Saturday, 1 January 2011

Thank Christmas, it's over.

Christmas came (yes!) and went (no!). But what’s the impact? What’s it left behind? A whirlwind of destruction and family feuds? Or a warm glow of happiness and gifts? Most of us at least share the feeling of a full belly and desire to detox (whether we do it or not = different matter entirely).

Everyone’s Christmas is unique but there are some general trends you can observe. We hear stories of chaos; weather creating travel mayhem, people stranded in airports all over the country and predictions of festive doom. On the day itself there are stories of drunken uncles starting arguments about politics, great aunts shouting inappropriate insults in every direction and someone passing out in the corner by 5pm.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before. Because everywhere you turn these days there are ranting, witty comics spieling about the festive fallout. I’m not going to add to this mire of missives. I want to find out what the Turkey is going on this time of year.

Some interesting facts:
  1. According to a survey by BBC Radio 5 Live, while 69% of the people interviewed were happy to spend Christmas with family, 22% said they expected a family argument to kick off. 
  2. Although 89% of children in another study said they were excited about Christmas (that’s high), one in six said they felt sad, nervous or left out at Christmas (that’s also high; way too high)
  3. In 2009, Women’s Aid reported a 28% increase in enquiries made to the helpline following the Christmas period. In figures, that amounts to around 14,000 calls received in January ‘09.

Why do we expect arguments? Why do children feel scared and alone? And why are people hitting January feeling so scared that they need to call Women’s Aid for protection?

There’s definitely a darker side to the holiday season. And I think there are some simple observations that could help to explain. The first is that for the small period of time that people get together for Christmas it’s like being part of a reality TV show; life is compacted into one house where all these people who usually spend a few moments together here and there, suddenly have to spend 48 hours solidly making merry. Not many people wake up every day ready to make merry all the time. So that gives immediate basis for conflict.

It’s also an intense social situation which we rarely face in the day to day. We’re expected to make conversation ALL the time, we have to do things that we hate doing and look happy about it (like the annual family walk), and absolutely nothing (in the UK at least) is open so you are unable to connect with other human beings to dilute the pressure.* Recipe for disaster I’m sure.

*Not quite true; the saving grace for many is the local pub which does stay open. And many of them even offer free drinks during the lunch hours. That’s proper Christmas spirit! I approve.

Anyway, as with any extreme situation, humans tend to react as they do when they’ve had alcohol: enhancing the natural state of things. If the family situation is already one of pleasant relations and nothing unusual happens, it’s likely to be a close, happy gathering of celebration and love. If on the other hand, tensions already exist (pretty much any family with children) it’s unfortunately a catalyst for the final straw to break the illustrious camel. Tensions that have been bubbling under the surface for months or years are quickly uncapped and let loose over the choice of wine or pudding.

Here are some simple tips to get it right next year:

  • Plan early.
    There’s nothing worse than worrying and wondering about what’ll happen. Decide where you most want to spend Christmas and then make it real. Call people, book your travel and always, always have a local back-up in case the weather scuppers your plan.  
  • More give, less take.
    Research suggests that helping others makes us feel better about ourselves. If you can spare a few pounds, donate it to charity. Or spend an afternoon volunteering (e.g. for the Samaritans).
  • Agree what’s important. And forget what’s not.
    For some of us, Christmas dinner is the main event; for others, it’s the brisk country walk; for the kids, it’s obviously presents. Focus on things your family/friends care most about, and drop the rest. And if you don’t know how people feel (most of us don’t even know ourselves until we really think about it) then start asking questions. You never know what’ll come up.

For the record, I’m a Christmas lover. In fact, I’m probably one of its biggest fans. I count down the days from November 1st, revelling in the pretty lights, colourful decorations and sumptuous tastes and scents. I mean honestly, what better way to enjoy a city scene than by adding twinkling lights? What better way to spend a wintry evening than by wrapping up warm, supping a hot mug of mulled wine or gliding gracefully around an ice rink whilst taking in a great London skyline?

But I know that millions of people don’t share this sentiment. I’d like to change that.

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