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There’s good reason that many Christmas greetings wish you “peace and goodwill”. It expresses the hope that you will enjoy harmony and benevolence among your loved ones at Christmas, and that your relationships will survive to welcome the New Year.
Despite the sentiments of Andy Williams’s Christmas song, It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, research puts the festive season up there with divorce, moving house and changing jobs as one of life’s most stressful events. And, broadly speaking, there are five Christmas scenarios that trim the jolly and jingle the nerves when it comes to relationships at this time of the year.
At the top of the list is the Perfect Christmas to which many aspire year after year. Perfect Christmas Planners (PCPs) spend months searching for ideal gifts. They adorn their homes as if they’re going to be photographed for the holiday edition of Architectural Digest. They agitate at length about menus and recipes as if competing in the finals of MasterChef. And then, to top it, PCPs orchestrate the day as if conducting the Drakensberg Boys Choir in a rendition of O Tannenbaum.
Achieving the Perfect Christmas is hard work, stressful and costly.
And, as 32-year-old entrepreneur, Lauren explains, the family pays the price.
“When I was young, my grandmother hosted Christmas and it was a casual affair. Her house filled up with relatives and friends who all pitched in to decorate the tree and prepare the meal. I have wonderful memories of relaxing, fun days of togetherness in my grandmother’s home,” she says.
Things changed when Lauren was a teenager and her grandmother grew too fragile to play hostess.
“My mother took over Christmas and what a disaster,” she says. “She’s a perfectionist and began planning the gifts, ornaments, menu, seating plan and itinerary months in advance. By November, we were sick of hearing about Christmas, her plans and how stressful it was for her. She was tireless and tiresome. The day itself was always tense. Something – minor to most, but major to her – wouldn’t go as planned and she’d explode.”
The antithesis of the Perfect Christmas is the Chaotic Christmas, which can be just as testing on relationships. Chaotic Christmases are often organised by well-meaning but incompetent members of the family who insist, “it’s our turn”. Many of these well-meaning incompetents are incapable of instigating a toyi-toyi at a service delivery protest outside Luthuli House – and Christmas is an equally shambolic affair.
Chaotic Christmases involve incalculable numbers of guests. Few contribute gifts or refreshments. People stand around awkwardly as the house fills up. There’s no structure to the day and no evidence a plan exists. Eventually someone, usually a bustling aunt, takes charge and upsets others because she’s so officious. Chaotic Christmases typically end with many of the guests (usually family) leaving early in a huff, while friends of friends – essentially strangers – stay on and have a party because they have nowhere else to go.
Property developer, Kurt recounts an “über-chaotic” Christmas: “My younger sister and brother-in-law insisted on hosting Christmas and wouldn't accept offers of help or contributions. When we arrived, having collected my elderly parents on the way, the house was already of full of other guests, few of whom we knew. My sister hadn't even defrosted the turkey but was enraged when my wife offered to help her prepare it. We left before lunch and took my parents, who were extremely upset, to eat at a restaurant, which thankfully accommodated at the last minute. I was furious with my sister and her husband for spoiling the day.”
Another category of Christmas that infuriates, frustrates, distresses and puts enormous strain on relationships is the Opulent Christmas, where members of the family try to outdo each other with bigger, better and more lavish gifts and celebrations each year.
Then there’s the Awkward Christmas, which illogically brings family members who loathe one another together as if turkey and mince pies will perform some miraculous therapy.
Finally, there’s the Grumpy Christmas, which is a lethal mix of cantankerous grandparents, hormonal teenagers and other Grinch-like characters, all of whom would rather be elsewhere. And, of course, some Christmases are a combination of two or more of the five categories. Regardless of their classification, they’re all sure to rock relationships.
Christmas tests family relationships, marriages and friendships alike, concurs Cape Town psychotherapist and coach Julie Petrie. But there are, she says, ways of minimising the strain.
“You have to manage expectations. If members of your family don’t generally get on, the fact that it is Christmas is not going to change things. But if you want to be together, keep Christmas simple.
“For example, go hiking with your father if that's what he likes. Bake with your mother and go cycling with your brother. Focus on what you like about people and try not to hang on to past upsets.
“Don't let one person assume all the responsibilities and don't overspend. Financial issues create enormous problems in relationships. Focus on creating good memories by doing enjoyable things together. Don’t put the emphasis on luxurious food and expensive gifts but rather on good times.” - Sunday Independent