Jeanette* was dreading the family Christmas each year. Her mother made the whole thing tortuous for everyone, until one day Jeanette couldn’t take it any more, and opted out…
As told to Sam Harrington-Lowe
“Let me first of all paint you a picture of what my Christmases have historically been like. From the outside they probably looked idyllic; a big place in the countryside, all the family, full Christmas dinner and an open fire. If you look at textbook examples of ‘family Christmas’ you’d expect to find pictures of pretty much what we did. But I was always dreading Christmas.
She wanted it to be perfect, but didn’t realise that in her quest for a flawless Christmas, she created a paralysing hell on earth
“What the pictures wouldn’t show is the stress that lay behind them. Because each year my mother would make it utterly hellish for me and my two brothers, to the point that I used to break out in hives around 20 December each year.
“She wanted it to be perfect, but didn’t realise that in her quest for a flawless Christmas, she created a paralysing hell on earth and badwill to all men by micromanaging every single aspect. We were all terrified of getting it wrong, of upsetting her or incurring her wrath by not doing things the right way.”
CHRISTMAS SHOULD BE FOR CHILDREN
“As a child, I remember Christmas not making me jump with joy, but making me jump nervously. In the lead-up there would be stress around Christmas lists and who was getting what. The tree was decorated to within an inch of its life, but without joy. The most important thing was getting it symmetrical and the right colour tones together. I wasn’t allowed to touch it.
“We didn’t get to make decorations as kids, because she thought they looked scruffy, and there were rules around everything. What time we could get on up Christmas Day, when the presents had to be opened, who was coming on what day and what would happen when each person came – it was planned like a military operation and woe betide anyone who mucked up her schedule.
“When we were finally allowed to open the presents – after lunch – we had to all take it in turns to open them, one at a time, so people could admire the gifts. Even though we all knew what everyone was getting and who was buying it. I remember one year my father got my brother the wrong thing. Mum cried in the kitchen on her own because ‘everything was spoiled’. My father felt awful. We all did.”
MAYBE NOT ALL HER FAULT
“She’d grown up in poverty and Christmas for her had always been awful. So to be fair to her, I guess she always wanted it to be special. But her drive to make it perfect made it unbearable for everyone.
“My dad withdrew into himself, making her even more angry because he refused to help. And as we grew up and became adults, instead of getting angry with us for doing things the wrong way, she had a passive-aggressive way of delivering the blow instead. We used to cringe. We walked on eggshells.
There was nothing spontaneous about the gift giving… It was like a shopping list with thorns.
“I found I was pushing myself harder each year to be awesome and outshine expectation. My brothers and I also found we were competing for her approval. There were rows over the Christmas lists, and who was getting what for everyone. There was nothing spontaneous about the gift giving. She made us all draw up lists and share them, and then each of us divvied up what we’d get for each other. It was like a shopping list with thorns.
“There were always arguments – usually when she considered that the choice was wrong. If you got the wrong branded jumper, for example, she’d let you know, and you’d feel like you’d failed. Even as we all found ourselves in our 40s we ended up in this nightmarish merry-go-round each year, none of us strong enough to break out.”
SO THIS IS WHAT IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE!
“I first realised that this wasn’t how it was supposed to be when I spent Christmas Day at my husband’s family house two years ago. It had taken every ounce of my strength to tell Mum I wasn’t going to be there for lunch on Christmas Day – she made me feel hideous by bursting into tears and telling me I was ruining the day for everyone. But my husband was quietly firm. We’d spent every Christmas Day with my lot, he said. It was time to do his family. I don’t know if I’d have managed without his support.
“I had no idea Christmas could be so lovely. We got up when we liked and tore into the presents without pausing for breath – presents that were all a complete surprise to everyone. Then some of us walked the dogs, a couple of people went to the pub, others hung about in the kitchen drinking champagne and eating smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. I had NO IDEA people could do what they wanted on Christmas Day! Everyone helped cook the lunch and we had beef shin, NOT TURKEY! And we ate when it was ready, not at 2pm on the dot.
“And then everyone did what they wanted. Some slept on the sofas, a couple of us played with new-found gifts. And when we had more space we ate the food left over on the dining room table, drank brandy and ate chocolate and it was HEAVEN!
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“The next morning we loaded up the car and went to my mother’s place, only to find she had essentially put everyone else on hold until we got there, so we could ‘do’ Christmas Day together. My brothers and their wives, their kids, my grandparents, my parents… so nobody had opened a gift, the turkey had been kept for our arrival – it was horrific. We were met at the door with stony silence all round. Everyone was resentful, and it was at that point I realised I couldn’t play this game any more.”
SO I STOPPED PLAYING THE GAME
“That Boxing Day I went through the motions but I knew it was for the final time. And so when September rolled around the following year, on the family group WhatsApp I just said I was opting out of Christmas. Cue disbelief all round. I was completely straight about it, I said I was finding the day increasingly hard to cope with and I couldn’t afford the gifts everyone wanted, so I would be happy to come and join in, but I didn’t want any gifts and I wouldn’t be buying any. It was enough just to see my family.
“You would have thought I’d confessed to a murder or something. Everyone went quiet for a day, waiting for my mother to react, all clearly braced for the fallout. But actually, it never came. She called me separately and made a bit of a ding-dong over the phone about how I was breaking everyone up, but I stuck to my guns. We went there for Christmas Day morning – sans gifts – and left for the afternoon at the other lot again, and it was sort of fine, although Mum made a show of dabbing her eyes she didn’t go full tonto. Actually it was more than fine. I came without expectations, and was genuinely pleased to see them all. And then we left, and left them to their regimented itinerary!
“I don’t know how my brothers feel. Tried to bring it up separately but neither of them wanted to talk about it. I think they feel like they have to make up for my anarchy by being extra awesome and I’m sorry they feel that pressure. But they do have a choice, and at least I’ve blazed the trail for them. Secretly I think I can see one of them breaking the mould soon, but the eldest is still stuck in the groove.”
“I’m not going there until Boxing Day this year but I have told Mum that if I arrive and she’s held everyone up again I will leave immediately. So there will not be a repeat. She has been more chilled this year, so I’m hoping we have got over the expectation. I love her very much but I hated what she turned Christmas into.
“I’ve left the WhatsApp group. And this year I’m going to throw a new spanner in the works by getting everyone a little gift. It’ll be something they haven’t asked for, that I have chosen with love. I know they’re all going to get up in my grill about how I shouldn’t have surprised them, they weren’t expecting it, they haven’t got anything for me, etc. But for me this is about breaking rules and making new strides, and I’m hoping that slowly we can start to change things.
“I think next year I’m going to invite everyone to my house, and see what happens. Wish me luck…”