Waving, Not Drowning

Dear Viv: How can I cope with my first Christmas alone?

In this week's Christmas special, Viv discusses dealing with the pressure of hosting, a first Christmas after losing parents, telling a child that Santa won't bring an expensive gift and a Christmas pregnancy

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By Viv Groskop on

Dear Viv,

Why the hell do I put myself under the pressure of organising a family Christmas when I get so stressed doing it? I come from a big family and across the year we take it in turns to host family dinners. I never offer – firstly, because when my family come round, they never go home, and secondly, because when I cook, I go all Delia and want to showcase amazing food. Then there’s all the clean-up afterwards. Ultimately, it costs me hundreds of pounds and leaves me stressed. What’s the solution?

Dear Reluctant Delia – I don’t know, why the hell do you put yourself under the pressure of organising a family Christmas when you get so stressed doing it?! I can feel the heartache and the frustration oozing out of your question, not to mention the bang-your-head-against-the-wall madness of your own self-defeating behaviour. I get what you’re saying because we’ve all done it. Moaned and groaned about having to have people round for dinner and then cooked a seven-course cordon bleu extravaganza worthy of Heston Blumenthal’s Christmas special. Just to prove that we’re worth it. Or something. (Seriously, what are we trying to prove?) You know what I’m going to say here. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. You need to set some and not just for others. For yourself.

First, the question of whether to host in the first place. I say this and I say it clearly: if you do not want to do it, do not do it. You say you never offer to host these dinners and yet somehow it seems that you end up hosting them. And no wonder everyone invites themselves round to yours – you massively over-cater and they never have to leave. If I was your sibling, I’d be inviting myself round every night. It’s time to reclaim the sanity. If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. I can’t say this often enough. You don’t even have to find an excuse. Just say – please practise saying this – “I’m not doing it. End of.” If you feel you can’t go this far, then practise your excuses. “I'm not up to it at the moment, I have too much on at work.” “I’ve been really under the weather all year. I can’t manage it.” “Cooking makes me feel nauseous at the moment.” (Let them speculate that you are pregnant. Anything but make you cater for them all.) Best of all, don’t say anything. Just say: NO.

Second, there is an option for you to say yes, but it involves you saying yes in a way that makes you happy. Maybe there is a part of you that enjoys hosting these dinners. Maybe you really do want to say yes. Make a list of all the things that could happen that would make this into a happy yes for you. What if everyone contributed £50 so you didn’t pay for everything? You can send them your bank details and a deadline to pay by. Better still, delegate this task to someone else. What if everyone had to bring something with them to help with the catering? What if everyone was assigned a role? Someone to help lay the table. Someone to do the washing-up. Someone to act as your sous chef. Make it into a fun thing. Give them sticky labels to wear. What if you acted as the manager or leader of this project, rather than the person who has to do every single task on her own and pay for it all, too? Would that make it fun? If the answer is yes, then go ahead. You can do this.

My big thing for 2018 is going to be this – and I want it to be yours, too: teach other people how to treat you. If you pay for everything, do everything, cook everything and throw in a Delia triple-cooked goat’s cheese souffle as an inter-course appetiser, they will certainly learn how to treat you: like a doormat. They’ll come back and ask for more. And who can blame them when you already showed how much you want to give? Let others see what your limits are and don’t let them test them. First, though, you know the truth: work out for yourself what your limits are and make a promise to yourself not to bend them for anyone.

Dear Viv,

I lost both my parents this year and am dreading Christmas. I decided against spending Christmas with my brother and his family abroad, because I think it will just be too difficult for me to handle. Instead I will stay at home. I may see my friends on Boxing Day. How can I distract myself, what can I do for myself to block the "meaning of Christmas" messages which I'm being subjected to from all directions...?

