Do you want a happy Christmas? Ban the relatives who drive you mad, writes FLORA WATKINS, after her warring parents used to ruin December 25 with rows, tears and threats of divorce
That year it started early — on Kersfees morning itself — with the sound of glass smashing. Then a heavy thump as my father stumbled drunkenly against the kitchen table. Raised voices, Mum screaming, ‘You always manage to ruin it! ek haat jou!’
Later, Mum sitting in her red paper crown, tears rolling silently down her nose and onto her untouched lunch, Granny gamely organising a round of crackers to maintain the lie that we were all having a wonderful time.
The funny thing is, I can remember the trigger that Christmas — a jar of braised red cabbage dropped on the larder floor — but not the year. Was it 1986? 1987? In my childhood, spent in our four-bedroom house with my teacher parents on the edge of a village in Suffolk, the ghosts of all the gruesome Christmases past merge into one. Always the same pattern: the anxious waiting for Mum, who was desperately unhappy in her marriage, to go ‘pop’ under the pressure of giving us a ‘perfect’ Christmas.
One year she made it through as far as New Year’s Eve. But without fail the eventual outcome was the same: the tears, bitter recriminations, terrible rows, threats of divorce. They all came out every year along with the coloured fairy lights. And every year, just like the tree lights, our childish Christmas joy and cheer would short circuit.
When I had a family of my own, I was determined to avoid the disastrous Christmases of my own childhood. There’d be no tension, no stress or dysfunction. Op die foto, Flora Watkins with her sons Jago and Gussie at Christmas
While at the time of writing, Christmas is still very much on according to the Government, that doesn’t mean we need to revert to the bad old days of Christmases past. Op die foto, Flora Watkins with her children
Things got worse after Mum died while I was at university. I’d pore over Delia Smith cookbooks, trying to give my three younger siblings the Christmas they deserved. But after breakfast on Boxing Day — when I’d invited our aunt and all our cousins for lunch — my father would disappear for the rest of the holidays with some unlikely excuse. It was obvious he’d gone to see his latest lady friend, leaving me to entertain our relatives.
Eerlik, we had a better time without him. En dit, I’ve learnt, since having three children of my own, is the secret to a truly happy Christmas. It’s spending time with the people you really love, and doing what makes you happy — not feeling you have to invite every relative under the sun to a strained and stressful celebration.
When I had a family of my own, I was determined to avoid the disastrous Christmases of my own childhood.
There’d be no tension, no stress or dysfunction. No risk of the day imploding in the style of the Christmas Day episode of EastEnders.
En vir daardie doel, Covid has proved to be something of a surprising godsend. Last year the regulations — with households largely banned from mingling — gave us just cause to avoid tricky relatives and the emotionally-charged Christmases they can bring with them.
Hierdie jaar, with Omicron on the rise, it’s a blessing for those who want to keep things small and spend it with the families they’ve created, rather than with what my therapist (more from her later) calls your ‘family of origin’.
Twee jaar gelede, with our new baby just home to our then house — a Victorian terrace in London’s Herne Hill — from a month-long spell in hospital, we looked forward to celebrating Christmas with my widowed mother-in-law.
But the run-up to the festivities was deeply difficult, marred by family rows as to whether she should come to us or spend it with her new partner.
In die geval, she did elect to spend it with our family, but honestly, who needs that sort of stress?
Come Christmas 2020, Covid made it simple. No fraught discussions about where anyone would be spending Christmas — or with whom.
I’m no Scrooge. I made sure my husband, Nick, a consultant, and our three children — Jago, sewe, Gussie, ses, and Romy, two — had the best time. We played silly games, made paper chains and gingerbread houses, threw ourselves into the advent window competition on our street, making a beautiful nativity scene that we unveiled on Christmas Eve to the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of socially-distanced neighbours.
The pandemic has forced us to evaluate what’s really important. Smaller, more modest celebrations are what feels appropriate right now. So let’s all have a Merry Little Christmas (voorraad beeld)
My husband and I invented daft new Christmas traditions — watching Die Hard while drinking dry martinis on Christmas Eve is one we’ll definitely keep. Pouring Bailey’s on the Christmas pudding, aan die ander kant, is probably one best left to lockdown.
We ate delicious food. I did the cooking myself: without the involvement of the older generation we didn’t have to chomp our way through dry turkey or soggy sprouts that — as Victoria Wood used to joke — had been put on to boil since Bonfire Night. My generation knows how to cook: we are the children of Nigella and Jamie Oliver. We brine our turkeys, toss our par-boiled spuds in goose fat to crisp them up and prefer our sprouts served with pancetta, chestnuts and Marsala.
Every Christmas, after the big bust-up, Mum would sob and say to me ‘Why can’t he just leave? We’d have a much happier time on our own,’ as she stuffed asparagus spears into vol-au-vents and wrapped up miniature ‘presents from the cook’ for each place setting at the table.
All the enforced jollity — not to mention the alcohol — makes Christmas the most miserable place in the world when you are in a bad relationship. I can’t help thinking that if Mum could have only scaled back her efforts and the insane amount of pressure she put herself under to do Christmas ‘properly’, we might have been able to limp through the holidays without World War III breaking out under the mistletoe.
Laas jaar, I feel I finally laid my miserable ghosts of Christmas past to rest and exorcised the memories of the anxious waiting game it involved — waiting for my mother to crack up and have her annual breakdown. I’d done her proud. I’d done for my little family what she’d always wanted to do for us.
