The Reality Of Christmas When You're Estranged From Your Family
The Debrief: There’s still an accepted image of how Christmas should look, and it’s easy to feel disheartened when your reality doesn’t resemble that.
OK, I’ll say it: I don’t like Christmas. The opening bars of Chris Rea or Jona Lewie on the radio fill me less with joy and more with anxiety-induced acid reflux and a sense of impending dread about the countless nuggets of festive small talk I’ll have to navigate without sounding like Scrooge incarnate.
When well-meaning colleagues and acquaintances ask if I’m looking forward to Christmas or if I’ve finished my shopping, I’m never sure whether to admit that, actually, I don’t shop for my family because there isn’t anyone to buy for, or to lie and concoct a story of biscuit-tin perfection, rosy-cheeked relatives and heaps of presents under a glowing tree. The problem with telling the truth is that people don’t expect your answer to be a negative one, and they inevitably want to know more. That’s when things start to get awkward: what began as a bit of small talk ends up with me explaining my lack of Christmas is really down to my dad being estranged from his mother – his only living relative – due to an abusive childhood, and my mum’s side of the family being as good at keeping in touch as the X Factor is at churning out acts with any kind of longevity.
The relentless deluge of Christmas propaganda in the media doesn’t help. The nuclear family is our festive mascot, and magazines and websites are chock full of gift guides for your parents, siblings, cousin’s-girlfriend’s-hamster etc. While the reality of Christmas probably isn’t a John Lewis advert for most people – how many how to ‘survive’ Christmas with the family articles have you read now – there’s still an accepted image of how Christmas should look, and it’s easy to feel disheartened when your reality doesn’t resemble that.
‘The happy family imagery makes me wistful but I also know it's fake and few Christmases pass so idyllically’, says Rebecca*, 34, who became estranged from her parents after mental health issues affected their relationship. ‘My partner and I have booked to go away on Christmas Day for a week – once I say that, people usually express envy then ask about the details of that rather than what we're not doing.’
28-year-old Jack* is taking a similar approach. He says his family ‘fell apart’ when he came out, and is taking himself to a country spa hotel. ‘Christmas is really difficult because if I’m single in any given year I don’t really have anyone obvious to spend it with’, he says. ‘Everything from Christmas ads to supermarket offers assumes that everyone does a family Christmas and it’s like salt in the wound every bloody year.’ ‘But’ then again, he says ‘a friend of mine who goes batshit crazy doing the “perfect family Christmas” each year said she is really envious of me and my low-key, solitary Christmases.’
Marianne, 23, says she’s never been particularly close to her family, but avoids going into detail if people ask her about Christmas. ‘A lot of the time people will push and ask why I don't go home and I'm honest, but I don't like to make people uncomfortable. When you say, “I'm not speaking to my family”, people can get a bit sympathetic and make it more tragic than it is,’ she says. ‘When I hear about people's plans at work or from friends or whatever, I sometimes do start to get a bit jealous. When people chat about how their mum does this or quirky things their dad does for them I feel left out.’
It can feel like a big ask to remain positive if you’re estranged from or relations are strained with your family, especially when the TV shows, billboards, shop displays and festive songs are all telling you that you’re Christmassing wrong. There are resources that can help, though. StandAlone UK is a charity that supports those estranged from their families; its founder Becca Bland has no contact with her own parents, and knows that the festive season can be a source of stress. ‘At this time of year, it’s particularly difficult to see all the functional families pushed in the media towards us,’ she says. ‘That can create a sense of isolation and worthlessness if you can’t achieve that.’ She points out that spending Christmas away from family is actually fairly common; in 2014, Standalone commissioned Ipsos Mori to assess the prevalence of estrangement, and found that ‘almost a third of the UK population is familiar with the concept of cutting contact with a family member, or knows someone that has experienced it.’
‘Hundreds and thousands of people won’t be spending Christmas with their family. It’s not uncommon, it’s just the societal assumption spread by the adverts’, says Becca. As for fielding questions about Christmas, and deciding how to spend the day itself, she advises doing ‘what’s most comfortable for you’.
Hilda Burke, a psychotherapist, couples’ counsellor and life coach says much of the angst that Christmas can cause comes from the perception that we should be having a nice time. ‘A certain amount of comparing how much fun we’re having to the fun we imagine others are having is part of human nature, but during the Christmas and New Year’s period it can become intensely distracting’, she says. ‘I notice that the run-up to Christmas triggers a lot of anxiety for many of my clients. It’s a time when ghosts of Christmases past rear their heads and the memories associated aren’t always positive’.
According to Hilda, the notion of a ‘perfect family Christmas’ is unrealistic, but that the idea that familial relationships become harmonious and positive simply because it’s Christmas is one that’s ‘fostered in films, in ads and, of course, across social media channels. I think it’s time we laid to rest the Christmas myth of harmony and happy families’, she says.
I used to wish that I had a family big enough to necessitate buying 53 toiletry gift sets, or to experience the feeling of belonging and warmth that radiates out of the Waitrose advert. When I say I don’t like Christmas, it’s more that I don’t like how there’s no room in our cultural narrative for any experience other than the stereotypical one. I’m not afraid to be honest about my Christmas – or lack of it – but if I had one festive wish, it would be to be able to say I don’t really ‘do’ Christmas without provoking pity or confusion.
‘If you’re not estranged, ask questions with an open mind’, says Becca. ‘Keep questions broad because you never know what someone is doing or what they wish to do’.
StandAlone’s festive guide includes practical advice for anyone struggling with conversations about Christmas.
You might also be interested in:
Follow Thea on Twitter @theadegallier
At work? With your gran?
You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating