By Katherine Watt
The planning, prep and occasional politics of family gatherings can, let’s face it, create a little stress sometimes. So, try our simple suggestions to maintain harmony and enjoy the company of your loved ones this festive season.
At this time of year you’re surrounded by images of happy families swapping presents and sitting around laden dinner tables. And while that’s the stuff movies and Christmas cards are made of, real life doesn’t always run with such serenity.
Planning for the festivities can take weeks; there’s the shopping, wrapping, tidying, cooking and decorating, even before the family gatherings begin. So, when it comes to keeping things harmonious, one of the main elements is to focus on what’s truly important, particularly if certain family members can be tricky.
If you do tend to experience tension with certain family members, come up with a plan, including how much time you wish to spend with them. If you’ve been invited over, be clear about how long you can stay, be gracious and leave on a good note. It’s also a good idea to pre-plan a few conversation topics, so you avoid lulls in chat or unexpected questions.
If you are hosting, it’s easier for you to guide the conversation, which is advantageous as you can avoid any topics that might cause upset or disagreement. You’ll also be able to keep an eye on how much alcohol people are drinking – this is often behind bickering or altered moods. Try pouring the wine in the kitchen and giving out a glass at a time to people, but then putting the bottle away in a cupboard or utility room so visitors can’t keep refilling.
These days, families come in all shapes and sizes, and there are strategic ways to keep the peace with different members. So, keep the following expert tips in mind, and you can stay safe in the knowledge your celebrations will be serene.
Preserve peace with your partner
Stress and tiredness can be more common at this time of year, and as the cliché goes, you often take it out on the one closest to you, which is usually your partner. If you’ve gone out together to a party and you sense a change in mood between you, quietly tell them – or even text them – to suggest you both leave before any negativity escalates.
It can be trickier if the two of you are hosting, so try to take an hour out before guests arrive to wind down together or give each other space if needed. Also ensure that your partner knows your expectations of the evening, including what chores need to be sorted, when you expect people to arrive and leave, and when food and drink is going to be served.
Keep things cool with the kids
If you’ve got teenagers at home, try involving them in the planning. Consider their participation not as a given but as something to be discussed so everyone’s happy. Whatever their age, your offspring are unlikely to appreciate you making assumptions. Ask them how they’d like to get involved.
Teens in particular are at their best when there isn’t rigidity. Rather than set rituals, bring playfulness into the celebrations. There are plenty of board games with a modern twist, or you could ask them to host a quiz or interactive game.
Music can be a real game-changer too. Find music that everyone likes and watch how the mood changes. And if you’ve got younger ones or grandkids, take advantage of Christmas films such as the musicals Frozen or The Snowman.
Stay serene with step-families
In blended family gatherings, try not to let exes become a taboo topic, but do approach any conversation about them sensitively. Sometimes it’s how you talk about people, rather than what you say, that matters. If your tone is negative when mentioning an ex, that’s the message you’ll convey. If you speak with softness in your voice, people won’t bristle.
Most of all, keep it playful. As Christmas is about the food, you could try a blindfolded taste test and have everyone guess the ingredients in a dish you’ve prepared. If there are younger kids involved, make cookies and have them decorate them – they could even take them home as presents for their other family members.
Finally if you’re planning a secret Santa, ask everyone to stick to a budget so no-one feels spoiled or left out.
Be in favour with in-laws
Spread out or alternate celebrations as much as possible – across Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day from year to year. This helps with managing the intensity of socialising, plus it gives others a chance to host so that you can relax.
If you are hosting, stay attentive to small details, as this reassures your partner’s family that they’re welcome and special in your life. When serving food, attentiveness can bring out gentleness. Ask them which piece of the turkey they would like, or whether they would prefer a different drink?
It’s better to keep questions coming, rather than risk awkward silence, or make them feel they need to keep instigating conversation. Light questions can often lead to a relaxed and interesting flow of conversation. Choose popular culture topics such as favourite Strictly contestants, or quirky questions such as “if you could time travel, where would you go?” and “If you could be a cartoon character for a day who would it be?” Those are always good.
Embrace relations with elders
For many of us, Christmas is all about getting together with older family members, so it’s a great time for nostalgia and reminiscing. In fact, it’s a good opportunity to revisit your own youth, so chat with relatives about what memories they have from your younger years. This keeps the tone tranquil, especially if some topics usually get them opinionated, and will remind you of the vital roles they played in your life. You could go back even further and ask them what they used to do at Christmas when they were a child. Perhaps revive one of their traditions – maybe there’s a Christmas carol they always used to sing? Or you could start a new tradition with their input, for example, collect a pound from all the guests and donate to a charity of their choice.
With a multi-generational gathering, it’s always important to be attentive to everyone’s limitations. ‘Be mindful of their time and respect their parameters. If there’s high activity or noise from the young ones, find some space for a quiet chat or time out, or offer to drive them home if they’re feeling tired.