Christmas with your family: Our handy guide on how to survive the big day
Navigating your way through festive gatherings can be tricky. Claire Spreadbury has 15 expert tips to ensure you stay merry
THE build-up to Christmas is so often more enjoyable than the actual event. Catching up with friends, swapping gifts and dancing at parties is festive fun you've chosen to take part in. But when it comes to December 25, we're frequently forced to invite (or hang out with) members of the family we'd prefer weren't there.
And that's not necessarily because we don't get on with them. Sometimes, we love them dearly, but they're just not much fun. Or they sit there quietly waiting for presents, food and drinks to be brought to them, and don't muck in with the clearing up. But unless we're super selfish and happy to leave someone out – and often on their own – we suck it up and crack on, "because it's Christmas".
If you're secretly dreading the festivities though, don't panic. We've asked the experts for their top tips, so Christmas really can be as happy as you'd hoped.
1. Know you're not alone
"Everyone has family members they don't see often, and that's usually for a good reason, so first of all, don't beat yourself up about not liking or feeling comfortable around all of your relatives," says Cat Williams, relationship counsellor and author of Stay Calm And Content No Matter What Life Throws At You. "You'd be strange if you did."
2. Get in the right mindset
"Christmas is not always happy for everyone, particularly if you have to reconnect with people you don't necessarily get on with," notes author, hypnotherapist and speaker Georgia Foster. "Keep a mantra on your phone that says, 'Stay calm and collected', and have it set to remind you every half hour before your event."
3. Remember the true meaning of Christmas
"When you start getting tense, finding your shoulders rising towards your ears, your fists clenching and your stomach churning, remind yourself of the true meaning behind Christmas," advises body language expert Elizabeth Kuhnke, author of Body Language: Learn How To Read Others And Communicate With Confidence. "It's not about your sister's annoying habit of dominating the conversation, or your son's slouched posture and bored expression as you're about to carve the turkey. Christmas is a day of giving to others. Positive thoughts lead to positive behaviour."
4. Give tricky people jobs to do
"Find the fun in minor annoyances, rather than allowing them to negatively impact on your feelings," adds Elizabeth. "If your aunt is a constant complainer and fault finder, ask for her help. Give her a task. When people are busy, making a positive contribution, they tend to be more upbeat than when they're left to sit on the couch and moan. Remember to thank others for their efforts. Acknowledging their contributions and making your guests feel appreciated is part of your duty as a host. If you're a guest, be sure to offer help and acknowledge your host's efforts."
5. Just be you
"Remember that kindness is in your power, even when fondness is not," says Cat. "If you are usually a kind and thoughtful person, don't let anyone stop you from being who you want to be, no matter how hard they might seem to be trying."
6. Concentrate on being positive
"During stressful times, we tend to let the parrot on our shoulder squawk negative messages into our ear. Cage the parrot. And put a blanket over the cage," advises Elizabeth. "Once you turn off the negative messages, you stand a better chance of feeling upbeat and positive."
7. Remember other people's issues aren't your problem
"Difficult people are just difficult people," notes Georgia. "It is nothing to do with you. Feel thankful that this is their issue and not yours."
Cat continues: "Negative emotions stem from fear. If someone becomes angry, jealous or frustrated, ask yourself what they're afraid of. These emotions usually stem from feelings of inadequacy or low self-esteem – so it's about how they feel themselves, not about you."
8. Be open with your body language
"Uncross your arms. Closed body language indicates a closed mind," says Elizabeth. "Instead, use open gestures. Rather than pointing a finger in someone's direction, gesture with an open hand, palm facing upwards. Open gestures lead to open minds."
9. Be prepared if you're expecting a tough time
If difficult situations arise, "imagine a robe or bubble around you, so you have a shield to protect yourself", suggests Georgia. "Keep imagining the shield around you when someone is being unkind or critical."
You can also try Elizabeth's calming tip: "Begin by breathing. Slowly. Deeply. From your core. Inhale through your nose, exhale through softly pursed lips. Think, 'In with the good, out with the bad'. And if you feel tempted to lash out or say something rude or unkind, close your lips and press your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Breathe and let the moment pass."
10. Ask people about themselves
"Ask your guests about themselves," says Elizabeth. "People like to talk about themselves and their interests. The more they talk about themselves, the more interesting they find you."
11. Fake it 'til you make it
"This fabulous quote from Eleanor Roosevelt is true: 'No-one makes you feel inferior without your consent'," notes Cat. "When facing a difficult day, imagine how a person you really admire would handle it. Keep your head high, wear clothes that make you feel good and play the role of someone who is content with who they are and happy in their own skin – you'll soon realise you are 'acting' as you truly are."
12. Don't drink too much
"Frequently, under stressful conditions, people will grab the nearest vodka/wine/whatever, thinking it will ease the pain. But what happens most often is the substance opens the floodgates and people end up speaking and behaving in regrettable, unfortunate ways," warns Elizabeth.
13. Change the subject
"When someone decides to bring up something negative, change the subject to something more fun and lively to distract them. Keep doing this each time the conversation turns sour," suggests Georgia.
And Cat recommends having a stash of subjects up your sleeve: "Have some topics of conversation prepared. One of my closest friends has been gathering a collection of news stories and pieces of information to use when she has to spend several days with her mother-in-law this Christmas. Whenever the conversation becomes negative, or seems to be heading into difficult ground, she plans to draw on these topics, so she can feel more in control and can keep things as positive as possible."
"Research shows that when we smile, hormonal levels change," says Elizabeth. "Cortisol – which is associated with stress and depression – lowers, and testosterone – associated with strength and power – rises. Plus, smiling can be infectious. As my grandmother used to say, 'Smile and the world smiles with you. Complain, and you're on your own'."
15. Hide in the toilet...
If all else fails, go to the loo, suggests Cat. "The one place you'll be able to spend a few minutes alone is in the loo. Make sure you pop there regularly if you are feeling overwhelmed and take a few minutes for yourself. Take a deep breath and say, 'I'm OK, I can handle this, it's just one day...' and come back out ready to be your best self again."