Who will you spend Christmas with this year? At the best of times, it’s a tough one to answer and can involve some serious dancing around loved ones’ feelings.
But this year, Covid-19 throws another spanner (or five) into the mix. Under new rules, families across the UK will be able to form “Christmas bubbles” from December 23 to 27, meaning three households can be together for five days.
This leaves a few questions to answer. How do you choose certain households over others, and let them down gently? How can you tactfully let loved ones know you’ll be staying home for Christmas? And how do you address safety if your loved ones are inviting more households than is allowed into the mix?
While many will be grateful to be given the choice to mix or not, others will be thrown headfirst into making difficult decisions. “It’s really hard,” says Counselling Directory member Pam Custers. “I haven’t got a magic wand here, but I think it’s about asking: who do we prioritise?”
For example, people who live alone or who have found this year to be difficult mentally would be more of a priority to bubble up this Christmas than, say, a happily married couple with kids.
You might have a huge family that usually piles into one house on December 25 – but this year is going to be different. And if there are lots of generations coming together, it could be tricky – not to mention dangerous.
Vasia Toxavidi, a psychotherapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), urges large families to come together ahead of Christmas – virtually or via phone call – to figure out what is best for the group, ensuring you don’t leave anyone out of the conversation.
“The secret to success is for it to be negotiated in such a way that nobody feels left out of the negotiation and their voices have been heard,” adds Custers.
The whole family needs to find the way forward, says Toxavidi, and if that’s not possible, it’s about compromise. Ask yourselves: what are the options? What is going to have the least impact on everyone? And how are we going to stay safe in the process?
She urges caution, though. If, for example, you have four sets of adult siblings and their parents discussing coming together over Christmas, one of those siblings might offer to not be part of the celebrations so everyone else can go. But that in itself can fuel resentment, which might later have an effect on the family dynamics.
Getting a clear picture of what Christmas will look like if you’re visiting a relative or friend is also important, as Custers points out, people have varying levels of social responsibility. You don’t want to turn up at a sibling’s house on Christmas Day to find they’ve invited five other households over for dinner.
“I think if people are honest and open and transparent about how to do it, you’ve got more chance of finding a way through it,” says Custers.
Some people might decide they don’t want to leave their homes this Christmas at all – which can mean having tricky conversations with family members who would like them to visit.
If this resonates, therapists suggest having a clear line of communication with the household you’re speaking to – preferably via phone call or FaceTime.
Never break the news you’re not going home for Christmas via text message or Whatsapp.
“People have to be able to say: ‘I feel unsafe, it’s a pandemic. It’s not that I specifically don’t want to see you, it’s about how I feel’,” says Toxavidi. If you focus on using I, rather than you, in your conversation, it feels a lot more personal and less like you’re trying to lay any blame on them, she adds.
If discussions do start to heat up, Toxavidi urges people to “respond, not react” in conversation, so you’re not coming across as defensive if they say something you don’t agree with. “If you don’t react and you respond, you can create an answer that’s about saying how you feel, not using blame,” she says.
And, if the situation allows for it, she recommends using humour to diffuse tension, as well as forcing the other person into your shoes: “If the other person gets really upset and is saying things like: ‘how could you say that? Why won’t you come?’ Instead of the person justifying their actions, they can ask the other person: ‘If you were me and you were afraid, what would you do?’”
Sometimes, the conversation may reach a road block. At that point, it’s worth taking a step back and saying: “Let’s talk about this when we’re both calm,” and ending the call (but let them know first, don’t just hang up!).
Christmas doesn’t have to be ruined because of Covid-19, but we do need to make compromises. “Yes, this Christmas will be difficult, and challenging, but if we do it in the right way we don’t have to destroy relationships,” says Custers, who recommends people focus away from “trying to win” and instead on co-constructing the best possible solution.
“Sometimes we need to take a hit for the team,” she adds. “If I’m at home and I’ve got four children and I’ve never missed a Christmas with my elderly parents, but then my bachelor brother has nobody [to spend Christmas with], he must come first.”