hell. If it’s the latter, you’re in good company. Type those two words into your browser, and along with endless invitations to buy stuff, top billing goes to survival guides. According to the Google bots, the season of peace and goodwill is best summed up by strain, anxiety and bad feeling.

And how could it be otherwise? Twin the world’s greatest consumer fest with saccharine images of family perfection—something money can’t buy, not least because it doesn’t exist—wrap it up in layers of expectation, expense and complicated travel arrangements… Well, it’s no wonder folk get snappish.

Tips on making it through include hitting the bottle (or else avoiding booze entirely), stepping outside for a bit (a Captain Oates-length stretch might do the trick), and delegating, since guests want to feel useful (they do?).

You could hide away in a corner and immerse yourself in calming cat pictures on Instagram. You should definitely make sure you have a good book to hand—The Corrections, say, in which you’ll encounter a festive gathering that’s hard to rival for sheer dysfunction. You might even consider sitting this one out and volunteering for a charity instead.

Relate, the relationship counselling organisation for whom Christmas must surely signal boomtime, issues its own tips, including staving off boredom-induced bickering with board games or a film. I don’t know about your family, but in mine, introducing a competitive pursuit or trying to find something everyone can agree to watch would only fan the flames.

Merry Chanukah

The irony is that we’re Jewish. Even so, Christmas is almost impossible to avoid, especially if, like me, you grew up in rural East Anglia, more than 100 miles from a kosher bagel. And never mind those vast summer skies; come December, Norfolk’s muddy plains and Siberian gusts are enough to drive a person into the arms of any and all winter festivals. So we had presents—mostly homemade, since there was never much money—and turkey, at least until I discovered vegetarianism and insisted on nut roast. I even sang Christmas carols in the school choir.

When I was a teenager we moved to London, from where we’d journey out to Hertfordshire for Christmas Day with our Jewish-Muslim cousins (the Jewslims, they called themselves) and their haphazardly extended circle.

One year, it coincided with both Chanukah and Ramadan, but even if the latter meant we didn’t eat till sunset, there was still the Queen’s Speech and, to keep us on our toes, a growing list of conversational topics to be avoided. The Israel-Palestine conflict, anyone? Fortunately, our host’s annual suggestion that we perform a peace dance in the scrubby suburban park across the way was never realised.

Looking back, those distant secular Christmases suggest their own survival guide. Keep it simple and make space for a little country quiet. Ditch the screens. Add a stray to the mix, someone that not everybody knows—most people will think twice before airing vintage grudges in front of a stranger. (And if that “stranger” happens to be a boyfriend or girlfriend who doesn’t make the cut, all the better—you can unite around their awfulness next Christmas.)

Remember, as those of us of other faiths do, that this is still a nominally-Christian festival. And remember that being surrounded by enough family to require a numbing infusion of cats dressed as Santa makes you among the lucky ones.

My own daughter is growing up with Chanukah, a more modest midwinter festival of light and hope—doughnuts and presents, too. Amusingly, given the nativity, it was her December birth that occasioned my definitive break with more elaborate yuletide participation. If you really want to pretend Christmas isn’t happening, there’s nothing quite like adding a days-old infant to the mix.

Still, tune out the consumerist clamour, and there is something undeniably magical about the one time of the year when the country grinds to a halt; when, in that brief interlude between the last drunk swaying home and the first toddler awakening, silence reigns.

So on December 25th, we’ll bake a nut roast and we’ll welcome extended family for a day of feasting and merriment. And when tetchiness sets in, there’s one suggestion that never fails to restore harmony via a unanimous “Noooo!” You guessed it: the peace dance.

Let that be my gift to you and yours this Christmas.