If there is ever an opportunity to create and build crazy expectations that can only lead to avid disappointment it is the annual run up to December 25th and the day itself. We just can’t help ourselves as the smell of pine needles and the heady aromas of mulled wine rush to our heads and create lots of warm fuzzy unrealistic thoughts. Suddenly we decide that we are a member of the Walton family or perhaps the Ingles of Walnut Grove. (For anyone not of my vintage the Waltons were an American TV family from a show of the same name while the Ingles family were from another show called Little House on the Prairie.) We tend to forget that we have mere mortals for parents, brothers, sisters, in laws and relatives, and not carefully scripted characters full of love, warmth and homespun wisdom that always do the right thing in the end.

A thin line

In real families, particularly at Christmas, there can be a thin line between everything going fantastically well or absolute bloody disaster. Throw together the differing personalities of siblings and siblings in law, a bunch of small children, some older relatives and a few pets into a building that was originally designed to house a maximum of two adults and 4 small children the rest of the year and you have a good basic recipe for some kind of conflict. (I’m surprised Paddy Power has never seen the potential profit from betting for and against the good old family row at Christmas.) You must do it at a cold and dark time of year and add to it a wobbly fir tree, large wheeled toys, fifty metres of discarded wrapping paper, enough food for a six month stay in a nuclear fall out shelter and plenty of alcohol and you can easily see how, in scientific terms, the whole experiment can become quite unstable.

Yet for some reason we see this as our ‘ideal’ Christmas; all the family in the same place, breaking bread together, laughing and joking while wearing silly hats. What Christmas often turns out to be is a test of patience, an assessment of your people skills, a game of diplomacy and sometimes a competition to see who will blow first.

A small spark can ignite

Sometimes it takes very little to light the torch paper. A small spark from an unthinking tongue can cause a smouldering that, fanned by some other equally stupid remark, can create an inferno. Some people remove their brains when they put on those silly paper hats from the crackers. What is intended as a joke about the cook’s culinary skills can be taken as a cruel and insulting jibe on Christmas Day, while it might have been hilariously received at a Sunday lunch in August.

There is also the minefield of the gifts. Some givers love to see the reaction on the receiver’s face when the wrapping paper is removed. They want shouts of unadulterated, orgasmic, joy and secretly demand declarations that it is, without a doubt, the ‘very best present ever received’. The problem is that some people are just not demonstrative. They quite possibly love the gift, but they just don’t have the ability to show it. The giver can be left feeling disappointed, rejected and sometimes even resentful.

Raking up the past

If this thinking is left to fester and then fed with alcohol there is the distinct possibility that it will bubble into some form of nastiness before the day is out. Often such nastiness involves the raking up of some past muck that everyone thought was forgiven and forgotten. Not, my friends on Christmas Day, when the telly usually conspires to aid the family row by never having anything decent on but depressing soaps and tired, worn out movies that we’ve all seen a thousand times. Indeed sometimes looking at the TV schedules, a heartfelt annual airing of grievances can be considered excellent entertainment!

Grannies and Granddads have a particularly difficult balancing act at Christmas, and especially those at the younger end of the scale or new to the whole grand-parenting game. Grandchildren bring a whole new dynamic to the family unit. Grannies and Granddads can be accused of spoiling the little ones and often such accusations can come from their own visiting adult children (usually not the parents of the children in question, but the parent’s siblings).

At a subconscious level the visiting adult children can feel displaced by the grandchildren. If the visiting children are single and home for Christmas, their single adult lifestyles are often unused to the noise levels of little children and so there is even greater potential for getting under each others’ skin.

United Nations

Grandparents have to become like the United Nations in order to get away unscathed. They also risk having their own parenting skills called into question and retrospectively examined when they are reminded petulantly, “Huh, things have changed around here. I never got away with that”.

I’m afraid the only way to approach Christmas is to make a decision that no matter what happens or what is said, you are going to enjoy every last second of it. The other thing is to lower the expectation. This is real life and we are all highly flawed in our thinking and in our actions. The majority of us mean well and have good intentions and usually the conflict is often born out of disappointments and exhaustion from overcomplicating things. As someone said to me recently, “Disappointment is inevitable, misery is optional”. Now there’s some Walton/Ingles homespun wisdom to take with you into the festive season 2009. Remember to keep it simple and keep the peace, regardless of how insulting Auntie Gertie becomes after a bottle a sherry. God bless and may I wish you a very happy and peaceful Christmas.