By Molly West
Like Christmas? Hate awkwardness and stress? Look no further.
Writer Rachel Halliwell shares her wisdom on how to get through the Christmas holiday period unscathed. We are pretty sure some of this will sound VERY familiar...
To-ing and fro-ing
The first hint of an autumnal nip in the air was my cue to get this year's festive plans in place. Why so soon? Because last year, my sister and sister-in-law bagged both sets of parents for the big day, meaning I spent half of it on the M6 so the kids could see their grandparents.
With festive arrangements it's every woman for herself. It's impossible to keep everyone happy so the sooner you organise a plan that suits you, the merrier your Christmas will be.
My strategy was to phone my guest list (text or email gives them too long to think) on the same evening, allowing no chance for conferring. By making "you haven't made any plans for Christmas yet have you?" my opening gambit, I caught them off guard. I then quickly implied the rest of the family was coming to ours and that everyone would be thrilled they could join us. They'd agreed with my plans before they'd even had a chance to think.
If you've missed the boat on hosting Christmas this year, do as a friend's family has and instigate a rolling three-year plan where everyone takes turns hosting.
Santa's little helper
Remember when November's greatest thrill was marking up the Argos catalogue with your Christmas wish list?
My eldest girl is 21 now and her first letter to Santa was pictures of toys - a Barbie and a pink scooter - cut from its hallowed pages. Sadly, those days have been replaced with online wish lists - think Amazon and John Lewis - something my loved ones embrace with gusto. By mid November my husband has sent out a group email with links to the objects of his desire. Even my ten-year-old creates a word document, complete with web links, on my desktop.
Yes, it's impersonal. No, it doesn't leave much opportunity for thoughtful surprises. But you're forgetting how painful Christmas shopping actually is. Embrace this modern development, insisting they don't just link to what they want, they must also research who sells it the cheapest.
Each year my friend goes to great lengths to buy presents that reflect the interests and personality of the person she's buying for. Consequently, she's deeply wounded if every gift isn't received with enthusiastic gratitude.
One year, her brother-in-law looked crestfallen when he opened the Stylophone, in original 1970s packaging, she tracked down after he mentioned how much he enjoyed playing one as a child. He revealed that his mother had found his in the attic the previous week. The room fell silent when he then asked whether she minded if he put this one on eBay. She's never forgiven him.
His was an error my children would never make. It has been drilled into them, as it was by my parents into me, that as rubbish, inappropriate or unrequired a gift might be, you must always eagerly accept it.
Selling on or re-gifting presents is a tricky area. My feeling is that it's bad manners to make a profit from a present - and that you deserve to get caught. Re-gifting is more acceptable - after all you're only giving an unwanted gift a more appreciative home - but only if it's to someone in an unrelated friendship group, and after carefully checking the gift for personal messages and inscriptions.
Complex sleeping arrangements
Once your offspring reach the young adult stage it's highly likely they'll be sharing their university bed with someone other than their childhood teddy. It's one of those unspoken truths it is easier not to dwell on. But when they come home with a partner in tow, suddenly it becomes your problem.
My solution is to firmly shove a duvet and pillow into the arms of our houseguest, while pointing at the sofa. In bed, I hand my husband a pair of earplugs and we stoically ignore any creaking noises on the landing from midnight onwards. Sometimes, a father's heart chooses what it wants to know.
Of course the other bed-related dilemma is what to do with offspring who have been out at the pub until the early hours of Christmas morning and refuse to get out of bed until lunchtime. This doesn't impress Granny very much.
The best policy may be to meet them halfway. One of my friends tempts her teenagers down with a late brunch - including more booze - and pushes the rest of the day's plans back. Who can't resist chocolate croissants, bacon and eggs and Buck's Fizz?
Stranger in your midst
It's a fact of life; people divorce and remarry. Last year's seemingly happily married uncle might turn up to this year's celebrations with a new fiancé and her teenage son in tow. The problems arise when said uncle decides to introduce his new family to his parents for the first time at Christmas.
Which is precisely what happened to my friend last year. Her brother had left his wife the previous spring and announced his engagement to a woman no one had met the week before Christmas. He asked my friend to smooth the way with their mother and invite them for Christmas Day. But two outsiders interloping on a day where tradition reigns was disastrous. The teenager refused to join in charades, and his mum didn't laugh at her future father-in-law's jokes. Worst of all, when my friend's mother "accidentally" called her son's fiancée by his ex-wife's name, she retaliated by describing the turkey as "a bit dry".
Who got the blame for it all? My friend, of course. The moral of the story: if someone new is being brought into the celebrations, make sure they can in no way be linked back to you in case it all ends in tears.
The couple who aren't speaking
We have friends who can't understand why the number of invites they get to Christmas knees-ups has dwindled to next to none. I know exactly why: I've yet to know them turn up to any social gathering still speaking to each other.
The atmosphere becomes so icy the minute they walk in the door you almost wish they would have it out in front of you. There is no point confronting them - these are martyrs who think they're doing you a favour by bristling rather than bickering at your party.
Instead, criticise one of them in front of the other, quietly laying bets with your other guests as to how long it will take their partner to leap to their defence, their own row forgotten.
Of course, you will then get the silent treatment for the rest of the night. Just take it for the team, but do make sure you lose their email address when it's time to post out the invites next year.
Unsocial social media
We all have a biscuit tin of embarrassing toddler pictures hidden away: the ones where the children are half naked in the garden or splashing in the bath. Now is the time to identify those that would spell social death for your teenager should they go public, then make several copies.
Next, attach these snaps to an edict that demands full approval of any pictures or videos in which you feature that your child might consider posting on social media.
If you don't want the world to be treated to humiliating footage of you singing an ABBA medley after one Baileys too many, make that clear. (Two years on and various friends of my daughters still hum Waterloo whenever they spot me.)
Explain that if they ignore your demands you will deliver hard copies of these pictures to the ten of their friends boasting the biggest social media presence. Problem solved.
And the one I've never solved...
How to handle the over-competitive person who refuses to play any game just for fun, even if it is Christmas?
The main reason is that this type of infuriating point-scorer makes up almost every member of my family, me included.
We are all such sore losers that last year I tried banning board games for the sake of family harmony. But then my ten-year-old told me to "get a grip and prepare to be humiliated" before pulling out Buckaroo!. (Yes, since you ask, I did beat her.)
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