The St Stephen’s Day War: Christmas spent with family can be tough

By Lorna O’Neill

I’M not sure what it is – is it the hours and days cramped together or the history that builds up to cause Christmas war in the family?

If I knew the answer I would probably avoid entering in to familial battle – but to be frank that would probably see me doing as Hollywood stars Vince Vaughan and Reese Witherspoon did in the festive feel good movie, Four Christmases.

The pair, a loved-up couple, who refuse to partake in family values, including making plans to marry and have children – have been shaped by their own messed up families.

I had watched this film days before visiting my own family and was amused at how Brad (Vaughan) and Kate (Witherspoon) had invented charity trips to escape their families at Christmas for a number of years.

“How terrible,” I mused, watching the film with my flatmate. “How could you do that? Doesn’t everyone want to be with family at Christmas?”

My flatmate did. Her family live in the countryside and their life seems to be idyllic.

Her mum and dad are apparently still in love after years of marriage – and her brothers actually socialise with her!

"Four Christmases-Movie Poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -
Maybe Reese and Vince had the right idea by avoiding their family at Christmas

Shock horror, nothing like my upbringing – separated parents and four brothers, all older and all somehow in their own way, of course wiser, funnier, more patient, brilliant human beings than their little sister.

By the way I’m in my mid-30s and they still view me as the little sister!

Growing up I idolised my mam. I wrote about my father before here so for those of you who read that – yes, I loved my dad but he was an alcoholic – enough said.

He made every Christmas miserable pretty much because we were waiting on him to come in drunk to the family home.

But as an adult I’d hoped that when more family gathered together this year than usual, the annoyance of our past Christmas would be far behind us – not so!

Because we are all grown up. We all have our own lives and perspectives.

It seemed that these views clashed. And clashed badly.

Christmas Day was fine. I cooked. Apparently though the meal was a fine effort in my humble opinion, it made one family member ‘feel sick’.

This was the battle sound I’m afraid and from that moment – though I held my tongue – matters went downhill fairly swiftly.

We managed to get through Christmas Day but by the morning of Stephen’s Day, only two days in, tensions has begun to come to a head. Everything one brother did, everything he said, everything mam said, grated. I was expected to cook seemingly the whole holidays! For my brothers of course.

I was expected to be the host. But I reminded the family matriarch that I too was on a break and that I had not even been offered so much as a cup of tea when I arrived for Christmas for a much shorter break than my siblings.

For some reason it seemed that because I’m the woman in the family and of course mam has carried out those duties far too long! I was expected to pop in to the kitchen as and when was needed.

I, of course, had other ideas and said I wouldn’t be doing that.

Yes, certain siblings might have had a hard year – yes they no doubt needed TLC during the festive season – but what of me?

Grab your own cuppa on the way in, cook a feast and if I was daft enough, for the entire four day break – then grab a cuppa on the way out yourself and hey by the way “How am I?!”

I honest to God don’t think I was asked that question once.

Now, I understand that other siblings had been through hard times lately and I felt sorry for them too – I wanted to be there for them.

But when I felt such little regard was paid to me, myself and I, needing a wee touch of Christmas warmth from my family, well what can I say – I had it with the family.

I’m sure it will forever be known as the ‘Great Stephen’s Day War,’ and it will go down in family history as ‘her fault.’

Rows usually do. And I’ll be honest I can be vocal. But push me too far and I will tell the truth, loudly and of course regret it later.

I guess it’s my nature. A kind of defence mechanism, no doubt inbuilt from being the only girl, and I’d hazard a guess, down also to my dad.

In life in general I have a fighter attitude when it comes down to it. In my career, in friendships, with lovers and yes, with family.

I would, of course, prefer to be the mellow, let-it-wash-all-over-you type of woman, but what can I say, I’m not and it’s virtually impossible to change personality.

Don’t get me wrong I can be a fluffy bunny and very thoughtful too. I’ll be your best friend when you need me – but if I feel you’re taking me for granted or mistreating me, I am likely to blow. Don’t want to, just do.

So like a moth to a flame, a Santa to an elf, a snow to a flake or a drunk to a bottle of whisky, it was always going to happen.

The family united and I divided.

As I saw it, I stood up to bull@@@ and realised just what Kate and Brad were all about now.

Okay so Brad’s family in the movie, were a bunch of redneck hicks and Kate’s, a controlling bunch of snobs – but sadly, after the Christmas I’ve just had, I can see why ‘charity work’ could be the perfect excuse to escape festive fights.

Charity work in a far flung country may be preferable to spending Christmas with family

But am I alone? I think not.

Apparently it’s actually a condition! Hypercoprescence it’s been labelled and it’s said to take place when families squeezed together in often right spaces, 24 hours a day.

Professor Melanie Booth-Butterfield, a communications expert at the University of West Virginia, said that verbal warfare occurs when people tried to ‘strike out’ and reclaim their independence.

She said that Hypercoprescence takes place when there is a ‘large dose of family at once’.

Over Christmas families have to share the same house, the same bathroom and have to contend with young children stomping round the house .

Family members become irritable because their autonomy has been stripped away by the tight schedule of meals, walks and family time.

She said: “When you are in a relationship you expect to be together some of the time. You don’t tend to expect to be together 24/7.” Professor Booth-Butterfield said that pressures at Christmas time came from what she called the ‘ABCs’; alcohol, bathrooms and children. The more relatives there are and the smaller the house is, more pressure would build, according to the professor.

One of the tips the professor gave was to take independent time away from the family during the season.

Another was to not take things so seriously. To loosen up. So when your brother insults you, just go ‘pah. Whatever.’ And move on.

Often easier said than done.

She also advised that people speak to their family throughout the year so it doesn’t come as a big culture shock when you have to speak to them during a prolonged period at Christmas.

Well, I’m not sure – maybe it will be the ‘charity’ expedition to Kathmandu next December for me quite frankly.

At least I probably can’t argue with anyone speaking a language I don’t understand.


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