The myth of an ideal Christmas

The myth of an ideal Christmas
Colm Fitzpatrick explores the stress behind closed doors this Christmas


Christmas often evokes nostalgic and warm memories of peace, love and thanksgiving, yet for many families in Ireland, it can be one of the most difficult and painful times of the year.

Family tensions, such as violent disputes among siblings, uneasiness with extended family and parental stress, can reduce the family home to a prison during the holiday period.
Although the reasons for this strain can vary, one study carried out in the University of West Virginia has shown that arguments among families are a result of a condition called ‘hypercopresence’.

Sharing a small space for an extended period of time, which occurs across family homes during the Christmas holidays, creates a heightened sense of pressure. By being forced to interact with other family members, including the sharing of facilities like bedrooms and bathrooms, with little control over the situation, unwanted outbursts may ensue.
Although this is a common reality for many families at Christmas, there are little to no support networks to cope with the problem.
“People don’t have the usual supports at Christmas”, explained Bridget Sweeney, a counsellor from the Access Counselling Clinic, Dublin. “Who is available on Christmas day? Most services are closed.” She added that many families have unrealistic expectations at Christmas, as they feel that everyone else is having a “great time”, but in truth, it’s rarely ever that straightforward for families during the Christmas period.
This can be exacerbated by the misuse of alcohol which impairs decision making, resulting in arguments, fights and even abuse. Last year, over 1,000 children in Ireland rang ChildLine with alcohol abuse cited as one of the main factors. This statistic reveals the damaging effects alcohol can play in the family context, which when misused transforms merriment into hostility. For some families this Christmas, removing alcohol may be the best way to prevent quarrelling.
It also important to take into consideration physical fragility at Christmas, as the cold and flu season will inevitably affect health and mood. By providing a warm and comfortable household for the family to be together, with medicine available, these physical illnesses can be combated, and reduce the chances of conflict arising.


But tension at Christmas can’t be simply reduced down seeing your siblings too much, alcohol abuse or the weather; often the issues are much deeper. In many cases, travelling home can elicit unhappy memories such as a bad childhood or the death of a family member. These negative associations can affect temper and possibly induce a depressive episode.
A more incisive reason for family tension is often due to toxic relatives, who may have never bonded well as children or are possibly engaging in an ongoing dispute. Using the example of a mother who intends on bringing her two quarrelling sons home for Christmas, Bridget provided some helpful advice as to how to handle the situation.
“Limits and balances need to be created before the chaos. The mother needs to establish boundaries”, she said, adding that the mother should not take sides or become a referee.
“We have to decide what we will allow and what we won’t allow. We don’t have control over the brothers, but we do have control of our own power.”
Bridget explained that one of primary stresses of Christmas is the expectations we have for the day, which usually entails trying to constantly accommodate others, with problems arising when those expectations are not met.
“When we have expectations we are unhappy. Contentment is as good as gets”, she said.
At the lowest level during Christmas you have a group of individuals coming together whose basic needs must be met. This requires encouragement, trust, acceptance and negotiation and from these foundations tensions can enter the process of amelioration.


“The key in any situation is preparation. Decide beforehand what is going to happen and negotiate. Honour the commitment of the day.
“You can’t live in conditions where there is anger or frustration. The family members have to make that choice. We all have ownership for responsibility and caring.”
If you are aware beforehand of the issues that may cause strain on the day, make an attempt to try and solve the problem before the family gathers, under reasonable terms, and with an acceptance that resolution may not be possible. If compromise and negotiation is absent in any of the parties involved, then make an appropriate decision in handling it, while staying in control of the situation. This doesn’t just apply to family disputes but also practical issues such as bedding or travel arrangements. By tackling these predicaments early on, there will be a better chance of a more wholesome, relaxing Christmas. Realising that perfection is only an ideal and one that it is impossible to attain, means that expectations can be lessened and compromises be made.
An easier way to make sure squabbling adults can be hushed by appealing to the presence of children. In an attempt not to destroy this one-day year event for children, arguments will be quelled and bad habits stifled. Although this method is not the ideal way to address familial disputes, it does provide a short-term solution to an unexpected, abrupt quarrel.
Another reason as to why imbalance or strain at Christmas occurs is partly due to the loss of connection between family members over the year passed, which leads to uncomfortableness and guilt. This may reveal itself in the form of a son or daughter who is dismayed by the physical change of their parents, who have become older and more dependent. Similarly, parents may feel abandoned by children who rarely visit, which can cause physical and mental damage. Bridget explained the reality of this situation.
“The real test of any human being is connection, and if we have gone away and disconnected, the mother will be in a frailer condition.
“The mother needs connection. Any contact is useful. The key message of Christmas is love: love of self and love of neighbour. This begins with the family and then community.”
By continually interacting with family members, both parents and siblings, either personally or by phone throughout the year, the Christmas anxiety caused by isolation or exclusion can be alleviated, creating an environment of companionship and solidarity.
However, the best way to tackle Christmas stress this year, according to Bridget, depends entirely on ourselves and how we let events affect us. By recognising that we are the sole arbiters of our emotions and mental states, regardless of the situation, we can decide its impact on us.
“We have no control over these things and we can choose to be happy”, she said. “We can choose not to allow these things to have an effect on us.”
For Christians, Christmas is time to give thanks to the centrality and importance of the family. We look to the archetypal parents, Mary and Joseph, who supported one another with a trust in God when attempting to find a place to birth Jesus. In a similar way, it is important to remind ourselves that family life often encounters struggles. By creating a strong network of trust, through understanding, acceptance and forgiveness, families can take the first steps this year to transform a glum Christmas into a day celebrating togetherness.

For more information about family counselling, see