The fight before Christmas

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 December, 2007, 12:00am

Harry never got along with his wife Claire's parents but the relationship reached breaking point last Christmas when they came to stay for a month. After three weeks of forced jollity and a couple of glasses of Christmas champagne, Harry cracked. He cornered Claire upstairs as she was putting the baby down for a nap.

'He started hissing at me,' Claire recalls. ''Do something! I've had enough, they've got to go, your mum's obsessively uptight and your dad's such a lecturing bore, and Claire, if they make one more comment about the children's behaviour I'll shove them out of the door myself'. He was getting louder and louder. It was so upsetting to have him criticising my parents, especially on Christmas Day, but there was much worse to come. As we walked back down the stairs the whole room was sitting in frozen silence. I could hear the baby crying over the monitor in the living room. They'd heard every word.

'It sounds like a scene from a movie, but when it happens in real life there's no happy Hollywood ending. Relations between my parents and my husband have been strained and difficult ever since.'

Hong Kong psychologist Lesley Lewis says family get-togethers at Christmas often cause friction. 'There can be conflicts that haven't been resolved for years, often there's too much alcohol, which only intensifies feelings, and people forget that not everybody is going to get along. They're getting together because it's Christmas, and some people feel like they are doing it out of obligation and responsibility, not because it's what they really want.'

Maggie can relate to this. She has spent many Christmases playing mortifying party games at her aunt's home with a gaggle of old relatives and neighbours. 'Embarrassing doesn't even begin to describe it. Fruit was always a big theme. Just imagine having to pass oranges from person to person down a line without using your hands, or apples mouth to mouth with 80-year-old Joe from next door. Or acting out the animal character hidden under your plate - horrible. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me.'

For many, Christmas family gatherings are characterised by disagreements about moral and political issues.

'Last Christmas my dad and uncle became so furiously heated while arguing about President Bush and the Iraqi conflict that my uncle actually got up and stormed out midway through lunch,' says Mark. 'I have no doubt the argument was fuelled by too much red wine and excitement, and they're friends again now, but it ruined the day for everyone else.'

The question is why do these stories strike a chord with so many of us? Lesley Lewis says: 'There is a huge expectation around the holiday season. It's supposed to be a joyous time, where we are happy, exchanging gifts, and so on. But many people don't feel that way, and the expectation can create a lot of depression. For those who aren't happy, it seems as if everyone else is. Additionally, many people have an established position or role in their family - brother, sister, mother - and sometimes it's hard to break free from it. You walk in, and as far as your family is concerned, you are still whoever you were 10 years ago. Of course, there is also the financial expense. For some families it's very difficult, especially in a city like Hong Kong.'

St John's Cathedral chaplain Matt Vernon on agrees: 'There is commercial pressure, and we have an idea of the perfect Christmas in our minds which we try to aspire to, which never comes off. It's a Hollywood ideal. People are too busy, we get overtired, there is so much happening, shopping, work parties, travel arrangements to make, guests, visitors of course. And while it's lovely to have guests, it adds a strain to the household.'

Vernon says people shouldn't feel they have to buy into the perfect Christmas model, instead they should remember the true message behind the holiday. 'I'm not against the commercial stuff, presents and so on, but we can get carried away and forget the core Christmas message about the birth of Jesus: giving and sharing and remembering God's presence. Part of this is simplifying our lives as most of us are too busy all year round. We need to keep space in our diaries for rest and relationships.'

So what other tips do the experts have for avoiding an all-out Christmas blow-up? Lewis suggests setting realistic expectations and taking practical measures long before the day arrives. 'Remember what Christmas is about for you. Think about your trigger points, and what's going to set you off. Try to rehearse, and not get drawn into what is a negative situation. Diffuse potentially difficult scenarios by calling people and asking what you can do to make Christmas more comfortable this year.

'Perhaps you can make your time together shorter; it doesn't have to be a long drawn out dinner. Or bring some friends, one or two people who are unbiased. Often family won't act out so much if other people are there.' Lewis also suggests removing oneself from the situation if emotions start to escalate, and if family are intending to stay for an extended period, think carefully about accommodation.

'For some families it's better you have some space - your own hotel or serviced flat. And keep that mindset; I'm here for a week, is it really worth arguing?'

Vernon suggests getting together with friends or relations to pool presents, rather than buying individual gifts for each person. 'Have a family meeting to get organised, decide what everyone is going to do, and try and control the spending. Add up all the things you usually spend money on and take 10 or 20 per cent and give it to charity.

'Families are fabulous and essential to our identities, but relationships get strained, and patience is key. Many families have damaged relationships and more and more parents might be divorced, remarried, and so on. Christmas can be a difficult time because it reminds us the family has broken up or lives far away. The key is to not have too high expectations, be tolerant, and remember relationships are complicated things. In the midst of chaos, keep stillness inside your heart.'

But there are some scenes of Christmas chaos that even the experts would struggle to make sense of.

So if this year's celebrations get out of hand, spare a thought for Bruce. 'Two years ago I was invited to Christmas lunch by a guy from work to enjoy the turkey they had prepared for a group of friends. This guy and his wife believed the house was their children's, and their kids had the run of the place - the walls were covered in writing and scribbles. Anyhow, just as the mum put the turkey with all the trimmings onto the dining table and everyone was about to tuck in, their oldest boy - who was about three - jumped up on the table, dropped his pants and urinated all over the turkey, splashing all the guests in the process. All his parents could say was 'Look at him expressing himself.' We had takeout for Christmas lunch that year, and needless to say, I won't be going back for a repeat performance.'