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Christmas – Surviving the culture clash

“You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family” How many of us find ourselves thinking this at Christmas?!?

A significant milestone in any serious relationship is negotiating the first Christmas with your partner’s extended family. In this moment two cultures collide and there is often nowhere to hide! Nothing quite highlights the values and traditions, as well as the quirks and idiosyncrasies of a family than seeing how they celebrate Christmas together.

It is fair to say that for Tracey and I the first experience of Christmas with each other’s families was nothing short of a culture shock! Here are a few of our cultural differences:

The people – For me Christmas day had tended to be for immediate family with the addition of various individuals who might otherwise be on their own. It is likely to be as a result of growing up in a family of introverts, but there was plenty of latitude throughout Christmas for doing your own thing for a while – there was time together but also time for solitude. For Tracey Christmas was an extended family affair with little freedom to go off the established guest list and certainly no chance of ‘we’re doing it on our own this year’. For her it was also a day for everyone to be together (all the time!) – no room for a cheeky siesta, to retreat to a book or go off for a stroll on your own. No! Wall to wall collective compulsory activity!

Presents – For me Christmas presents tended to be modest. For Santa’s stocking think Satsuma, nuts, socks and a bit of stationary. Other presents would need to wait until the afternoon and opened individually and with decorum. At Tracey’s it is barely possible to move on Christmas day without it being marked by a present – stockings are followed by tree presents, followed by table presents and that’s all before you even get to lunch. Enough consumption to stave off a national recession for another year! By late afternoon a small mountain of wrapping paper covers everyone’s collection of presents.

 

Decorations – For me Christmas decorations went up on Christmas Eve and lasted strictly for the 12 days of Christmas. For Tracey the build up to Christmas began as soon as practically possible and there was no doubt that Christmas was on the way.

 

Religion & Monarchy – For me both Jesus and the Queen got quite a bit of profile at Christmas – Midnight Mass, Christmas Day church, the Queen’s speech. For Tracey neither Jesus nor Elizabeth II would get much of a look in.

We quickly realised that whether we were going to spend time with extended family at Christmas or not (and clearly we were!) there was definitely going to be a few legacy issues and some conflicting expectations for us around Christmas. We found that small domestic arguments would emerge in the build up to each Christmas – issues such as; when the Christmas decorations would go up; who we would be spending Christmas with and for how long; who we would buy presents for and what the budget would be; what level of social activity & engagement there would be over the festive period.

It’s quite tempting to characterise our differences as a battle between myself, as something of an unreformed scrooge, and Tracy as an excitable Buddy the Elf. There are, however, some fundamental differences underpinning these caricatures. As Ruth discussed in her Christmas blog, there is certainly the difference between my more introverted water personality and Tracey’s more extravert wind personality. There are also unquestionably some differences in our values that our rooted both in our contrasting childhoods, but also our personal inclinations. For Tracey it is particularly important that Christmas is creative, fun, spontaneous, joyful and marked by generosity. For me there is a place for simplicity, tradition, order, reflection and peacefulness.

How then to make Christmas work for both Buddy and Scrooge? In short I think that we try to make it work by focusing on our common values and compromising to enable each other to express our distinct values. We can find some Christmas common ground in our commitments to family, community, hospitality, inclusivity and not forgetting food! As for the rest, well we try to enjoy, or at worst endure, the areas where we have more radical differences and work on the art of compromise – something that is for life and not just for Christmas!

 

  • How are the approaches to Christmas of your respective extended families similar or different to one another? Has this presented any challenges?

 

  • Where do you have shared values with your partner around Christmas?

 

  • Are there any areas where you have different values from your partner around Christmas?

 

  • In what ways do you each have to compromise at Christmas. Is this level of compromise equal or does one of you consistently get more of the Christmas that they want?

Richard Elliott

Father, husband, teacher, coach. Richard is a director of Pickwell Manor Ltd and a co-founder of the Pickwell Foundation - a grant making charitable trust focusing on displaced people and climate change. He has a diploma in Business, Executive and Life Coaching and a background in post 16 education which he taught and managed Social Science subjects. He has a particular interest in how values shape individuals, relationships, families and organisations.