Take the stress out of Christmas gatherings by using common sense

When the adults go crackers after too much champagne tomorrow, help calm frazzled nerves by using some common sense, writes Karen Pittar

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 5:46pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 6:27pm

Until last year, Christmas was a favourite holiday for Sally Jones (not her real name). From decorating the tree to baking with her children, and tucking into festive fare, there wasn't a part of the celebration she didn't enjoy.

But despite her careful planning last year, she wound up with Christmas lunch on the table and no one to enjoy it, as the family had scattered, either yelling or in tears.

"We rented a spectacular house in the Cotswolds and invited my husband's family to spend the holidays with us. This included his parents, his sister and her children. I never had a particularly close relationship with his family but I always thought we got on fairly well," she says.

The trouble began on Christmas Eve, when Sally's complaints that her mother-in-law was critical of her children and interfering with meal plans were overheard. It intensified the next morning when the pair squabbled over whether they had prepared enough parsnips.

"She started screaming at me: it was always 'my way', I was 'selfish', 'unkind', 'a bad wife'. The children came in and started crying and begging us to stop yelling. It ended when she picked up the Christmas pudding, still in its porcelain basin, and hurled it across the room at me. The whole scene was just dreadful. A year on, we still don't speak."

Family feuds during the holidays are not uncommon. A survey of 2,000 households by British newspaper The Telegraph estimates the average family will have at least five arguments tomorrow, the first will start by 10.30am. Battle two should be under way by lunchtime, most likely a rehash of an old squabble. In another sobering statistic, about 45 per cent of respondents said fights between parents were likely to be fuelled by excessive alcohol consumption.

Why do family gatherings often lead to bickering, and how can you ensure a laid-back and peaceful Christmas Day?

Susan Macnaughton, an accredited mediator with Gail Solicitors, believes we shouldn't be trying to live up to the idyllic images presented by some media. "Squabbling can come from a lot of causes. Family can be wonderful but it also can be complicated. However, one obvious source of stress around Christmas comes from advertisements and articles in the media," Macnaughton says.

"Probably the most frequently used adjective is 'perfect', which suggests the perfect Christmas is out there being enjoyed by all those perfect families. We all know this utopia does not really exist, but it doesn't stop us from feeling we should try to achieve it. This puts unrealistic expectations and pressures on everyone."

Katherine Sellery conducts courses teaching families how to better communicate and maintain relationships. She says many squabbles are essentially old battles being repeated.

"Often the arguments at Christmas are actually not even about something at that time, they stem back to the earlier times in their lives. The truth is that explosions during the holidays that wreck everyone's good times are really about people's buttons being pushed."

To ensure peace on earth, at least for one day, Macnaughton suggests everyone adopts more realistic expectations. "Having people to stay can certainly be stressful for both hosts and visitors, again because of high expectations. The lack of space in Hong Kong means everyone is on top of each other, which can cause tension as you go from having not seen each other to not being able to escape. If you know that there are undercurrents, lay off the booze and be prepared to count to 10 before you react."

A great way to decompress is to get out of the house and enjoy some holiday activities. There are the favourites, such as a visit to see the seals and pandas at Ocean Park or a trip to the Big Buddha.

Katrina Walker, owner of Bumps to Babes, says the Christmas lights in Central are a wonderful excursion. "We love a tram trip prior to Christmas with lots of friends, family and mulled wine. Santa comes on board with presents … it's great fun. The kids say it starts Christmas for them, and they love being up late and seeing the city lights," she says.

A mother of three teenage boys, Imi Bond says active outings are a must for her family over the holidays. "Our fave outing, once the big day is done, is going to motocross near Sheung Shui. The boys love it as it's something they can all do together. It is special because everyone gets involved, filming one another or taking turns on the track, and we always go for a local yummy Chinese meal afterwards.

"We also spend a day or two on the water. A day trip on our sailboat is special because we always include friends and family."

Kendra Moran and her husband, Patrick, spent their first Christmas in Hong Kong a couple of years ago. A simple time together, it was one of the best their family has celebrated.

"We actually got a boat from Sai Kung to Ha Mun Bay. It was so quiet on the beach and a gorgeous sunny day, it was a wonderfully peaceful way to celebrate the holiday. The children could run and play, dashing in and out of the water, and my husband and I just got to relax with a chilled glass of wine and watch them have fun."

For physiotherapist Emma a hike has become part of their holiday tradition. "Dragon's Back from Shek O Road to Big Wave Bay is always great during holidays as there are so many family and community groups to say 'hi' to and this motivates the kids to keep going, and generally feel in the celebratory mood.

"When we finish in Big Wave Bay, we often swim if it's warm and enjoy a bowl of noodles, and chat with the locals. My mum and dad made it along the Dragon's Back last year only to be bowled over in the waves at Shek O."

Tess Lyons works at Philippine charity International Care Ministries. She takes the time to get out of the house and do a little good with her husband and four children. "We share Christmas Day with friends and on Boxing Day we always go to the beach. A tradition for us is to, at some point during the holidays, try to give a little back. This year we plan to help feed the poor at the St Barnabus Society and Home."

No matter how your family chooses to celebrate tomorrow, remember to relax and be merry. If you do find yourself feeling frazzled, think on Macnaughton's suggestions: count to 10, smile and be happy - then get out of doors and enjoy some family time.

As for Sally and her family, they are spending the day in New Zealand with friends. "My plan is to get as far away from last year as possible. New Zealand seemed like a good option and there is so much to do there as a family. We are going to have a relaxed and quiet day, no parsnips, no puddings and no fighting."