The ingredients of a ‘typical’ Christmas don’t augur well. Take a huge dollop of pressure to spend money which you may or may not have. Prepare a ticking clock. Add a never-ending list of things that need to be done before the Big Day, on top of, not instead of, all the normal demands on your time.
Throw in generous amounts of unfamiliar food which must be bought and prepared and which will be eaten in unfamiliar quantities and in digestion-challenging combinations. Sprinkle liberally with the obligation to drink copious amounts of alcohol at unfamiliar times of the day.
So far so unpromising. Next comes the piece de resistance, the icing on the Christmas cake which no one in your house likes but which everyone expects. Drench the mixture with a flammable concoction of family members close and not so close, in-laws and outlaws, cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, friends, neighbours, that fellow from the pub who hasn’t got anywhere else to go.
And there you have it. The ingredient which is guaranteed to turn a tentatively peaceful occasion into a war zone. Other people. As Jean Paul Sartre said in his 1944 play Huis Clos, hell is other people.
Now, the clever Monsieur Sartre meant something rather more complex than our inability to get on with people who annoy us, but the very phrase strikes a chord with unhappy Christmas experiences.
When we are herded together at unusually close quarters, or forced into conversations and negotiations which occur only at this time of year, our resentments and rivalries and anxieties and insecurities and jealousies rise to the surface, ready to erupt at the slightest touch.
You can keep the atmosphere at as pleasantly chilled a temperature as that nice Pinot Grigio you are enjoying by applying this one maxim:
Think it, don’t say it
Of course you have every right to express your feelings. But just because you can, it doesn’t mean you have to, and it is probably much better for you and for everyone else if you don’t. It’s all about context, time and place and the febrile atmosphere of a Christmas gathering doesn’t tick any of the right boxes.
- You think that this is a good time to tell your family that they take you for granted?
- You think that this is the perfect opportunity to announce that you are emigrating, splitting up, filing for bankruptcy, have a ‘love child’ now aged four, are marrying the person you met online two months ago?
- You think that since the subject has come up, it’s a good moment to bring into the open the fact that your sister was always the favourite, that you are disappointed in your YP’s choice of career/partner/lifestyle, that you have always hated seeing your significant other make a fool of themselves at the office do, that you are never ever going to invite your in-laws again?
No, it’s not a good time, and you don’t need to say it. Not now. If it needs to be said, make a more appropriate opportunity.
How to stop yourself from saying it
Recognise the trigger. Take a good deep breath, and breathe out again steadily. Get your response out of your head by saying something else to yourself. Choose a phrase or a quotation which will defuse the moment, and let that phrase fill your head. It will soothe and distract you. You could try a physical reminder as well, something like a pinch on your inside wrist. Some people like to use a rubber band which they twang to remind them of a point of behaviour, but that might just draw attention to you and set up more opportunities for comment and conflict.
Take a lesson from a Texas Christmas
You could visit a different school of philosophy from Sartre’s, and turn to the Texan troubadour Robert Earl Keen.
What a recipe for hell he presents in his 1994 song, Merry Christmas From The Family. His little sister turns up with her new Mexican boyfriend. Brother Ken comes along with his three kids from his first wife Lynn, the two identical twins from his second wife Mary Nell, and his new wife, the chain-smoking alcoholic Kaye. There’s another couple of random relatives who plug in their motor home and blow the Christmas lights.
They are drinking egg nog and margaritas and Bloody Marys. It’s tacky and chaotic, with people running out for more celery, fake snow, Malboro Lights, a can of bean dip. But it’s wonderful.
There’s a lot that could be said in this family, and no doubt a lot has been said. This is a family with history. But not today.
Look how they deal with the lights going out. No one says:
- That was a stupid thing to do
- There’s always something to ruin things
- That’s typical of you
- All I ask is that for one day of the year…
- Do you know how long it took me to put those lights up?
- Don’t you think you’ve had enough to drink?
Check out the live version and hear the crowd’s glee and sheer enjoyment as they chant the line about Kaye, ‘Who talks all about AA.’ That line works as a distraction, actually. Hear it in your head. Let the emphasis on AA drive aw ay the though you were about to utter. It might even make you smile.
And think about that family in Texas, keeping together against all the odds. When the lights blow, they sit on the lawn sitting on the lawn while Cousin David mends them, and when the lights come back on, they sing Silent Night.