FOR James Duncan, Christmas means being cooped up alone for a week with his widowed mother. Lorna Simpson has to meet her estranged brother. Paula Green will be preparing endless meals and providing presents for numerous demanding relatives.

Many people spend the holiday imprisoned with a group of people whom at best they find faintly irritating and with whom the only common tie is blood. Christmas is experienced not as the magical, intimate gathering conjured up by television, but as an assault course to be scrambled over as quickly as possible in the vain hope of emerging with little more than a few bruises. Some spend the next few months licking their wounds and nursing resentment.

Christianne Heal, a London- based psychotherapist, has devised a special 'Facing Christmas' workshop to help people for whom the end-of-year festivities are far from fun. She holds classes in different parts of the country, in the run-up to Christmas, each with around a dozen participants.

People rarely reveal that they regularly have a bad time, she says. In a nation that eagerly anticipates 25 December in mid-November, admitting a dislike of Christmas can be a taboo.

'At work you don't admit dreading it and when you get back people keep on asking, 'Did you have a good Christmas?' and you have to lie again,' she says.

The participants at one workshop, held on a windy Monday afternoon at an adult education centre in central London, were not only prepared to admit they were going to have a rotten Christmas, but were keen to do something about it.

Each person was asked to list a dozen happy Christmases: few got beyond six. One woman complained that Christmas spent at her sister's was so predictable: she knew what would be discussed at meals and even when the arguments would start and what they would be about. Some dreaded the orgy of food and subsequent inertia, the forced conversations and the simmering rows.

'People habitually eat and drink more than they should; that makes them feel less well. Drink takes away inhibitions and underlying feelings erupt,' says Ms Heal. Everyone at the workshop particularly dreaded the absence of genuine intimacy within families, and the hostility borne of hidden resentments.

Christmas need not be like this if it is carefully planned, Ms Heal insists. 'You should decide how much you are going to spend, whether you are going to do all the work or distribute it among the guests. If you feel any resentment, voice it. Other people are often happy peeling spuds or wrapping last-minute presents. Trust other people to do jobs you think you could do better.

'If there's something you can't bear to do or eat, let that be known. If you don't want to go to midnight mass, just say so - and say it well in advance.

'Ask your guests to offer something - food they can bring, games they can organise. Ask your host what you can bring. As for presents, say what you want and let it be known that you won't spend more than a certain amount. The whole point about Christmas is that it should be done with love, not to impress.'

In France and Italy Christmas is over in two days; in Britain it stretches into New Year. A successful Christmas, says Ms Heal, is one with a time limit.

The aim of the workshop is to change attitudes, rather than deliver advice. Participants are encouraged to examine why they deny telling others what they want or need. Ms Heal argues that our experience of Christmas is not simply determined by external pressures but by unconscious motives and past experience.

In one exercise, members were asked to choose the tackiest Christmas card they could find and list everything that has irritated them about Christmas for the last 20 to 30 years - from canned carols to enforced bracing walks. Participants are given the choice of defacing the card or tearing it up. After intensely staring at their card for some time, most people tore it up.

After exercises like this, says Ms Heal, people begin to feel liberated from the past and more able to make choices about what they want now. 'What you are saying by tearing up the card is: this year I'm not going to bring all that baggage. If Christmas irritates me this year, then that's because it irritates me this year, not because it irritated me 20 years ago.'

Another exercise is what Ms Heal calls Giving and Receiving. We had been asked to bring to the workshop three coins of different values; we were then asked to consider the three personal qualities we were most proud of and give each coin one of those qualities. We were then told to look around the group and decide who would have our presents.

'Already you have set up the anxiety,' says Ms Heal. 'You have a choice of giving three gifts to one person or one gift to three people - or witholding your gifts.

'Gift giving is very unfair, very unequal. Are you giving a gift because I instructed you to do so, or because you like the look of someone, or think they need something of what you've got? Are you giving them the gift because they are lacking that particular quality, or because you want to give them your joy or humour?'

Once we had decided who would have our gifts, we milled around, placing them discreetly on the appropriate chair. Then we returned to our own chairs to find out whether we had received any coins ourselves. Everyone, thankfully, had at least one. Finally we told each other what gifts our coins had stood for - joy, hope, generosity and humour were the most popular - and why we had given them. One woman became tearful because she had received such generous gifts.

'Last year there was one poor man who got none,' Ms Heal recalls. 'That completely reflected what normally happened in his life - he wasn't a very giving person, he hadn't many friends and nobody knew who he really was.

'It's a difficult exercise, but we're not there to make things easy for people. Some realised with a jolt that they didn't have any humour: it was the gift that had been made to them. That might not be how the gift was meant to be interpreted, but how they chose to hear it.'

One man who had felt unhappy about spending Christmas alone, realised that all the alternatives - going away or spending the week with distant relatives - were worse than being on his own. He left feeling pleased he was going to be on his own out of choice.

Christianne Heal is going to spend Christmas with her partner, sister and brother-in-law. 'I quite like Christmas because I do what I want,' she says. 'I expect I upset other people by doing that, but you can't please everybody.'

Participants' names have been changed.

(Photograph omitted)

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