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Column: How to make it through Christmas in the family home

Days spent cooped up with relatives can be delightful – or much the opposite, writes Lisa O’Hara. Here’s how to handle them.

Lisa O'Hara

THERE IS A MYTH that the Christmas season is a happy one. Perhaps so, if you are close to your family, in a sound and stable relationship, have a steady job with money in your pocket and everyone in your life is alive and healthy!

On the other hand, I’ve noticed over the past few weeks a number of people saying that they’ve a ‘bah humbug’ attitude to this Christmas. Digging a bit deeper, it became apparent that they have had one or more significant losses during the year, whether it was loved ones through death or separation, or family/friends are far away due to emigration. Many will have lost their homes and jobs this year, or may be losing hope of getting a job if they have been unemployed for longer than that, or at a particular age. The glitter of tinsel and smell of the turkey may do little to cheer them up.

Christmas can also be a painfully lonely time if you are single. If you are happy on your own, it’s a great time to get out and about and meet up with people. Certainly, there is the freedom to come and go as you please. But for the person who doesn’t like being without someone special, it is quite normal to feel the pang of singledom quite sharply around now, feeling envious of couples (and possibly overlooking that they may not be terribly loved up). For the more hopeless, despair sets in as in the back of their mind is the niggling anxiety of meeting anyone ever again and feeling pitied by their ‘hooked up’ friends.


For those who are in established relationships and are part of chaotic family life, Christmas can be very stressful. Much may be expected of each other, whether that is to lay on the perfect Christmas dinner or to do a joint massive cleaning of the house before the tree is put up. If you are the chief decorator of all things Christmas, you will know in your mind the way you want things to be … and this is dicey for everyone around you if they get it wrong. If you become critical it may not be long before you are left to do it all by yourself! You will be exhausted and resentful by the time the 25th arrives.

For the rest of the year, apart from holidays together, much of our time can be taken up with routines. Christmas time becomes an enforced few days with family which you may or may not enjoy. The strange thing about Christmas is that if you have not been together much during the year and there are underlying feelings of resentment or misunderstandings, a few drinks can act like a powder-keg and a row can quickly kick off. Ironically, adult children returning to the family home can regress and begin acting somewhat like the children they once were.

It would be easy to say ‘don’t drink too much’ and ‘be polite’ to each other, but families have a tendency to bring out the worst and the best in us. Be conscious of your limits and how long you can spend in their company. If a row breaks out and you feel that sorry won’t cut it, don’t be afraid to walk away and calm down. This might be just leaving the house for a short period of time to put a bit of space between you and them. If it’s more serious than that, you might have to make the decision to head home yourself. Not every family can be harmonious all the time.

So! If you are already dreading Christmas, here are some ideas that may help you get through it

1. Identify feelings

Do you know why you are feeling unsettled? If you do, acknowledge it and let people in your life know what’s the matter. They may be able to help you. Even if they cannot change things it will reduce any sense of isolation. Sharing how you feel can also soften the more painful side of what you’re experiencing.

2. The gift of time

Many people don’t have much financially but may have time that they can give to help someone else. Giving is a simple way to feel good about yourself if you are feeling low. If you are in a relationship or a friend or someone in your family is under pressure, take a few minutes away from phones, games, laptop, children and be with them.

3. The gift of intimacy

When you are busy and stressed, your relationship can get taken for granted. Can you take some time this Christmas to tune in for a few minutes to your partner? It may sound like overkill but look into their eyes and hold their hand. Although it might have been commonplace early on in the relationship, these simple gestures of connection can get lost quickly. Take a moment to hug/cuddle/kiss them. Make time and space for sex which can be a very important form of communication between a couple.

4. The gift of respect

It is lovely when someone considers you and does something nice with you in mind. However, they can lose motivation to keep it up if it goes unnoticed and unexpressed. Rather than focus on what is not being done or said, make it your aim to let them know that you appreciate it and smile while you are telling them.

Finally, no one is perfect but we do expect a lot from Christmas. I wonder do we want to recreate the few weeks or months’ anticipation that culminate in those joyful childhood moments when we discover that Santa has indeed arrived?

Lisa O’Hara is the author of When a Relationship Ends: Surviving the Emotional Rollercoaster of Separation and a counsellor for Relationships Ireland. Relationships Ireland offers confidential counselling and support services – for more information or to book a consultation you can contact 1890 380 380 or email info@relationshipsireland.com.

Read more columns by Lisa O’Hara on TheJournal.ie>

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Lisa O'Hara

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