The trip home for Christmas is often a struggle, thanks to the rail operators’ penchant for scheduling maintenance works in the run-up to the big day and festive gridlock on our roads. So much so, in fact, that by the time many of us are finally reunited with our families, we’re already stressed out and fractious. The festive season, as if you needed anyone to tell you, piles pressure on our relationships.
A survey last month on the divorce-online blog found that, of 1,560 adults who were asked about their relationships over Christmas, 25% said they were more pressurised and one in six said they’d rowed. Other surveys show that most people don’t enjoy Christmas shopping (humbug) – my particular favourite, from the makers of the Xbox, found that families want to spend more time at home at Christmas in order to save money (unfortunately for the makers of the Xbox, last year most families bought a Wii).
But despite the pressures, this is an ideal time to enjoy all our relationships. Even allowing for the gripes, the slogs round the shops, the negotiations with in-laws and the joys of Christmas catering, for many of us this holiday is mainly about hunkering down with our families (for the rest, there is lots of advice out there on how to have an even better time without them). “There’s a sense that at this time of year we can overcome family tensions to celebrate our relationships,” says Professor Bren Neale of the school of sociology and social policy at Leeds University. “We express our love at Christmas – all our un-Scrooge-like qualities come to the fore.”
Neale is involved with Timescapes, a major study exploring how personal and family relationships develop and change over time. She believes that Christmas resonates strongly for older people, who particularly value the sense of enduring family ties. This is especially true for divorced or separated couples with children. “I like to think of these parents as the pioneers of doing new ways of Christmas,” Neale says. “They generally work hard to make it happy for their children.”
She adds that rather than the holiday being the cause of a rush to the divorce lawyers come January, couples defer splitting up because they want to maintain a semblance of family life at this time. “Though, of course, you can’t play happy families if you’re not a happy family.”