Oh God bless you, I’m so sorry for the loss of your parents, that’s just a horrible thing to go through and I can’t imagine how you must be feeling. There are so many clichéd things I could suggest and I imagine you have thought of them all already but I’ll list them just in case. Have you thought about doing something completely different which will ensure you’re surrounded by people? How about volunteering? This has become such a popular activity for people who have had enough of Christmas for a variety of reasons that you now have to volunteer at most homeless shelters for at least three days. It would really give you something to focus on outside of yourself. And it will keep you busy and active at a time when I think you really don’t want to be on your own. 

I also wonder if you can reach out to people you don’t know that well and explain your predicament. If you were a work friend of mine, for example, I’d be more than happy to help. There are loads of people who love the idea of having an extra person round for Christmas to soak up the insanity of their family. (Not that I’m talking about my family, of course! Other families are available.) We all know that our families can be much better behaved if there is a stranger around. It’s less easy to unleash the crazy. Maybe talking to others about this in advance might help too. You might be surprised how many other people are looking to escape the traditional Christmas.

Which brings me to another option. Could you find other individuals who are looking for something different to do? Maybe arrange a pub lunch on Christmas Day? Or a Christmas brunch at yours? I don’t want to say “a lunch for waifs and strays” but you know what I am talking about here. Anything to keep you focused away from your usual traditions and away from being alone. 

The final option is to accept that perhaps you want to be alone. A friend of mine had to make a similar decision last year and she booked herself a holiday – on her own – to Morocco, and had a fantastic time just doing whatever she wanted and ignoring Christmas completely. Is this the time to travel somewhere exotic? Maybe even take a flight on Christmas Day itself when it’s cheaper? Is there a spa open somewhere? Or just hole up at home and make a schedule for yourself: watch five films you’ve always wanted to watch back to back; binge-watch at least three boxsets; do all the laziest and most self-indulgent things you can ever think of. The important thing is to make a schedule and stick to it.

I think maybe the worst thing you can do is not have a plan. A plan which seems weird or uncomfortable to you is better than not having a plan. Also, I strongly – STRONGLY – advise complete avoidance of alcohol. More generally speaking, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and doing something you wouldn’t normally do is a good idea. Seeing your friends on Boxing Day is a great idea. Also reach out to them for other suggestions. Get creative. This is an opportunity for you to make some memories that will keep you going over the next year and really show yourself that you’re capable of getting on with things on your own. Without knowing your thoughts and feelings about your parents, I’m sure that’s what they would most want: for you to do something that makes you feel good. Try and honour them by working out what that might be. Good luck and I will be thinking of you. 

You can hear the answers to these and the following questions on Viv’s podcast, Waving, Not Drowning, above

Dear Viv,

My six-year-old son has asked for a couple of really big-ticket items for Christmas (an electric car and a robot, if you really want to know). We're just completing a massive renovation job on our home and we really don't have the money left to buy expensive presents. Plus I don't agree with spending that much on a six year old anyway – especially when the novelty will wear off quickly. But he's obsessed and I don't want him to be really disappointed at Christmas – what should I do?

Dear Viv,

I recently found out I'm expecting my first child, which my husband and I are thrilled about. We're past 12 weeks, so the news is trickling out to the extended friends and family group, but we're not a very shouty or showy couple and Christmas is obviously a very social time with lots of people you haven't seen for a while.

I'm thrilled everyone is happy for us and super excited to be sharing our news, but I don't want it to already take over "me" or be all anyone talks about at social gatherings.

My closest friends have been great, beyond the "how are you feeling?" it's back to normal chat. How do I politely try and shift conversation away from everything baby over the festive season when we'll be seeing so many people who want to know everything.

"How big?"
"What sex?"
"Will you find out?"
"What names are you thinking?"
"Oh go on, please tell me!"

It might sound silly and a bit selfish, I should just be happy they're so interested. But any tips on how to politely shift focus would be greatly welcome. Many thanks and Happy Christmas.

These questions have been edited for length. 

Got a question for Viv? Email her at DearViv@thepoolltd.com. The Dear Viv podcast airs fortnightly on The Pool at 5pm on Tuesdays. All letters will be edited for length. Unfortunately Viv cannot reply to your emails personally. 

You can subscribe to The Pool's podcasts on iTunes.

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