Emotions run high around Christmas. I’ve already cried about Elton as a small boy, unwrapping the piano given by his loving grandmother, the Sainsbury’s mum watching her daughter killing it as the school play’s gold singing star, Heathrow’s grandparent bears getting a last-minute plane back from Florida to hug their cute grandbaby bear.
But for some of us, the thought of Christmas feels just bitter, not bittersweet. Not everyone has a happy family with a tree and festive school plays and small children and beloved grandparents. Probably none of us have all the elements in an advertised Christmas. Some of us don’t even have a family.
“We are sold these images of families sitting around a log fire playing Scrabble and Twister. People’s reality is often very different. And they can think they’ve failed in some way,” says Donna Lancaster, founder of The Bridge, an emotional-detox retreat in Somerset. And she knows because she specialises in it – during The Bridge, 60 hours of therapeutic time over six days, her team helps people to reveal and heal old family pain and grief.
Christmas can be like a magnifying glass on this pain, if you’ve lost your mum or your dad, or you’re not part of a couple, or you haven’t had a baby you wished for. The emotional reality of losing someone or not having the family you’d hoped for is right in your face.
Even if your family looks like the nuclear ideal, that doesn’t mean Christmas doesn’t do your head in. Maybe you find yourself regressing to sullen teenager within 10 minutes of walking through the door? Or you have to grit your teeth so hard to get through all of Christmas, you’re scared you’re going to crack one. “There’s such pressure on people to have a good time, for Christmas to be this wonderful bonding time with their family,” says Lancaster.
If there is conflict in your family, it’s likely because there are deep currents of old grief and pain, the “unspoken communications”, the “unprocessed grief”, she explains. “It maybe starts off with passive-aggressive remarks, a dig about the turkey being underdone. And then you end up having a row after a couple of glasses of Baileys.”
Even if your family looks like the nuclear ideal, that doesn’t mean Christmas doesn’t do your head in
The long-term way to learn to deal with this? To heal your inner “wounded child” and integrate them with your adult self, the work that’s done at The Bridge. In the short term, you can try not to buy into the whole perfect Christmas shizzle. “Ease off the pressure at Christmas to be happy now. And the belief that at New Year, you need to change your life. You’re perfect in every way, right now,” says Lancaster. It is worth trying some of her advice, too:
1 Treat it as Christmas month
Telling your parent or parents you’re not going home can cause an emotional earthquake with shockwaves that last into New Year. “Lots of people take this personally. But it’s not as simple as saying, don't take it personally,” says Lancaster. What does take the pressure off, she says, is to see Christmas not as a day, or two days, but as happening over a whole month. “Think about it like this: ‘I’m going to try to make time to connect with my family when they’re available and I am, over the festive season.’”
2 Your family is who you choose it to be
Families come in all shapes, so much wider and richer than just mum, dad, grandparents. Friends can be family, of course. “There are so many different models. If your family are the people who you’ve chosen, that’s still a family gathering.” If you’re invited to a gathering of someone else’s blood relatives, don’t think you’re second-best. “Another way of looking at this is that you’re being embraced by people who’ve chosen to be with you.”
3 Play the real game
“Christmas is a great opportunity to have meaningful conversations,” says Lancaster. That might make you shiver, as you think, oh no way, that’d go down like a lead balloon. “You might think it’ll create tension, but the tension is already there,” she says. “I’m a great believer that sometimes, you should say the unsayable. So, if your mum is making critical comments, you say: “When you make comments about the Christmas dinner that I’ve sweated over, I feel hurt.” Dare to be authentic.
This year, Lancaster is trying out a Dutch card game that can provoke all sorts of real conversations. Vertellis is a sort of personal-development version of Mr And Mrs. The questions are about what’s happened in the past year, and your hopes for the next one, and you also get to guess about other people’s, too. Sample question: Of which personal achievement are you most proud?
4 Find your compassion
If hell is other people, how much worse is that hell when it’s four full days locked together over Christmas and you grew up with all those other people? If you can, try to be more in your heart, says Lancaster. “Christmas is a time of compassion and understanding and forgiveness.” For example, if you find your mum hard, maybe you can think, she’s from another generation. Or maybe, she’s doing the best she can. “If you can, go into your heart and see her as a woman, as an adult and as an elder as well as a woman who is your mother.” Then, when she criticises you, or gets offended or is passive-aggressive, it may become a little easier to take.
5 Prepare yourself for that environment
If you have a toxic family environment, and decide you do want to go home for Christmas (you don’t have to!), be prepared. “If you’re dashing into the family get-together, frazzled after being up half the night partying, you’re going to be really tender,” says Lancaster. “Have a really good night’s sleep before you go. If you meditate, do a really good meditation.” If you’re staying over, take time for yourself. “Make pockets of time where you go off by yourself, even if it’s just for a walk. This will break up the intensity of those family connections.”