Kathy Sheridan: Christmas Day is the Hadron Collider of family relationships
Everyone deserves a few days free of anger, home truths, sniping and whataboutery
On Christmas day if you are not the host remember that someone had a choice and still opted to include you in this most privileged of inner circles. The unstated condition is that you be kind in turn. Photograph: Getty Images
On Sunday around lunchtime in a big, chaotic chain store in Liffey Valley a woman stood and stared at a display of men’s jumpers. Throughout the centre, battle had commenced. On the shop floors young seasonal workers with a nervily polite first-day-on-the-job air about them were getting a taste of the work day from hell. Back in the chain store a young male assistant struggling to fold scattered knitwear was keeping a wary eye on the woman.
Are you looking for something in particular, he asked finally?
Surprised out of her trance, she shook her head and murmured slowly that she was actually looking to buy something for her daughter-in-law… and had got a bit blind-sided. Her eyes welled up. The assistant ran off.
I considered intervening. But before I could the assistant was back, pulling a face tissue from the pack he had acquired and handing it to her. Then he stood with her, chatting, probably for around 15 minutes – an eternity in Christmas retail.
Counselling the afflicted was not his job. To someone else the woman would have signified time-wasting or just another sad, boring voice in his ear. Yet he chose to walk back into her well of grief and stay until she was composed enough to put one foot in front of the other again.
Loneliness at this time of year is the inevitable by-product of Christmas, days built securely – if you are lucky – around family, tradition, squally children, healthy parents, joyful homecomings, laden tables.
For the not-so-lucky the annual assembly may be a battle in a hot house of old resentments, drink problems, money worries, illness, differing child-rearing philosophies, morose teenagers, sadness or grief.
And no amount of mutant Brussels sprout recipes or radio gurus’ prescriptions will fix it.
If Christmas is regarded as the Hadron Collider of family relationships, it’s partly down to our expectation that tired or sad or truculent, baggage-ridden family members will morph into fantasy dinner guests for one day a year.
Burst into tears
Some families find a way. For several years a friend’s widowed mother-in-law used to seat herself regally at dinner then promptly burst into tears, upon which a child would escort her and a topped-up vodka back to the television in the livingroom. Everyone was happy.
Another friend’s brother goes into solitary lock-down, phone off, for 24 hours. Unjudged.
It comes down to one quality: tolerance. Do not be Donald Trump. Keep your “controversial” views to yourself. Refrain from blurting out every random thought.
Review your idea of “slagging” just for one day. Do not start a sentence with “no offence but…”
Yes, there are plenty of issues to be outraged about, but everyone deserves a few days free of anger, home truths, cynicism, sniping and whataboutery.
The cliché goes that home is the only place you go where they have to take you in. It’s not invariably true. On Christmas day if you are not the host remember that someone had a choice and still opted to include you in this most privileged of inner circles. The unstated condition is that you be kind in turn. For these days are fleeting and precious, and as one sage put it everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
The young shop assistant in Liffey Valley probably knows this instinctively. In our private lives many of us are lucky enough to experience people’s extraordinary capacity for kindness. But that young man encapsulated it in a public sphere where we have long ceased to expect it, a commercial world where being civil to our fellow humans becomes company policy only because it’s good for profits.
There was no reward for him apart from satisfying his own sense of decency. His managers would hardly have appreciated those lost 15 minutes of productivity.
We now expect to be exploited and swindled by all kinds of hustlers, banking institutions, big tech. It’s nothing personal. They want our money, and how they get it is immaterial to them. We may rail against it but we come to understand it and steel ourselves against it.
So we cloak our insecurities in cynicism, and sneer at the naifs with their ideals about a gentler more trusting world. In such an atmosphere kindness can look a lot like weakness.
For that impact alone on society, commercial chicanery or misconduct that tends to destroy trust should attract punitive damages.
Yet some people, even in tough jobs, manage to resist the negative pull. In a letter to the editor on Monday, Penelope McAuley wrote about boarding a crowded 46A bus at rush hour, using her walking stick to support herself. The driver advised her to stay near him, and on reaching her destination on Nassau Street, he got off the bus, took her arm and led her across the street.
To all the kind ones, a very happy Christmas.