It’s useful to have a scapegoat at Christmas so mine is the industrial revolution. Yes, the Victorians were responsible for the festive fever dream of Dickensian jollity we have all internalised, but it’s those damn steam and steel barons who allowed us to escape our families most of the year. Since we stopped spending our lives confined to one room with several generations of people seemingly put on earth for the sole purpose of annoying us, we’ve lost the knack of just tolerating our nearest and dearest, I think. As a result, when Christmas rolls around, our lack of practice, deluded belief that this is the time to forge heartwarming memories and the hysterical exhortations of Yuletide end-stage capitalism combine to ensure carnage.
Because the perfect family Christmas is a lie, of course, the magic we strive to recreate is a nostalgic, eggnog-sodden amalgam of multiple Christmases, each awful in its own way (The Dead Dog One, The Norovirus One, The Disinhibited Dementia Granny One). Reality cannot compare, so we struggle to cope. I know a couple whose marriage guidance counsellor actually advised they acquire some cannabis to deal with the stress of the season (“a lot more Quality Street were consumed,” notes my correspondent, “but it was a Very Happy Christmas”).
This year will probably be awful, too, but there is hope. I quizzed everyone I know on how they cope and – having weeded out “emigrate”, “put my mother in a B&B”, “be Jewish” and “I hate literally everything about Christmas” (my son, ladies and gents) – present my findings here. Like those hour-by-hour planners that explain how to serve turkey and trimmings in perfect condition at the right moment, I’ll be applying a step-by-step approach to engineering peace on earth and goodwill to your Ukip uncle.
The night before Christmas
The vision The soaring voices of boy trebles and dancing candlelight illuminating the darkness: a time of magic.
The reality The last grainy chocolate-flavoured blob has been wrenched from its cardboard sarcophagus, but no one is tucked up dreaming of sugar-plums. What the hell is a sugar-plum anyway? Heston Blumenthal has probably reimagined them as gilded edible mini drones for Waitrose, RRP £31.99. Children, maddened by tinsel glare and months of aggressive advertising, are whirring themselves towards certain disappointment. Hissed arguments take place in corridors, which are also home to single family members, sleeping on a mildewed airbed wedged between the Hoover and a sweating, half-defrosted ham. Somewhere, someone is running a judgemental finger along your cornicing.
Family fight flashpoint This is usually the point at which Parsimonious Parent discovers the pile of ruinous glittery rubble that Feckless Parent considers the bare minimum for a decent Christmas. That’s always a doozy.
7pm Count your blessings. In continental Europe, you’d already be heading into a smörgåsbord of Festen-style togetherness with no prospect of escape. My husband’s French family enters a confined space on the evening of the 24th with all the crustaceans, meat in jelly and alcohol in the world and they do not emerge until everything, or everyone, has been eaten. I’m pretty sure Sartre wrote Huis Clos about a French family Christmas.
8pm Prepare for the morning: negotiate waking time rules with children old enough to respond to specific, convincing threats. Strips of that giant turkey foil over inadequate curtains helps bamboozle smaller ones.
9pm Carve out some time alone. The John Lewis ad has it right: Elton John – no stranger to a meltdown – knows he needs healing solitude. I get mine by wrapping in advance then retiring on Christmas Eve with a hipflask and Cold Comfort Farm “to do the wrapping”. Use this time to set your intentions, as the hippies say: you won’t get wound up by sibling humble braggadocio or your daughter-in-law’s ostentatious undereating. You’ll be gracious about getting a novelty doorbell or an extractor fan. You won’t rage-eat a whole Brie at midnight.
11pm Rest, for as long as possible.
The vision An explosion of joy!
The reality An explosion of plastic, actual children and emotion, if stocking chocolate is not swiftly removed.
Family fight flashpoint Ingratitude, timing squabbles, my husband blithely loading a plate with the expensive Christmas salmon I was saving for lunch.
4.59am Your waking time rules have been disregarded but stay strong. Apply eye mask; insert earplugs.
5.59am The children are cooked: concede defeat at this point. Try to eke out stockings as long as possible: everyone takes it in turns; presents must be examined, not tossed aside. Feckless Parent, er, Santa, selected each one with care and he would like some credit for this thankless act of love, please.
6.45am Allow everything to chill. It’s too early for proper presents; it’s too early for anything. Go back to bed, eat a metre of Jaffa Cakes or take the dog for a bracing pre-dawn walk. If you’re that person who likes filling a bin bag with every scrap of wrapping paper and packaging, knock yourself out.
8am Get started on lunch. When surveyed, everyone volunteered something you should drop from lunch: forget pudding, use bought gravy, renounce turkey, go out instead. My concern is that once you start to pull at the loose thread of Christmas tradition, you’ll unravel and unravel until finally you are sitting on your own, naked, eating a baked potato (God, that sounds wonderful).
Tradition is tyrannical but reassuring: give in to it and its supporters, who my friend Jane calls “Militant Christmas Protocol gene carriers”. Do what you always do: it requires the least mental bandwidth. Yes, doubtless Nigel Slater disagrees, but he’s not listening to your cousin describing the financing arrangements for his new BMW.
That said, in our family, my stepfather’s usual MO of mechanically purchasing and single-handedly preparing a vast turkey most of us don’t eat à la mode de Delia Smith will face off this year against my teenage son’s newfound passion for muscular YouTube bro cooking perpetrated by earnest Brooklynites. Things will be deep-fried and powdered onion (what is wrong with you America?) will be liberally sprinkled, disrupting my stepfather’s robotic élan. It’s going to be interesting, interesting like a Chinese curse.
