• The reality of spending time with family over Christmas might be different to what we hope

  • How can we maximise our chances of a peaceful family Christmas?

  • If long-term family issues are particularly hard at Christmas, find a therapist here

The Christmas countdown has begun! Gin, cheese, chocolate advent calendars are over halfway depleted and for many the festive preparations are well underway. Arrangements for who is going where, where the main event will be indulged in, who will be responsible for various elements of the Christmas package and who is buying what have all been negotiated. That is, of course, if you are spending Christmas with others – let’s not forget those who might not be fortunate enough to spend time with loved ones or those of you who may be together, but for whatever reason, thinking about and celebrating Christmas doesn’t feel like a priority just now.

But if you are in full on festive mode – or being dragged along by others - then what is the reality of all those family members and the different generations coming together at Christmas? The lens on our personal lives can become microscopic as work commitments decrease. Couple this with the plethora of TV adverts and Instagram worthy pics depicting perfect Christmas gatherings, along with the belief that the consumption of material goods can be seen as a precursor to a happy and prosperous Christmas, and this all adds to the intensity of the festive experience. All those different relational dynamics under one roof over a concentrated period of time with an over indulgence on food and booze and the pressure of a social media worthy festive season - what could possibly go wrong?  

Often a family Christmas dinner will be made up of three generations – Grandparents, parents and kiddies with other significant additions at various points along generational and friendship groups. Christmas is a time for coming together, being with loved ones, embracing the magical elements and for relaxation and indulgence - connecting to the spirit of Christmas and to one another. But it’s rather difficult to do that if the kids have their nose in the newest PS4 or IPhone 10, Mum is struggling with constructing the latest in child’s gadgetry, Dad is rooted to the cooker and Gran insists on writing her thank you cards before the Christmas wrapping is cleared away. Everyone seems so short of time these days that opportunities to indulge in our individual interests are few and far between so these activities can be heavily embraced. However, be mindful that this can happen at the detriment of more connecting experiences with those around you. Yes, if I’m quick I might be able to get 50 % off in John Lewis on that coveted item in the Boxing Day sales (which start on Christmas Day) but what am I missing in doing so?

If the age range of your family spans from toddlers to octogenarians how can you all come together and really share the festive season?

Although not guaranteed to make Christmas run smoothly between all family members here are a few thoughts which may make you more mindful and allow some creation of harmony and connection with your festive family – whoever they may be:

  1. Ask each family member what they would like out of the day so everyone feels part of it and expectations are managed. This be as simple as what veggies to have with the Christmas roast – contrary to popular belief it is not a national obligation to eat sprouts – or whether you will or won’t watch the Queen’s speech.
  2. Acknowledge that everyone has their own preferences for how they like to do things and there is no right or wrong. Family traditions can bring about a sense of connection and sentiment but not if the rigidity of these traditions no longer fits with the present day. How Grandma wants to relax on Christmas morning may not fit with two excitable and combustible under five year olds but consider how that time might be given to those family members later in the day.  
  3. Think about how to honour and remember loved ones that may no longer be physically present. This may mean different things for different family members and potentially activate difficult emotions. Christmas is commonly portrayed as a happy and joyful time but it is also healthy to express sadness and loss for those that are no longer with us – that expression is also an expression of the love we received from them and the love we still have for them. They are still alongside you, but you may need to change how you find them this year.
  4. Young people can find this time of year especially difficult particularly if the festive season means going to see relatives that are away from their hometown. Ask your teenagers what they might need – possibly access to a separate space away from the intensity of a large family group - and an opportunity to interact with friends online if needed.
  5. Overall, think about setting boundaries for everyone around time spent on technology - there has already been a mobile phone reduction muted within our festive family! Constant digital connection keeps us ever alert to the latest social media notification with research showing that we check our phones every 12 minutes when we are awake. Can we really be connected to those in the real world if we are also maintain a relationship with our phone?
  6. Consider what you want for yourself over the festive period. Many feel obligated to see or invite family members to festive gatherings that they struggle to get along with. Decide who you want to spend your Christmas with and where and  make an intentional commitment to do that for yourself.
  7. What activities can you do together? Stockpile the board games or those online games that require multiple players. Playing a favourite game as a group can really engage all generations and requires an immediacy which can be lost if the family are engaged in separate activities. Watching my friend’s 93 year old Nan win at bowling on the Wii last boxing day was a festive highlight last year. This year all my four year old nephew can talk about is how he is going to get Grandma with Pie Face - I can’t wait!

Not all of our needs and wants, however young or old we are, can be met by the latest technology or the must have festive food product from a high street retailer this festive season. Our association of festive consumption – both digestible and material - with festive prosperity and happiness may need to be challenged and a willingness to connect with others, of whatever age, embraced. 

Some of my most memorable Christmas moments have been the moments of hilarity I have experienced whilst laughing with my younger brother about a much loved family story, the joy at a long awaited cuddle from my nephew or the surprise at receiving a Christmas greeting from a cherished but geographically older relative. Hopefully the suggestions above may help you and yours move away from concentrating on material, digital and digestible consumption this Christmas and move towards the embracing of loved ones both young and old. And don’t forget the festive tradition of napping – there should always be time for a nap!

Further reading:

Coping with memories of grief and loss at Christmas

5 tips for anyone spending Christmas away from home

What does our position in the family mean?

What happens when you visit a family therapist?

Family constellations: the invisible ties that bind us