So in early November, when — despite being double-jabbed — my husband and I both contracted Covid, I didn’t despair about Christmas looking different again. In werklikheid, as the Omicron cases rose, so did my Christmas spirit.
We had moved from London to a seven-bedroom farmhouse in the beautiful north Norfolk countryside at the end of the summer holidays, leaving us now some 200 miles from my husband’s family (and part of mine) on the south coast. After four moves in two months (surfing between holiday lets while we waited for the keys to our new house) the thought of having to uproot ourselves again and do all that driving to visit endless relatives was about as appealing as — well, a Bailey’s-soaked Christmas pudding.
And I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Most of my girlfriends have a similar story about last Christmas being their best yet — precisely because they couldn’t spend it with family.
‘Last Christmas was my favourite ever,’ sighs my friend Sian, who spent it with her husband and seven-year-old twin girls.
‘We didn’t have to find a date to accommodate my miserable sister-in-law so we could all have a “lovely” Christmas together. She is hard work, thankless and no fun at all.
‘It was such a chilled, easy day. We didn’t have to do the stupid post-Queen’s speech wait to open gifts that they insist on. We hung out, ate a delicious lunch at 3pm, drank very gently all day and played and read and walked the dog.’
Laas jaar, I feel I finally laid my miserable ghosts of Christmas past to rest and exorcised the memories of the anxious waiting game it involved. Op die foto, Flora with her two sons
Christmas — in the time of Covid or otherwise — should be for hunkering down with the people we love the most. A ‘happy’ Christmas results when things are easy and enjoyable and FUN
She went on to confess that there was a part of her secretly hoping that her sister-in-law would test positive for Covid so lunch would have to be cancelled this year!
Like Sian, my friend Camilla is another one still hoping for a last-minute announcement from the Prime Minister.
‘It was heaven to be alone last year,'Onthou sy. ‘We did stockings and scrambled eggs and Buck’s Fizz in our pyjamas, went for a walk, had an early lunch because of the children and then a two-hour nap!
‘I genuinely regret that we have to go back to the madness of family Christmas this year.’
My friend Jo, wat al vier jaar nugter is, also loved the liberation from the pressures of an extended family Christmas. ‘It was just me and my husband,'Onthou sy, ‘and we could do whatever we wanted.’ She drove to a Christmas Day AA meeting while her husband cooked, then enjoyed a long, relaxed walk after lunch in the New Forest.
Natuurlik, there are some select people I’m gutted I won’t see. My brother and his girlfriend have just had their first child and I’m desperately sorry that we can’t go and see them and enjoy those precious new baby cuddles. And I’d been hoping to invite my cousin, who is more like a sister to me, and her children here for New Year. Maar, despite the fact that there aren’t yet any official restrictions, the rising numbers of Covid cases means it just seems too risky for us to mingle freely.
Undoubtedly, Covid has acted as a circuit breaker for many couples, freeing them from the tyranny of conforming to family traditions, because ‘that’s the way we always do it’.
Most of my friends were stuck in Christmas traditions whether they liked them or not: spending Christmas with alternate families, splitting the day so everyone could see the kids. Vir jare, my friend Lucy, a neighbour in London, had to ‘split’ Christmas, driving first to her own family in Devon — then to the North-East to her husband’s family.
A round trip of several hundred miles, when all they wanted to do was collapse on the sofa with a tin of Roses. They are now divorced.
And I know of a family who had to drive the length of the M4 on Christmas Day, just so both sets of grandparents could see the children. They’d eat Christmas lunch with one set, drive for two-and-a-half hours and then force down a full dinner with all the trimmings with the other lot.
The upshot: fractious children (who just want to be left alone to play with their new toys), frazzled and resentful parents and a severe deficit of Christmas cheer. Not to mention indigestion!
Gelukkig, Covid has put a stop to all this nonsense. Christmas is about the children, not satisfying the grandparents’ ‘need’ to see them on Christmas Day. It’s not about putting on a show and playing the part you’ve been allotted in a fake festive charade in which everyone must be seen to be having the most marvellous time.
We should look back on Christmas 2020 as the gift it was: the chance to be creative and decisive, the chance to put our own needs first, rather than the demands of the wider family
Lucy Davidson, my brilliant and empathetic therapist who helped me (via zoom) through the past three lockdowns, says last Christmas provided the opportunity to ‘reset boundaries’ and use the pandemic as ‘an opportunity to do things differently, to keep a social distance from family relationships or expectations that have, tot nou toe, felt out of control’.
Christmas — in the time of Covid or otherwise — should be for hunkering down with the people we love the most. A ‘happy’ Christmas results when things are easy and enjoyable and FUN.
What it should never involve is feeling pressured to spend time with people you might not even like that much, or for criss-crossing the country.
We should look back on Christmas 2020 as the gift it was: the chance to be creative and decisive, the chance to put our own needs first, rather than the demands of the wider family.
‘If I had my way — and I shan’t,’ said the legendary food writer Elizabeth David, ‘Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of . . . a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed.’
Were she alive today, she’d be able to do just that.
While at the time of writing, Christmas is still very much on according to the Government, that doesn’t mean we need to revert to the bad old days of Christmases past.
Don’t like turkey and want to cook pancakes in your pyjamas, as my friend Hilary did last year? Doen dit! Can’t stand Carols From King’s and want to play the AC/DC Christmas tribute album? (FYI it’s called Hell’s Bells Of Christmas. You’re welcome.) Crank it up to 11!
The pandemic has forced us to evaluate what’s really important. Smaller, more modest celebrations are what feels appropriate right now. So let’s all have a Merry Little Christmas.