It’s that time of year again, when you have to decide the who, what, where, how, why and when of Christmas.
Who to invite, what to buy, where to have it, and how on earth you are going to get it all done on top of all your other work and family responsibilities.
Apart from present list, there is that other list – the not present list – of who to invite, or not.
Christmas is the time of year where family alignments must be acknowledged, which adds hugely to the stress.
If your family is like ours – divided by feuds that go back generations – this can be very distressing, especially if the feuds are not of your making.
For us, this always meant that Christmas was a very small and largely private affair, just the four of us mostly, or with our parents later or on Boxing Day, or even the week before if that wasn’t convenient for them.
This was fine when the children were small as the void could be filled with the fuss of Christmas.
But as the children grew older and the presents smaller and more expensive and there was less fanfare, the four of us sitting around the table with our Christmas hats and bon-bons, eating food that we could, in reality, eat at any other time of the year seemed a little sad.
Like many others in this situation our friends were our family for the rest of the year, but at Christmas most families regroup and are not available or the tyranny of distance makes getting together impossible.
We went to hotels some years, or on holidays, but still, for us, Christmas is a time of absence as well as presents.
The effect of this over the years has been to create insecurity as well as envy for those who seem to be surrounded by a large safety net of family members who have each other’s welfare at heart.
It also creates a sense that you are largely alone in the world – whether this true of not.
This is not as overt or justified as the pain felt by people who have much bigger problems, such as homelessness or no family at all – and therefore it makes me feel a little self-indulgent and guilty.
But it makes Christmas difficult, especially for me as the unofficial Head of the Family Entertainment Committee.
Like most women, I have taken responsibility for Christmas and family emotions generally for the past 30 years, filling the void with too many presents and too much food.
The sad fact is that there are times when rejecting toxic family relationships can be a great relief and necessary for your mental and physical health. And in such cases, especially when children are small, you make such decisions in order to protect them. Other times, the decisions are made for you.
But whatever the reason, the effect can be just as painful in later life when you see your adult children peering wistfully at the window of other people’s lives and wishing that the large (probably just as annoying and dysfunctional) family was theirs.
It may be a case that the grass is always appears greener elsewhere, but the truth is that whether your lack of numbers is your doing or not, small families are vulnerable, especially if they are geographically isolated.
This realisation is beautifully portrayed in the movie About A Boy, when the pubescent Marcus, whose mother has just tried to kill herself, says: “Suddenly I realised two people isn’t enough. You need a backup. If you’re only two people, and someone drops off the edge … then you’re on your own. Two isn’t a large enough number. You need three, at least.”
Four isn’t a large enough number either. The pressure on small families at Christmas can make Christmas in even the wealthiest families a time of compensation rather than celebration.
But not this year.
This year, we are having Christmas at home in Melbourne and the best present will be not just that we are all together but that we are no longer four but six, as our children bring their partners to the family table and we wistfully and secretly hope that one day they might have big boisterous families of their own.