Sunday, 20 December 2009

Surviving Christmas

I know that everyone's experience of Christmas is very different so it is impossible to give universal advice.  I have known people who set off for a Spanish or Tunisian hotel each December so are far away from the, poor weather, crowds and traffic chaos of the UK and I know people who go 'on tour' from relative to relative around the UK having a series of traditional Christmas meals to the extent that they must be sick of the sight of even the images of this food.  I know Pagans who get it all out of the way on the Solstice four days before Christmas Day so feel none of the pressures that the media seems to jack up.  I know one many who celebrates Saturnalia on the 25th complaining that the Christians stole his holiday.  He has no servants that he can serve on that day but child minds for Christians going to church.

I come from a small family so never had a huge number of relatives to visit.  However, I did live through the 1970s which these days seem to be perceived as the 'golden age' of Christmas.  There is regular reference to the fact that half the entire population of the UK watched 'The Morecambe and Wise Show' helped by the fact at the time there were only three channels.  In addition, Christmas tunes by Slade and Wizzard, hits in the 1970s are more common on our radios than many carols.  These days with television recording devices, the chance to 'see again' on multiple channels and your computer, plus computer and console games has taken away a lot of the tedious intensity of Christmas especially for the young.  It always seemed particularly cruel to given children toys they had waited for all year and then deny them the chance to play them and instead sit in Granny's overheated house listening to relatives arguing about which year in the 1920s someone joined a tennis club or when the zip had not simply been invented but introduced into common usage and sit through dull movies only to spend the time when all the good stuff was home being driven home in the dark.  Living in southern England as I do now, there was not even the consolation of snow, which generally fell more often at Easter than Christmas.  Coming from a Pagan family, once school broke up, I did not have to attend any more religious events and have no experience of standing in cold churches listening to people droning out the 'classics'.

This posting, then, is a random collection of thoughts on how to survive Christmas without feeling that you never want to see it again.  Please feel free to send me any other things you want to include that I may never have encountered or thought of. The umbrella warning I would give is:  Avoid Excess. Christmas is about excess in so many ways.  People have the heating on far too much which makes everyone dehydrated, feel fractious and thirsty; turn the heating down a notch for every person who enters your house.  Do not try and jam too many people into your house, it is a recipe for arguments.  Think about it, many UK families replicate the circumstances of the television series 'Lost', i.e. a strange assortment of people, many of whom do not want to be there, with people they might not particularly like and certainly have little in common with, in an overheated, cramped space not even as attractive as a desert island.  Excess continues with food.  At Christmas generally there is food from the moment you wake to when you are back in bed again.  There are sweets and nuts, cakes and biscuits then most people put on a meal many times larger than what they would eat on a normal day, except that, of course, you are not burning up a fraction of the energy you would be doing on a normal day and you have been eating lots of high energy food already.  The people who need the food at Christmas and the energy it provides are those that are outside like the homeless or working hard like emergency services, often actually get less rather more than usual.

Do not try and enforce jolity.  At Christmas people are often reflective, it is grey and they may feel down.  However, thrusting brash, noisy activity in their face is not going to make them feel magically happy, it simply throws what they are feeling into sharper relief.  Combined with over heated houses and excessive food and alcohol it can be far harder to cope with than something more low key.  Have decorations, yes, but not some huge installation that makes the place glitter in every corner.  True happiness comes from seeing what is important and being thankful for it.  You have a house when many people do not; you have food when many people do not; you have gifts when many people do not.  Do not put everyone on a guilt trip, but do see that actually you can be happy from having people you love around you and having a good (but not madly large meal).  If everything is too big and too brash then any real feeling is gone from it.  Never enforce jolity on people; do not compel participation.  Think about, after a large meal, lions lie around and doze they do not charge across the savannah, think the same with people.  If someone is not a gamesplayer all year round then do not guilt trip them into being one at Christmas, it will simply be twice as unpleasant for them.  Also avoid activities that provoke embarrassment; on this basis do not treat teenagers as if they were still eight years old, let them find their own level of interaction.  Keep it simple.  As a child I used to watch my parents and grandparents play serious card games at Christmas.  My Granny (my father's mother) seemed transformed into a different woman.  However, the card games were nothing flashy and nothing new, but it was clear that the players were enjoying the game because it was something they rarely had a chance for.  The same went for my Grandpa's (my mother's father) eclectic mix of piano tunes, generally more informed by Socialism than Christianity, but it was the only time he was tolerable.  These things work better than new elaborate games, especially if no-one is compelled to participate.

These days a lot of the problems of competiton to see various programmes has been eliminated and it has reduced a lot of tension in houses.  It does not really matter if you miss a programme or a movie, you can have preset your recording device before leaving home and the programme will no doubt be available on some channel or online or on DVD in the near future.  This contrasts with the past when large chunks of the assembled group would have to sit through something they found tedious knowing what they wanted to see was ticking away on another channel.

I do recommend a degree of exercise, if simply to counteract the stuffy-headedness of being inside for much of the day.  It also allows a reduction in the tension of having people piled up on top of each other, especially in the UK where houses are really too small for the number of people we jam into them.  The Royal Family has the right idea, though naturally their houses are huge.  They all go off to church and obviously for Christians this is one way to get some fresh air and exercise.  Of course, really Catholics time it badly.  Midnight Mass may have a magic to it, but if you want the family to survive Christmas, Midday Mass would be far more suitable.  For the more secular among us, walk the dog, go to some park, even look around the shops.  I favour going to some open space as even in these days of far longer opening hours, there is nothing more dreary than walking passed closed shops.  I can guarantee that a lot of the pressure of being around people at Christmas is reduced if a large portion of them get out.  We cannot entirely counteract the fact that we can only stomach our family for comparative short periods of time; often husbands and wives find it far more challenging to be together for an extended period than when each has the escape of work.  This is why there are so many divorces initiated in late December and early January.

The one thing that people neglect to give at Christmas is space.  Too many families organise every moment of everyone's day.  You rise early and you stay up late, prolonging the day, but rarely do you get time to take a break and sit back.  Let the teenager listen to their ipod, let adults not participate in games, let people watch something different up in the bedroom, let the elderly or the younger people sleep if they want to.  There is ample opportunity for coming together and you are going to get a lot more of it compared to usual over the period, so let people opt out for some of the time; do not try to have everyone involved all of the time, it wears down the reserves of patience and goodwill very quickly.  My one recommendation is to have a good non-fiction book on standby.  Do not have fiction because it can be frustrating leaving the story to go and eat or participate in an activity.  I always used to have the non-fiction samurai books by Stephen Turnbull for such use.  I think it explains why celebrity biographies are ideal at this time of year.  You want something that is interesting enough but that you can dip into and out of as need requires.  Let children have free rein on computer/console games, remember, for them Christmas, after the initial couple of minutes of delight, can be hours of protracted tedium, particularly for teenagers who would would rather be around their friends' houses than pressed together with little known relatives.

Overall, I know that people feel that Christmas is not Christmas unless everything is done to the maximum. My suggestion is that if you want to retain your sanity and good relations with your family, especially your spouse, is to step everything down a notch or two.  Do not provide excessive food; keep the house temperature down a bit; let people opt out of activities and you should be able to get through Christmas without dreading the same time next year.

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