As the holidays approach and families get together, the anticipation rises – and so does the stress

Peter Kammerer’s trip home to spend Christmas with his mother, for the first time in 28 years, brings its own forms of anxiety as he seeks to make it an occasion to remember

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 December, 2015, 12:07pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 December, 2015, 12:07pm

Experienced travellers know that a holiday has three parts: anticipation, expectation and recollection. But my trip home to Australia to see my mother for Christmas also has a large dollop of a fourth facet, stress. It’s not the planning or gifts that have caused anxiety; they were sorted out months ago. What’s bothering me is the unexpected.

Chance, for me, has always been the most interesting part of travel. That, unfortunately, has not applied to visiting relatives

My most memorable holidays have involved unanticipated experiences. A temple-top perch in Bagan with a vista of the Irrawaddy River on a full moon night, a red-ball sunset beside a rice paddy on the outskirts of Vientiane, and a conversation with a female office worker sunbathing nearly naked on a tombstone in downtown Copenhagen come readily to mind. They were not planned, but chanced upon, to be remembered for a lifetime. Chance, for me, has always been the most interesting part of travel.

That, unfortunately, has not applied to visiting relatives. My family is small, my father and only sibling having died long ago. Apart from my elderly mother, there are an only uncle and aunt who are not close, two even more distant cousins and four others I have never met. As trips home have usually not been happy occasions, for a funeral or yet another health crisis involving my lone parent, it is perhaps to be expected that, the nearer Christmas gets, the more stressed I feel.

I am not the only one – stress in the period leading up to family reunions is commonplace. A recent article in Popular Science magazine confirmed that, although it pointed out that a lack of data made putting a number on it impossible. Experts spoken to by the magazine put the feeling down to personality and family history, and that many or most of us have a measure of stress when it comes to get-togethers. The events themselves were not stressful; rather, it is our perception of them that stresses us out.

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A study by the Nationwide Building Society in Britain, released in August, found that 23 per cent of the 2,000 Britons surveyed were more stressed after their holiday than when they started it. A relaxing time had been anticipated, but worries about plans being disrupted, work and finances overtook thoughts. I’ve no doubt some of that had to do with connectivity: while the aim of a vacation is to switch off from day-to-day demands and challenges, an inability for many people to leave mobile phones at home means the life they are trying to temporarily escape from is taken with them. In my case, though, mobile devices are not my problem. This is the first time I will be spending Christmas with my mother for 28 years and I am anxious that it will be as perfect as possible.

Stress, so I’ve learned, is manageable. It is best dealt with by making expectations realistic

That is unlikely to happen, of course. My mother is no longer capable of cooking the Christmas dinner I remember from childhood and there’s every chance that the turkey will be burnt. Nor am I looking forward to meeting those scant few relatives who are likely to drop by; I’m fretting over the awkward conversations that are more than likely to occur. Above all, there will be my feeling of guilt at having taken so long to return for an occasion that my mother increasingly values, the older and frailer she gets.

Stress, so I’ve learned, is manageable. It is best dealt with by making expectations realistic. As much as I want this gathering to mirror the seasonal classic movie It’s A Wonderful Life, perhaps it won’t be that terrible if it turns out to be National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Regardless, I am making the trip because of someone who is important to me. My mother is well and truly in her twilight years and it’s time for that long-overdue Christmas together. That, in itself, is worth the stress.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post