The most universal Christmas traditions begin with T: turkey, tinsel and trauma. After weeks of joyfully and childishly looking forward to seeing our relatives again, we discover – as we do every year – that four solid days of eating and drinking ends in anguish and broken crockery. Instead of watching the Queen’s speech, we fight over whose turn it is to sit next to a particularly belligerent great-aunt at dinner, or who’s made the biggest mess of their life. The good news is that the same arguments come round time and again. This means that with a little planning (and a few deep breaths) you can celebrate without angering your auntie, moaning at your mum or threatening your siblings with a brimming glass of advocaat. Here’s how to avoid the main flashpoints.
The ‘Call that a job?’fight
Do you sometimes suspect that your older relatives – especially your parents – wilfully misunderstand what you do for a living? The best way to stop them asking annoying questions is to just bore on about it. Tell them what you’d say to a stranger if you were making awkward small talk at a party, instead of assuming that they’re out to trap you, because you both know that they raised a family through traditional graft and you can barely pay the rent on a studio flat, and your job title didn’t exist before 2009.
It won’t be easy – I speak as someone who is sometimes paid to live-tweet the comings and goings of the Kardashians. I once nearly attacked my father, a lawyer, as he watched me crouching over the router trying to get a bar of signal, then shook his head and said: “It’s hard to believe that you get paid for this.” If it gets really bad, there’s always the new year to look forward to. At least they take you seriously at work.
The ‘Would it kill you to help a little?’fight
A good deed is its own reward – unless the good deed is setting the table, and you’re finding it much more rewarding to sit by the fire with a strong gin and tonic. You can usually wriggle out of it by promising to lead the post-dinner clean-up – but then you realise that you’ve eaten an entire harvest’s worth of potatoes, your flies are undone and you’ll start crying tears of gravy if anyone makes you stand up. With the person you bartered with now prodding you with their fork and muttering “Judas!”, you don’t know whether to bring up the fact that they never, ever cleaned anything when you shared a room, or to offer them 20 quid and a Ferrero Rocher just to give up and leave you to your food coma.
“This is rarely about labour,” says family counsellor Kim Hardy. “Families usually have fights about chores because people feel that they’re not being appreciated. So instead of promising something you might not be able to deliver, and making someone feel exploited, go out of your way to praise and comment on how well something has been done. You’ll make everyone feel special and dissolve any petty hierarchical tensions that might be building up.”
You should probably do some chores just to be on the safe side.If you make everyone a cup of tea and then do the bins, you can probably spend the rest of the season unbothered.
The ‘I’ve hated you since you were a baby’fight
No matter how happy and well adjusted they appear, all families have secret, festering tensions, whether the disputes are based on death, divorce or a painted-pasta-based art project many years ago that was not received as favourably as the artist might have hoped.
If you’re a parent of scrappy siblings and you’re aware of their tendency to revert to type after a few drinks, you can manage the fights by making them feel like adults. “If it’s possible, try to keep the conversations based around what you’re all up to now,” Hardy suggests. “These sort of arguments almost always cover similar ground, so think about who tends to fight with who and create a peaceful seating plan.” If you have a history of flying off the handle, work on a “think before you speak” strategy. Family therapist Diana Mercer says: “It takes two to have an argument. If you refuse to take the bait for a fight, the fight can’t happen.”
If you’re hosting, there are a couple of practical steps you can take, such as managing the alcohol. If your bucks fizz is mainly orange juice, no one can get angry-drunk. Serve snacks so that no one ends up drinking on an empty stomach. You’d be amazed by how many fights could have been avoided if the participants had eaten an extra slice of toast at breakfast. If it’s appropriate and there’s room around the table, a guest from outside the family could be a civilising influence.
The ‘No, I do not want to play Monopoly’fight
When I asked Twitter users to tell me about their “most popular” seasonal fights, games came up again and again. Some people play to win, some people want the happy family experience promised by the front of the box, and some people just want to antagonise their brothers and sisters. Christmas is the worst time of the year in which to try to get your own way. If you’re complaining that you’ve spent 12 months looking forward to Boggle, only to find that no one else wants to play, you probably need more games in your life during the rest of the year. It’s best to suck it up for now and start planning your own 2015 tournament so that you’re sated when the same thing happens next time.
“Come Christmastime, it’s worth doing almost anything for a quiet life,” Hardy says. “If someone is really, really desperate to play Scrabble, it’s just quicker and easier than to join in than to spend an hour sulkily insisting on Monopoly.” If you genuinely hate games, pull a sad face, produce a bottle of Gaviscon, and tell everyone you’ll join them when you’re feeling better.
The ‘Just give me the sodding remote!’fight
In 2014, anyone can watch what they want at any time, as long as they have access to the internet. So it’s a bit weird to insist on sharing one screen when half of you want to watch the “big movie”, which you have already seen at the cinema, someone is suggesting that you all settle down to the DVD extras on their new Wim Wenders box set, and someone else is demanding to put on the Dad’s Army Christmas special, even though they have seen it every year since 1971.
This one is about weighing up what you want from the viewing experience. Is it about being in a room with your family, laughing along with them because it’s rare that you’re all in the same place at once? Or is it about unwinding and escaping from them? “Agreeing to watch what your family wants is a nice, low-impact activity, because you’ve all got to sit down and shut up,” Mercer says. “It’s less demanding than a meal or an outing. So if you want your family to feel like you’re making the effort, it looks good if you can sit through Frozen, or Das Boot.”
Alternatively, you could yawn noisily, announce that you’re going for a quick nap and watch something of your choosing on a tablet. Everyone will be so focused on ensuring that their own tastes and preferences are honoured that they won’t really mind how you indulge yours, as long as you keep your head down.
Daisy Buchanan will be spending Christmas with her parents and five sisters. She tweets as @NotRollergirl
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