Surviving Christmas

It’s one of the most stressful times of the year – and that’s for people without the pressures of being back from – or still on – a tour of duty. How can you make sure you’re not ambushed by the Festive Season?

“I think the key thing, always, regardless of the circumstances, is making sure you’re discussing your expectations with your partner.”

So says Paula, who works for counselling organisation Relate. It’s good advice in general, but it seems particularly apt at Christmas – a time of year when there’s such a communal emphasis on togetherness and having a good time.

“I think a lot of arguments or disagreements are as a result of one partner or member of the family expecting one thing but the others expecting something else.” Paula says. This is particularly likely if you’ve been away from family for a long time; you’ll be somewhat detached from the routine of everyday living. You may also have been absent from any general plans your partner or family have discussed about Christmas itself. Are you expecting relatives or visitors? Are you going to go to Auntie Flo’s to eat Christmas dinner? It’s important to keep in the loop wherever possible.

“It depends on the contact you have while you’re away,” Paula adds. “If possible nearer the time you can be doing email more often, webcam more often, talking about coming home, talking about the sorts of things you’re going to do when you arrive back. You’re kind of preparing the ground; beginning to talk about coming back. I think that‘s really helpful.”


Christmas is a peculiar time of the year; it’s the centre of focus but other things still carry on as normal: “Other things you might be talking about are any changes that might have happened at home,” says Paula. “Catching up on news just before you get back is helpful. I think the other important thing is to plan the first couple of days. Some of that is very practical stuff. If you feel that you’re going to be shattered and exhausted make it clear that what you’re really looking forward to is watching telly and sleeping, not going round visiting people that you haven’t visited for the last however long.”

Settling back into family relationships, even for a short time, can be tricky, and honeymoon periods can’t be sustained forever. It’s better to make sure that everyone is up to speed with the needs of everyone else – which involves the two basic skills of listening and speaking.

“Certainly listening to your partner as well as other family members and being able to compromise with their needs is helpful,” confirms Paula. “Small children aren’t terribly good at giving you that space. Make sure you’ve got time to spend with them by maybe setting up play dates and ‘couple time’ as well.”


Christmas priorities might appear to be grabbing the last tub of brandy butter from the supermarket, but there are simpler things that should take precedence. “You’ve been away and you can be swamped with so many people that actually you need some time for yourself, back in your home surroundings,” Paula says. “You need time for taking a bath, taking the dog for a walk. Things like that are really important in terms of getting grounded.”

That said, Christmas is no time to be selfish; certain demands for your time are to be expected. After all, your partner and family missed you as much as you missed them and will be excited to see you. “You also want time alone with your partner if you can and quality time with the kids and some of that will take planning,” Paula adds.

“The most important thing is to try to make sure that the key people that are making decisions – usually that’s you and your partner – have agreed what you’re going to do and how you’re going to spend the first couple of days. Then you can chill out a bit more.  The first 48 hours, though, are really important.”


Of course, current operations mean that thousands of Services personnel will be away during the Festive Season, which obviously presents different challenges. “Certainly make the most of any communication that you can,” Paula says. “Again, if you can plan a bit in advance, you can make sure that some presents are kept until Mummy or Daddy gets home; actually creating some little celebration that’s going to happen when you get back. Another things that can be helpful is to agree to do certain things at the same time of day – say, at 12 noon, you unwrap a present. I suppose, overall, it’s about holding on to the fact that Christmas is only one day. There are lots of other days and lots of other Christmases.”

In the Services or not, families and relationships are the same the world over and subject to the same stresses and weaknesses. “Generally the biggest problem is mismatched expectations and not holding boundaries,” Paula insists. “It does all boil down to communication. It’s when one person is looking forward to sitting down in front of the telly all day, and watching the Queen’s Christmas Speech, while the other has planned a visit from the in-laws. The most important thing – as a couple and as a family – is deciding how you want to spend your time – and sticking to it. If you’ve agreed that you’re going to your mum’s for lunch and you’re leaving at 2pm you should make sure you do so.”

Other things can turn a pleasant day into a feuding entrenchment, as Paula points out. “Other things that tend to contribute to problems are spending hours and hours indoors and drinking too much alcohol,” says Paula, “so be aware of your alcohol consumption and the impact that it may have on you. If there are particular issues in your relationships or taboo/touchy subjects, either sort them out before or agree not to talk about them until after Boxing Day. That’s another thing when one partner thinks: ‘Now we’ve got a little time together, I thought we could have a little chat about…’ and the other feels ambushed.”


Put any family together for a couple of weeks and there’s bound to be the occasional cross word that can’t be taken back. “Nearly all arguments are based on miscommunications,” says Paula. “A huge amount happens because people don’t open their mouths or their ears.

“The most important thing is to try not to say things or make decisions that are coming from emotion,” Paula insists. “So if you’re feeling frustrated or angry or left out – I think that’s quite common – be aware that that’s what you’re feeling. Then maybe say that’s what you’re feeling, but look for a solution rather than getting stroppy.”

The festive season doesn’t have to be a powder keg. Keeping communication channels open, irrespective of your personal situation, is crucial. It’s a simple idea, but it’s the crux of how not only to survive Christmas but to maintaining healthy relationships the whole year round.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!



1: Don’t believe the hype; great big expensive presents may provide a short-term lift but there really is more to it than that.

2: Stay active; getting a bit of exercise will help you to walk off the after-effects of indulgence and release those happy chemicals that gym bunnies always go on about.

3: Be thankful; count your blessings rather than dwell on disappointments.

4: Relax; make sure you leave enough time for you to actually enjoy your festive season.

5: Communicate; it’s a two way street, you know. Ask family and friends how they are and explain how you’re feeling too. Get it off your chest.

. . .


“I stopped believing in Santa Claus when my mother took me to see him in a department store, and he asked for my autograph.” Shirley Temple

“The Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot have a nativity scene in Washington, DC. This wasn’t for any religious reasons. They couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin.” Jay Leno

“Anyone who believes that men are the equal of women has never seen a man trying to wrap a Christmas present.” Anonymous

. . .


“Christmas is the one time of year when people of all religions come together to worship Jesus Christ.” Bart Simpson

“Christmas at my house is always at least six or seven times more pleasant than anywhere else. We start drinking early. And while everyone else is seeing only one Santa Claus, we’ll be seeing six or seven.” WC Fields

“Roses are reddish. Violets are bluish. If it weren’t for Christmas, we’d all be Jewish.” Benny Hill

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