Dilemmas: I want to avoid a family Christmas

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Geraldine is dreading Christmas because her stepfather bullies her mother - although her mother doesn't appear to mind - and he organises Christmas differently from the way it was done when her father was alive. Her brother's children also make her feel poignantly aware of her single, childless status. Could she be `ill', and avoid the occasion?

virginia's advice

I DON'T think I've met anyone this year who isn't dreading Christmas. Is it the ghastly build-up and the knowledge that however nice our Christmases are, they're unlikely to live up to the standard presented by the media? Is it the fact that as you get older someone is nearly always missing from the Christmas scene - a divorced father, a dead parent? Is it the poignant memory of wonderful Christmases past that can never be recaptured? Is it the memory of stressful childhood Christmases?

Because my great-aunt was also my headmistress, my parents and I used to have gloomy Christmas lunches at a long, greasy, school trestle table in the dismal school dining-room, with nothing to drink but a jug of water. Afterwards I would be given an improving book about architecture, unwrapped.

Now, I would give anything to go into a hole and hide during what's laughingly known as the "festive season".

So why don't I? I could at least, like several friends, take a holiday to India and avoid it all. And why do I think that Geraldine, if she possibly can, should cover herself with protective emotional spray and spend at least Christmas lunch, if nothing else, with her family?

Christmas, even though the majority of us forget it or couldn't give a pin, is basically a religious festival. When we're in deep trouble, most of us, even non-believers, find ourselves automatically sending up a prayer to someone. Keeping this someone in mind for a couple of hours once a year is surely, if nothing else, insurance. Then, there is the family. We all bemoan the death of the family, but by copping out we're adding to the rot. Blood is thicker than water and however much we loathe our relations, most of them will rally round us in time of trouble, just out of duty if nothing else. It's worth touching base once a year.

Christmas is a time when you have to give presents - yes, even to people you can't stand, and even to people who have everything. But giving and receiving from people you dislike is good for the soul, even if you're cursing underneath.

So this year Geraldine should go, remembering that Christmases past can never be recreated, and that if her mother doesn't mind the way her husband treats her, then it's none of Geraldine's business to get angry about it. Who knows, her mum may have a masochistic streak and secretly get turned on by being ordered about. And if Geraldine feels lonely and barren when faced with her nephews and nieces, she should remember that their little lives are enriched by the presence of a kindly aunt. Maybe they'll barely talk to her, but she should be there partly for their sake, to add to their feeling of security that they have a big loving family around them.

But there is a way out, and although it's too late for Geraldine to employ it now, she should plan it for next year. She should hold Christmas for the family at her house. She should also invite a polite friend as a "bulking agent". I have often been used at family Christmases as a kind of Fybogel, simply because a stranger's presence makes everyone behave themselves. The stepfather will not dream of bullying the mother, Geraldine can have Christmas "her" way, and rather than feel like a sad little spinster, she will feel like a powerful hostess.

readers' suggestions

Make a deal with your mother

I really sympathise with Geraldine. As a manager in a London department store, the last thing I want to do is drive 150 miles to spend less than 48 hours with my mother and sisters and their children - who are naturally quite a handful.

Unfortunately my parents separated a few years ago, which made the decision to spend Christmas in London much more difficult. Geraldine should make a deal with her mother. What I do now is spend a weekend at the beginning of December with my mother doing Christmas shopping and spending time together. We both enjoy it and look forward to seeing each other at this time.


London SE10

Sacrifice yourself and go

I too am a 35-year-old singleton with a stressful job, but Christmas can make me behave like a 15-year-old. I rarely or never row with family - except at Christmas. My parents are finding their own way of living together now that the children have left home and I respect their right to do so; but at the moment it seems to consist of the two of them constantly bickering in a way that makes spending time with them stressful.

This makes me think every year about not going home for "the day itself" but, it seems, only having a family of your own gives you the cast-iron right to spend Christmas by yourself. In the end I will be going, and I think I would advise Geraldine to go too.

For me, buying loads of presents that give people pleasure, having a few drinks, helping with the cooking and a dose of teeth-gritting are worth it for my mother to be able to say to her friends that she is "having the whole family over at Christmas".


Spend the day with your friends

It would be wrong for Geraldine to feign illness; she should tell her mother outright that she is having Christmas with friends this year. She doesn't have to say she hates her family Christmas, just that she owes it to her friends.

Yes, her mother will be upset - mine was when I dropped the "family" Christmas 23 years ago, but she soon got over it and I now have the Christmas I choose (with my partner) without the tyranny of fractious nephews and nieces, grumpy aunts and uncles, or enforced eating and drinking. Go for it, Geraldine - break loose: you will not regret it!


London WC1

Compromise is best

Be honest, resolute and prepared to compromise. Tell your mother that you wish to spend Christmas in your own home this year, but will visit them either immediately before or after. You could send flowers - and telephone on Christmas morning.

Doing this confirms you are part of the family (warts and all!), but are also breaking free of a gathering that causes you stress.


Surbiton, Surrey

Grit your teeth and endure

Geraldine should realise that there are thousands, maybe millions of us, who do not want to spend Christmas with "the family." Her family has its ways of making her feel bad; everyone else's families have theirs. She must grit her teeth, tell herself it's only one day, and look forward to Boxing Day and New Year.

For obvious reasons, Anonymous

Dear Virginia, I am a single man of 30. I have the occasional girlfriend and once I was in love and wanted to get married, but it didn't work out. I have a good friend, a single woman of my own age, and we spend a lot of time together. Recently, however, she's hinted that she wants the relationship to be sexual. She insists it is just sex she is after, nothing more. I find her quite attractive, and in some ways this would suit me, but I don't love her, and I worry that sex might destroy our friendship. She says we're old enough not to let that happen.What do you think?

Yours sincerely, Max

Anyone who has advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from Please send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171- 293 2182; e-mail dilemmas @independent.co.uk - giving a postal address for the bouquet