22 Dec 2021

How to keep calm this Christmas

The festive season all too often strains good manners to the limit. Everyone is expected to behave well on this much-hyped special day, and there are added expectations this year because Christmas 2020 was blighted by the Covid pandemic and imminent lockdown. Fears that this might happen again have intensified our feelings of anticipation and nervousness about the Christmas season.

It is scarcely surprising that, despite our best intentions, claustrophobic family get-togethers and over-indulgence can easily lead to tension, cross words and disharmony. Follow these simple rules to avoid a Christmas Day crisis:

• Don’t be a Scrooge – approach the day with an unerring smile, an optimistic outlook and positive feelings of good will. Remember, it’s only one day out of 365! If you have agreed to be a Christmas guest, you are under a moral obligation to enter into the Christmas spirit – no cynicism, no grumpiness, no sulking.  If you are an irredeemable Scrooge, then don’t inflict yourself, or your negativity, on other people at Christmas time.

• If you’re the Christmas host, beware the tendency to exalt your own time-honoured Christmas rituals (“We always go to midnight mass, open our presents at 11am, eat our lunch at 2pm” etc.). Try and make tentative suggestions (“We normally eat at 2pm, is that OK with you?) rather than confident pronouncements, so that your guests don’t feel like they’re being steamrollered through a sacrosanct routine.

• Grandparents and members of the older generation, even if they’re doting, will soon begin to wilt if they’re cooped up for hours on end with raucous, over-excited children. Always try and provide a quiet space, where the grown-ups can retreat for a restorative drink and civilised conversation. Remember older people may well need to take time out from the festivities – a retreat to their bedroom with a cup of tea for an hour or two, or a nap in front of the television – so ensure that they can do so without interruption or interference.

• Christmas is a special day for small children and you should do your best to accommodate their excitement. Don’t inflict agonisingly long meals on the them – allow them to get down from the table before the adults, as they’ll inevitably be anxious to get back to their presents. If they’re forced to take the day at the adult pace they’ll feel unhappy and restless and you’ll be the first to know about it….

• Give the day some structure. Spread out the main events (present-opening, lunch, games, TV) to ensure there aren’t too many hiatuses.

• Lay in generous supplies of champagne or sparkling wine. Glasses can be dispensed throughout the day when spirits are flagging.

• Always react with surprise and delight, no matter what you’ve been given. Lack of taste is regrettable but it’s not a criminal offence, so you can take the time to be gracious and thankful.

• If you’re in the panic-stricken last stages of lunch-preparation, don’t be a martyr. You might need somebody to help with some pre-emptive washing up or table-laying, so just ask. Most guests will leap to their feet, delighted to have something constructive to do.

• If you’re a Christmas guest, be punctual and arrive laden with goodies. Be assiduous about offering to help, and keep an eye open for signs of panic and hysteria in your host – you might be able to step in and save the day. But if your offers are refused, remember no means no.  For some hosts, a pack of well-meaning guests bumbling around their kitchen making an effort to help is the final straw.

• Go with the flow. Whether it’s charades or cards, an afternoon stroll or the Queen’s Christmas broadcast, it’s good manners to muck in. Remember, it’s only a day or two…

• Ban mobile phones from the lunch table. Christmas is all about conviviality and conversation, and a table-full of screen-fixated guests will instantly extinguish any Christmas spirit. There will inevitably be a plethora of festive texts and photo-sharing throughout the day, but make sure that the ritual of the Christmas meal is respected.

• Letters of thanks for hospitality and presents should be sent promptly and preferably received by the second week of January.

• Finally, don’t expect perfection. Certainly you should make every effort, either as a guest or a host, to help the day go with a swing. Plan ahead meticulously, decorate your home beautifully, cook delicious food, buy well-chosen presents, stock up on excellent drink. But don’t demand too much of yourself, your family or your guests. Building up your expectations of the day to dizzy heights will mean that mishaps and misunderstandings (however minor) are blown up out of all proportion – and that’s not what Christmas is about.

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