Coping with the family at Christmas

We love them. We really do. In fact, we can’t emphasise just how much we love them. But our extended families may not be the people we’d pick first to spend a whole day across the table from … or even the second, third or fourth pick.

Labour is rarely shared evenly, with some opting to spend more time looking down the barrel of a long neck than in the kitchen, where potato-heavy plates are being pumped out at incredible rates. Both guests and hosts pretend that half the contents of the house weren’t hastily shoved into cupboards just half an hour before arrival, as if opening any unlabelled door won’t cause a small avalanche.

Yet, Christmas rolls around each year and, for all the hype and chaos, it can be an important part in maintaining family ties. Here is my guide to making the most of the big day, leaving with relationships strong and your sanity intact.

Arrive right
Making a good first impression is important. Bringing a dish and a drink shows that you are contributing; if presents are expected don’t forget them. If you’re expected to bring a gift to the host but aren’t sure what, a flowering plant in a pot is fun, colourful and always goes down well.

Be honest
One reason tension often arises at Christmas is the unspoken expectation that family ties are closer than they actually are. Instead of beating about the bush trying to conjure up a relative’s job title, address or partner’s name, try being honest. You don’t need to show all your cards, but a simple “It’s been too long, you’ll have to remind me …” is a polite way to bridge the awkward gap and move on with a more authentic conversation. Take it from me, you don’t want to take a stab in the dark and call a cousin’s partner by their ex’s name … it doesn’t go down well.

Keep quiet, for now
Christmas Day isn’t the time to resolve any outstanding family tensions, despite what some people may think after a few drinks. If you’ve been carrying a grievance around and are feeling particularly hurt or vocal on the day, it’s best to keep your concerns private for the time being. You may wish to use seeing a family member at Christmas as a reason to raise and amend the tension after, starting a conversation with “So good to see you at Christmas, it reminded me of something I think we should talk about …” is a far better approach then spoken over the turkey with a room of onlookers. Alternatively, if someone tries to start a difficult conversation with you, there is nothing wrong with avoiding the issue until another day. Responding with “I completely agree that this is something we should talk about, but how about another day when we can sit down properly” will help relieve pressure but also acknowledge the presence of an issue.  

Bathroom breaks
I do this all the time. It’s not as if anyone is keeping a tally on how often I pee, so I tend to smile and excuse myself from a conversation – sometimes as frequently as half hourly – to duck away and have a little me time.

Include everyone
There may be the aunt who retells the same stories each year or the uncle who insists on seeking your advice on an off-coloured toenail, but everyone should have the opportunity to feel included. If this is especially true for some members of the family, you may want to have a prearranged ‘tag’ system with someone else, so you don’t spend all afternoon looking at Uncle Terry’s toe gunk.

Christmas crackers
As a child I never really saw the point of a Christmas cracker, but as an adult I see them as a social staple for every Christmas lunch. Offering someone a cracker to pull is a great conversation starter and allows you both to laugh a little too hard at a trashy joke. As silly as it sounds, having a table full of people wearing matching paper crowns builds a sense of community and is fun for the kids.

Quiet spaces
It can be nice to have a quiet zone set up where people can go to focus on something other can conversation. I recommend a gingerbread decorating station. The kids will love it, it’s a great conversation starter and it can act as a still-social escape throughout the day.

It’s okay to run
Not everyone can spend a whole day in an environment that makes him or her stressed, nor should anyone have to. It you find yourself overwhelmed it’s okay to opt out. A line as simple as “It’s been great seeing you all, but I’d better be off” is enough to back out without anyone feeling hurt. In the past, I’ve definitely used “Well, better get Grandma home”, despite her having more beans than anyone else in the room.

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Written by Liv Gardiner

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