BY MANDY BALDWIN
I just spent my first Christmas on my own and at risk of being accused of blasphemy it’s not as bad as I was led to believe. In fact, most of the stress of Christmas appears to stem from being with other people. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense.
Despite the lights and the tinsel, the days of Christmas are short, dark and cold, and so is our mood, and at this time of year, we are, all of us, probably the worst company we are ever likely to be.
The exceptions to this rule are tiny children, who are perfect company, giving an excuse for seeking, creating and extracting every ounce of magic there is. The only drawback is that, like miniature Pied Pipers in reverse, tiny children bring with them a comet’s tail of extended family, which, no matter how much we love them, can reduce our tolerance levels from Bob Cratchet-with-a-pay-rise to Vlad The Impaler-with-piles within minutes of their arrival.
Actually, the main problem is precisely how much we love them: we want everything to be perfect, and so do they, and our ideas of perfection too often just happen to differ radically. And because Christmas is often the only time we are all shut in a house together wanting desperately to make each other perfectly happy, we recall each previous argument; disagreement carved in stone by the season.
The hiatus between Christmas and New Year is particularly foul. It is always, without exception, raining, grey, and miserable outside. There is time to think but no privacy to do so, and not enough to do – there are only so many times you can walk the dog, especially when someone moans each time he treads mud into the carpet on return, and it is a scientifically unproven fact that any food which is traditionally only eaten at Christmas adds a dress size per three mouthfuls. This has implications for what you had planned to wear on New Year’s Eve, which mean you will, as usual, wear something large, hideous, glittery, and no doubt printed with reindeer.
Moreover, despite giving yourself a stern talking to just after Halloween, you have over spent, chasing that twee Victorian ideal, and your efforts are often unappreciated, which, by Boxing Day, can feel like a kick in the teeth. Joy has to be looked for to be found, and it’s a shock to discover how many people walk around entirely and determinedly joyless.
This is the time when, on returning from walking the dog again, you discover in yourself a tendency to be calmly but blisteringly honest: after all, everyone is entitled to your opinions, especially on the subject of what, at that time, you genuinely feel has irritated you about your victim since forever, but in fact is the result of being tired, over-fed, and possibly constipated, while waiting, like a greyhound in the slips, to put all your New Year resolutions into action.
Some people even think that Christmas is a time for confession, especially when they confuse indigestion with a heart attack.
Thinking he was about to meet his maker, the grandfather of one ex-boyfriend thought Boxing Day was the perfect time to admit to having had affairs with not one, but two French women while stationed in Normandy during WW2 – a revelation which had interesting implications for the next several Christmases, as he had been a married father of three at the time.
And, barring tragedies, extended families simply grow more extended. Those tiny starry-eyed children grow into hormonally challenged adolescents who hate you on principle, and, later, bring home boyfriends who insist on confiding in you about the personal problems they have with your daughter while telling you how attractive you are, and girlfriends who nobody thought to mention are vegan atheists. And next year – blamed for the ensuing arguments – they will all go and stay with the other parents, which frees you up to indulge in more adult pleasures. Well, kind of…
New romantic relationships are potentially more simple than family entanglements, but in practice, are high risk – there are things you will do and say, while under the influence of peculiar hours, confined space, gifts of exotic lingerie and insecurity engendered by the realisation that you wake up looking like Walter Matthau, which would undoubtedly in the long run have been better left unsaid and undone. In addition, he may not believe that you don’t always have Baileys for breakfast, and you may not be able to cope with the fact that he sends an annual Christmas card to Ken Dodd.
Friends who visit for a very short time, and didn’t know you when you when you were in nappies, are great in theory, although the occasion can feel disturbingly like a Richard Curtis film and the chances of people caring enough to get together, without boundaries being breached by one or more hitting on each other, or suddenly revealing they are suicidal, are remote.
Christmas is a time of almost competitive togetherness, when so many vie for being in demand – because more must be merrier, right?
Actually, not right. The worst of being alone is that you feel you are an object of pity – but if you’re a grown-up, you should have enough memories of the other kind of Christmas not to care. And hibernation really isn’t that sad. To be warm, to treat yourself, and have time to catch up with people you love without having to be in their face when the year – and you – are at low ebb, is actually rather nice. The astonishing fact that much of your contact with aforesaid loved ones involves being told how enraged they are with each other and how envious they are that you are wearing a face-pack, curlers, pyjamas and fluffy slippers at midday having eaten brie and a chocolate orange for breakfast at eleven o’clock, engenders a pleasing smugness. You will emerge from hibernation rested and renewed.
But if you are surrounded by family, accept it’s unlikely to be full-on goodwill to all men, and ride out the togetherness, without expectation. After all, you love them, don’t you? And if you can survive Christmas together, you can survive anything.