By Jean-Claude Chalmet, as told to Anna Maxted for The Times, December 17th, 2022.
Festive family tensions are as traditional as turkey. Therapist Jean-Claude Chalmet offers his expert advice on how to avoid and resolve the most common ones.
But we had annoying Uncle John last year!
When hosting the difficult relative, perspective is your friend — it’s six hours in a year. But often fuelling this row is that you’re grasping the poisoned chalice on behalf of everyone and it’s not being appreciated. Ideally, your partner or siblings will agree that they owe you one — a sacrifice acknowledged becomes less burdensome.
As for managing the difficult relative, neutralise poison with kindness, starve it of attention. Caustic types take delight in quarrels, so deny this to them. Grow hard of hearing and let barbed words die in the wind. Or laugh — “You say the funniest things, Aunt Hilda!” Only if you obsess (“She’s going to ruin everything”) do you make it unbearable for yourself.
As lunch begins, I recommend that the host says: “It’s so wonderful to see you all — and let’s agree, any controversy, we’ll ting our glass with our fork and the subject changes immediately.”
What a brave choice for the gravy . . .
No one, on a stressful Christmas morning, needs a restaurant critic wafting sniffy-faced into the kitchen with their wine goblet. “Does the gravy need flour?” Or: “Gravy browning — ugh!” It’s never about the gravy. Anyone doing the criticising should ask themselves: “What am I really annoyed about?” Then park it until January. Being family doesn’t exempt you from manners. The chef might smile and say: “I trust Jamie/Marcus/Raymond with the Christmas gravy — and my life!” Then: “Actually, if you want to help . . .” and pass them some crackers or condiments to put on the table.
A guest with special dietary requirements can also cause upset — but only if they’re too demanding, or the host is nursing a grudge about being taken for granted. Respectfully offering in advance to bring your own meal can soothe ruffle-prone feathers. “I’m very happy to be coming,” you might say, “but I don’t want to put you to any trouble, and you have enough work.” And bring a gift to thank them for letting you join with your own food.
No presents until after lunch
There’s no correct time to open presents; every family has a different tradition. But do remember that Christmas is a holiday, not a military exercise — being too rigid causes trouble. Families are messy. The trick is to be mindful of everyone. The child-free don’t want to rise at 5am, but it’s unrealistic (and unkind) to expect small children to wait to open presents until 3pm. Let children open stockings at dawn and gifts later in the morning — though if this causes dispute, compromise by keeping one present back for them, for after the King’s broadcast, when the adults open their presents.
Even if the host has a firm preference, you and your partner can exchange your gifts privately at a time of your choosing. Though if the host is so anxiously controlling that no one else has a good time, perhaps they shouldn’t be handed the Christmas reins next year.
How can you possibly want a sandwich now?
They made quick work of a huge lunch you toiled over, and three hours later they appear to want feeding again. If you have a sense of humour failure at this point, it’s probably because you’ve worn yourself to a frazzle and still it feels not enough. As guests arrive, it’s reasonable for the host to say: “It’s marvellous to have you all here, and meals are a collaborative effort — we all clear the plates, we all wash up, and we all serve.” Clarify, too, and early, that if anyone is hungry later, they’re welcome to make themselves a sandwich.
Some people play the Christmas martyr. They don’t ask for what help they need, then become resentful and blame others. The host should be able to have a good time and not feel like a drudge, but that requires communicating — and surrendering control, even welcoming merry chaos in their kitchen.
Socks . . . You really shouldn’t have
A lazily chosen, cheap, thoughtless or generic gift inevitably feels symbolic of the giver’s attitude towards us. Even if you believed that your spouse would be thrilled with a new dustpan and/or nasal hair remover, the inference is that you think of them (and, clearly, you rarely do) as an unpresentable domestic. We all want to be loved for our beautiful and unique selves, we want to be considered — held in mind, as we therapists say. But the wise gift-giver reflects on who we would like to be, as well.
It can be embarrassing, too, if one person drastically overspends. Are you being generous or showing off? The latter causes humiliation and resentment rather than gratitude. Set a price limit. And gift-giving shouldn’t be a high-stakes guessing game. If you don’t know what your beloved would like, asking is a sign of respect and care. The person who says, “Oh, don’t get me anything!” deserves nothing. But insist on being given a clue — a token? A book? Surprises can backfire.
Are you trying to bankrupt us?
Money is an emotive, inflammatory issue — especially if it’s tighter than usual and a couple’s financial attitudes clash. Throw in Christmas, and every imperfection or anxiety is magnified.
How we use and spend our money is indicative of how we want to see ourselves (the provider or the protector) and what we value (security or status). It’s also influenced by our childhood experience. Say your parents worried about money when you were little and you’ve been careful with it since — if you think your partner is being careless, the fear from the past bleeds into your fear today and you erupt.
But perhaps your partner also went without as a child. He or she overcompensates now because to imagine disappointing the kids with a scaled-down Christmas is to feel the pain of their own childhood disappointment again. So perceived penny-pinching strikes a nerve.
