As Christmas approaches, and after 7 years in private practice it’s time to get real. I am not trying to be a Grinch but in fact write this piece as a way of empowering many of us to say no to a lot of the drama that happens at this time of year. Yes Christmas is a magical time, especially for children, but only if we allow ourselves to make the day and the season to be what we want it to be, rather than feel obligated or guilty about doing otherwise.
I can only recall a few patients over the past 7 years that have been excited about the prospect of seeing some of their family members over Christmas. Or even having a strategy to handle the practicalities of leading up to the festive season and providing a perfect Christmas day celebration with excitement. It is more common that as soon as the carols begin to play in the department stores many begin to feel an unease or in some occasions notice their mood plummet.
I once spoke to a psychiatry colleague about this phenomena, which many health professionals working in the mental health space would be familiar with. The sadness, the loneliness, the repetition of trauma and flashbacks in some patients was too significant to overlook.
He tried to answer my query with humour:
“Have you heard the story about a bunch of psychiatrists sitting around in the dead of a European winter, sometime in January, lamenting that there was no work to do. Nobody was venturing out into the cold to see them. So they came up with the notion of Christmas as a way of bringing families together and business boomed forever”.
It would be funny if it weren’t so true.
Most of my clinical work around this time is helping those who have been products of dysfunctional families, and sometimes even victims of abuse. The saddest cases are those who have been abused as children but are obligated to see the perpetrators at this time while the family keeps secrets and pretends nothing happened. In not so sad but still stressful occasions, relatives who are largely avoided for most of the year come together, with awkward small talk until somebody finally loses it. Family rifts, financial pressures and sibling rivalry add fuel to the fire for those who are tired, stressed and would rather be anywhere else that day.
Why do families do this? Why do we have to believe that it is OK to acknowledge, accept and avoid certain behaviours for every other day of the year, only to tolerate them on 25th December?
Why do we feel we have to be inclusive because we are related to people?
Excusing bad behaviour
Some of the reasons why bad behaviour should be tolerated and excused include the following. On any other day they would not apply.
- Let’s do it for the children. We’ll be happy for them (whilst the grown ups fight in the corner and believe children are ignorant).
- We really have to invite uncle so and so. Yes we don’t like him and he upset us last year, but if we don’t he’ll be alone on Christmas day (isn’t that uncle so and so’s problem?).
- Let’s do it for Mum/Dad/Great uncle/Grandmother etc. They’re getting older and we don’t know how long they’ll be around (news flash – nobody knows how long anybody will be around regardless of age).
- Yes cousin so and so drinks too much but if we get the food out early she’ll be manageable (whilst everybody pretends not to notice her demise).
- Yes aunt A and uncle B don’t contribute or host Christmas but we can’t leave them out – They’re FAMILY! (well actually you could call them on it and arm them with a task, no matter how menial. Shopping for Bon Bons is a good one).
- I am happy to do all the cooking for everybody, and offers to contribute will be politely declined so I can have that melt down I needed to have all year. After all I’m the superhuman sibling – IT’ S WHAT I DO (everybody has the right to say no).
- Yes grandfather did horrible things to mum when she was a child but he’s old now and we need to move on. (Move on? When most of the year the victim has been working in therapy to heal?)
Practical tips that may help minimise or avoid problems on Christmas Day
If you know it’s going to be tough, tackle it head on. Nothing is worse than walking on eggshells waiting for the explosion. Any strategies to make the day as happy for children should be attempted. My patients often recall horror stories of Christmas’s past, many that could have been avoided if the adults remained as adults. Don’t fight around children. Ever. The old adage “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all” applies here.
- If there are tensions or rifts, plan to have balanced discussions about them as a way of mending what can be repaired prior to the masses arriving on the doorstep. Acknowledge disagreements and try and find mutual understanding about what topics will be left to talk about another day.
- People choose their own behaviour. If a family member continues to disrupt celebrations, consider leaving them out. It may even be helpful to explain this to them and they may actually learn something from it. They may even have the capacity to reflect and change.
- Share the load. It’s 2016 and very few people can do everything. Consider a roster or task list (preparing the vegetables, doing the dishes, setting the table). In most cases people feel less awkward if they have something to do. For financial reasons, ask family members to contribute to the lunch. Very few families can afford to provide the lunch depicted on the supermarket ads, regardless of special deals, and neither should they. Or try a more low key affair, such as a barbecue, donating the savings to a charity the family agree upon. For those relatives who ‘expect a traditional lunch’ let them know they are more than welcome to provide their own.
- Call out bad behaviour before it happens. If somebody is prone to overindulging in alcohol, set some house rules. Offer plenty of alternatives. Or switch lunch to brunch. Remember the children are watching.
- Pro-actively manage your time, down to the hour if it helps. Start the day with a walk to be mindful of the things you are grateful for. Drop in to see relatives rather than accept invitations to stay for lunch or dinner if only doing it out of obligation. Take the children to the park to play with their new toys rather than stay in the house. Think about how you want the day to be before it happens. Control what you can and don’t own the rest.
- If you decide to stay away from your family because of past trauma or intolerant behavior, do so with pride. Do something really special just for you to mark the occasion. Honestly, you are not the only one alone on Christmas day. And it is, really, just one day.
Hopefully you are reading this and it feels very unfamiliar. Hopefully you belong to a family who can behave and genuinely enjoy celebrating time together. But this piece is written for those who don’t, or find it hard to say no to guilt and obligation. Out of respect for those who truly find the day very distressing and feel at odds with the world as if there is something wrong with them, I write this piece. And for the brave and tenacious patients who work so hard all year in therapy, keep your boundaries and be confident. If it’s tough, we can always reflect again in the new year.
Share your ideas on Twitter for an authentic Christmas day that avoids conflict, using the hashtag #itsonlyoneday. Post photos of what you are up to. You’ll be supporting others as brave as you.