The fight before Christmas
Expectations of the festive season are so high, it's no wonder it can end in tears, says Jennifer O'Connell
'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house ... was the scent of Dettol and the sound of sobbing so heart-wrenching, it could only mean one thing.
Santa forgot to deliver the instructions alongside the vintage Lego set.
Christmas 2009 was the first we had decided to spend at home together as a family.
I had pictured the adults drinking mulled wine around a cosy fire on Christmas Eve, and the children tucked up safely in their beds in their new reindeer pyjamas.
Instead, I found myself spreadeagled on the sitting room floor, tearfully trying to figure out how to assemble the Lego ferris wheel, while my husband was in the kitchen, praying to Little Baby Jesus and all the saints for a miracle that would get the oven working again.
My eldest child, meanwhile, was so ill with a tummy bug, she would probably have settled for some dry crackers from Santa.
By Christmas morning, all I wanted to find under the tree was a one-way ticket to somewhere hot, sunny and tinsel-free.
And when we finally started speaking to one another again -- at around lunchtime on Stephen's Day -- my husband and I made a pact that the next one would be spent in a hotel.
So is 'Happy Christmas' just something we write on cards, and say to random people in shops -- or is it actually an achievable aim for the average family?
"It's the end of the year, we're very tired, we've been having more alcohol and food than we're used to, and we're taking a break from routine and spending more time together," says relationships counsellor Lisa O'Hara of relationshipsireland.com.
"So it's a time of great expectations -- and yes, a hell of a lot of rows."
Lisa says January is one of the busiest times of the year at her clinic, as large numbers of couples book themselves in for counselling after the strain of the festive season.
"In some cases, Christmas might have crystallised where they're going wrong, but sometimes it's just they've made a resolution to work on their relationship, and see counselling as a way to do that."
Owen Connolly of the Connolly Counselling Centre says the Christmas rush at his clinic started exceptionally early this year.
"I've had more people coming to me since November, because they're so stressed about how they're going to cope financially.
"There's huge pressure on people every year -- nobody wants to disappoint their children, but for some families, there's not going to be any way of avoiding that this year. That causes enormous strain between couples," he explains.
Another major flashpoint for couples is which set of in-laws they'll spend Christmas with. These rows can start as early as September, and escalate as the big day rolls around.
"It's a very big thing for some families, the first year that someone breaks with tradition and decides they're going to do Christmas in their own house, or going to their in-laws," says Lisa.
"For the ones left behind, it can feel like the beginning of the break-up of the family."
But it's important to keep it in perspective, Lisa says. "It really is only one day. If you're not spending the day with your family, then try to visit for a few hours, or make plans to do it later over the holidays.
"The visiting we do on Christmas Day is quite a useful Irish tradition -- I think we probably came up with it as a way of cutting down the cabin fever."
Lisa says Irish women can sometimes be over the top in their preparations and expectations.
"You know bridezillas before their wedding? Some of us approach Christmas like that," she explains.
"They want everything absolutely perfect, and inevitably they're setting themselves up for disappointment, and everyone else up to feel frustrated and tense.
"If the angel on the top of the tree is one inch too far to the left, all hell will break loose."
If you recognise signs of the 'Santazilla' in yourself, Lisa recommends adopting a few survival strategies.
"If you want your partner to do something, be specific about it. Tell him you need him to pick up the turkey at 6pm on Christmas Eve, or whatever it is -- the more specific you are, the less scope for misunderstanding and rows.
"And try to relax -- accept that, if you do, Christmas may not meet your definition of perfect, but it'll probably be a lot more fun that way," she says.
"This year, especially, it's very likely that you are in a different financial position than you were in previous years. It's all right to let the standards drop a little."
According to a survey of 4,000 people commissioned by Jarlsberg cheese (no, I don't know either), the average family has their first row at 9.58am on Christmas Day, and the first telling-off of the children happens at 11.07am.
While couples typically fight about bigger issues such as money and the distribution of chores, the bickering within wider family units tends to focus on more traditional things -- what's on TV; who's in charge of the remote control; who was supposed to peel the turnips, and who polished off the Roses while everyone else was asleep in front of the TV.
Freelance TV writer Jennifer Davidson sums up the (fighting) spirit of Christmas, when she says: "What do we fight about? Social welfare; how to load the dish-washer; choices of TV viewing; Sharon Ní Bheoláin -- the list is pretty endless."
It is a well-established psychological phenomenon that when otherwise mature, sensible adults gather in the family home at Christmas, they will find themselves reverting to their childhood roles -- and replaying old rivalries.
Businesswoman Marissa Carter, who is one of 10 siblings, says her family's worst row at Christmas has been over the Kris Kindle.
"There are 10 of us, and sometimes one sibling won't stick to the budget and makes the rest of us look scabby.
"One brother bought my sister a BlackBerry while the rest of us got each other slippers. We were livid."
So, what can you do to ensure a more peaceful Christmas?
Owen stresses the importance of planning ahead and divvying up the workload.
"One of the things that's really important is men and women working together as a couple to help each other out -- it's no longer completely and wholly left up to the mum to do all the pulling and dragging.
"That makes for a better Christmas. And don't expect any gratitude from your kids for all the effort you put in. That won't happen until they're grown up and have kids themselves."
Lisa says it can be quite a good strategy when tensions arise to simply point them out.
"It's often a really good way to diffuse a row if you just say, 'Things are a bit tense between us at the moment, so I'm going to leave you to it', or whatever.
"They'll be so surprised, it might just clear the air. And if that fails, get out and go for a walk."
Finally, and as a self-confessed Santazilla it's not easy to say this, it's probably a good idea to be realistic about your expectations.
If your family is like the Simpsons for the other 364 days of the year, there's no point hoping they'll turn into the Waltons at Christmas.