To avoid fights over money, talk, agree on a budget, collaborate and compromise. Most children want one special gift — and you would be surprised by how much they would trade for less stressed, happier parents.
Oh, don’t be such a Grinch
You want a vast, sparkling tree on display for a month and enough fairy lights to short-circuit the National Grid. Your partner is insisting on a minimalist show, with a small tree up on December 24, down on Boxing Day. Because Christmas has sentimental meaning, everyone has strong ideas about what is right. But if we idealise it, it can’t meet our expectations and any dissent feels like an attack.
We need to do some seasonal detective work. Ask yourself, what is this really about? When we feel unsupported, we become intransigent and cross about little things. So pipe up before you call your partner a Grinch. Be curious about their Christmas wishes and why they would prefer a quiet one this year. The mistake is not to discuss it. And if one person is magnanimous — “I can see this is important to you, so let’s try it your way” — it’s likely the other will soften.
But he’s just a little dog
Dog politics are so incendiary that discussing Brexit would be less explosive. Your sister assumes she can bring hers, but your mother-in-law is scared of it. Your child is allergic. This dog chases your cat and once did its business on your cream carpet. This dog loves chocolate and other toxic Christmassy foodstuffs. The case against the dog’s attendance is watertight — except for the fact your sister loves that dog like a child, and to reject it feels like a rejection of her. We’re in tears-and-tantrums territory and Christmas is a week away.
Ideally, your sister would ask if she could bring the dog and if told, “With regret, preferably, no,” she’d work around it. Could the dog sleep in her car, and your sister pop out to walk him? If that causes offence, it would be generous to allow her to bring the dog’s cage and put it in a room, where he stays.
It’s unacceptable to let the dog roam free unless everyone is happy, she takes full responsibility, and the dog is impeccably behaved. The key here is to be assertive but kind. “Even though he’s a darling, I can’t have Cerberus running around the house.” It’s tricky, though, and buying Cerberus a little Christmas gift would be a peace-making gesture.
That’s enough for you — there’s sherry in the trifle
Another one? Haven’t you had enough? By the time this rhetorical question is tersely asked, it’s too late — the row is under way. Of course at Christmas it’s a joy to eat, drink and be merry, but there’s a difference between being tipsy and treating the day like a stag do.
The truth is, there’s a point at which the alcohol seems to become more important than the relationship, and it’s upsetting. If someone sounds angry and critical, underneath they’re probably hurt. It’s boring and disappointing for them if their partner/parent/sibling is drunk, because they’re locked in their own little hazy booze world and there’s no connection. They’re also useless if there are jobs to do. Everyone deserves to celebrate, relax and indulge. But being the host does confer some authority to set limits — I feel a responsibility not to send guests away legless. Offer low or no-alcohol options, or simply say: “That’s it. There’s sherry in the trifle.” Not everyone will love you, but ultimately, it’s more enjoyable for all.
You children are so bloody ungrateful
It’s one thing to issue a mild corrective after a diva-like moment (and most children respond with grace). But accusing them of being “bloody ungrateful” isn’t fair. Are they so ungrateful, or have we mismanaged their expectations? Have we discussed what Christmas will be like this year, or asked what they want, present-wise and of the day itself? Usually, no, and so we feel bad. Often we lash out because we’re disappointed in ourselves for disappointing them (I ask my children to give me a wish list, then buy one item from it).
Of course, if the criticism comes from a relative this can cause fireworks. As these people clearly don’t know how to behave, you say: “Thank you for letting us know.” You might be tempted to add: “What are your thoughts on always trying to be kind?” But this is the season of peace and goodwill.
Remind the children to be polite and to say to Grandma, whatever the gift: “Thank you, I love it!” I trust you’ve bought something thoughtful for them to give to Grandma too.
No, I don’t want to play charades
A generous host sounds out early who wants to play games and who would prefer to opt out, and doesn’t try to bully people into changing their minds. Coerced jollity and togetherness always turns sour because people become sullen or aggressive. If just three of the party want to play games, accept that. Sure, you want to reconnect to your childhood, but insisting is selfish. Game-players and non-game-players should be mutually respectful. Be gentle. There’s nothing worse than being told what to do during a holiday.
If we want Christmas to be emotionally restful and restorative, we can’t act like a sergeant major, barking at people about party-pooping when all they’ve requested is a little time to themselves.
We’re just having a quiet one this year
Given the anxiety adults feel when announcing that, rather than spend Christmas with the extended family, they’re staying at home this year, you’d think they were confessing to a crime. Dare I say, you should have told them long before now. It’s not kind to spring this news at the last minute.
That said, spending Christmas with the in-laws is a choice, not a rule. We should all have some agency over how we spend our holidays. That we normally spend the day with them is even more cause to feel no guilt about doing it differently this year.
If you’re brave, you might say: “How do you feel about it?” Then if they say, “It’s selfish — what am I going to do?”, you say firmly: “Well, this is what we’ve decided, but let’s see what we can do about making sure you have a lovely Christmas.” You can always do a re-enactment of the day in January, if everyone’s game.