9am If children are involved, this is as late as you can realistically do proper presents. Forget about displays of joy or gratitude. Have you seen brain scans of people on LSD, those colourful explosions of cognitive pyrotechnics? That’s your kids right now.
10am Cooking continues. A word on the status of the cook: heed Nina Stibbe, whose excellent book An Almost Perfect Christmas relates her mother’s decades-long “grim personal quest” to cook a moist turkey. Treat the cook “like a demigod. Let them choose the telly and the music and let them pull the wishbone.” A bottle of something reserved for the cook’s exclusive consumption is also wise.
11am Put enervated children to rest in a cool place: outside, ideally.
1pm Start to gently baste restive older relatives in a snowball marinade. A light touch is recommended.
The vision God bless us every one, a Tudorbethan tableau vivant of bronzed meats, spice and familial merriment.
The reality The kitchen is dense with steam and fury, signifying disaster. “Can I…” someone says, dithering on the threshold, then retreats in terror. No one can help; the cook is alone with his or her demons and 30 still-hard potatoes. One Christmas survey respondent related how she thought she had a fever, took her temperature and then realised she had actually parboiled her head with constant peering in the oven. Meanwhile in the dining room, a vegan, a gluten-eschewer, two rampant traditionalists and three poor sods who couldn’t give a rat’s chipolata what they eat are gathered, bored, paper crowns starting to split.
Family fight flashpoint Literally everything.
3 (or 4 or 9) pm There is nowhere to hide, people have imbibed at levels incompatible with good behaviour and the turkey wrangler may have cooked their own head. This is no time to tackle B****t, gender identity or co-sleeping. Instead, our indulged emperor children need to do their bit: make them dance for their numerous costly gewgaws. Embarrassing teenagers is a cross-generational pleasure so gang up and ask obtuse questions about sexting, facial hair, boyfriends and Fortnite. Smaller children are intrinsically diverting and supply this service without even realising. They owe us that, frankly, so milk it to the full.
The post-lunch hinterland
The vision Replete and cosy, the family opens a few more thoughtful gifts then settles down to a film or a board game.
The reality Lunch fizzles out as the endless winter night sets in in earnest. Discombobulated and sick of the sight of each other, we sink into brooding, dyspeptic torpor.
Family fight flashpoint Boredom drives people to assess their gifts with the dour zeal of DCI Taggart, noting inequities, blatant regifting and passive aggressive deployment of charity goats.
5pm Gift amnesties or budget caps are sensible – none of us need more body lotion – but joyless. Let me suggest a small refinement. If someone in your family actually gives good presents, arrange to exchange one with them. Since our mum died, my sister and I give each other a decent gift and it’s lovely. My husband was raised by an in-all-other-respects-admirable woman, who gives you three towels on 12 November and calls them your “Christmas present”. He can’t be held responsible for my happiness on this special day.
6pm Rest the human carcasses: nap time. The L-tryptophan in turkey helpfully induces doziness; vegetarians and vegans must rely on the bone-deep exhaustion that comes from repeatedly defending their life choices to family members.
7pm Add a sprinkling of entertainment. Board games are a fight in a box: avoid. TV should be the answer but in 99% of families there will be no consensus on what to watch. When we attempt anything other than a four-hour BBC4 special on Turgenev, my stepfather reels away in pale horror after 10 minutes at the tawdry reality of contemporary entertainment: DFS ads, Keith Lemon and all. This is not festive. Take another walk. Mocking your neighbours’ too tasteful white Christmas lights is an excellent bonding activity.
8pm If you can’t physically remove yourself from the overheated miasma of obligation and sprout gas, travel in your imagination. Idris Elba would like to do your ironing; a spaniel puppy needs a belly rub. There has been a grisly murder, no, a series of murders, in your family home.
9pm Time to top up the collective marinade. Someone probably gave you an awful liqueur: open it now.
11pm You think you are hungry. You aren’t, but it doesn’t matter. Bring out the Christmas cake, garnish with a roast potato and the remnants of the salmon wrestled from your spouse earlier, stand bathed in the cool glow of the fridge and eat a whole Brie.
Boxing day (and beyond)
The vision The stress of the big day has dissipated and everyone can play with their toys in peace.
The reality On his first Boxing Day as a sentient human and not a floppy shrimp, my son toddled expectantly to the tree looking for a new pile of gifts: no one had explained to him Christmas was a one-off thing. The hours of furious misery that followed were simply an unvarnished version of what we all feel: crushing anticlimax.
Family fight flashpoint I can only admire the energy of anyone who has any fight left in them at this point.
AM Somewhere near you a group of men – it’s always men, don’t @me – is indulging in something stupid and dangerous, such as swimming in the sea in fancy dress, or crawling through barbed wire and sewage. Convene a family outing to go and heckle.
PM Nothing much is happening; nothing will happen for days. During these listlessly unspooling hours of nothingness, take a moment to look tenderly on your family as they go about their various weird occupations (fiddling with the thermostat, boiling dishcloths, arranging their gifts in flat lays for Instagram). They are your weirdos: cherish them and add this moment to your mental album of festive lies, sorry, memories. And remember: thanks to the industrial revolution, it will all be over soon.