Christmas and New Year's this year is inevitably going to be different. Restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus will alter the way many of us celebrate. That could cause all sorts of problems within families, introducing the risk that many will feel excluded from those they love.
"Christmas this year will raise lots of questions about who takes the decisions in a family," said Bjoern Enno Hermans, a family therapist based in Germany who shared with Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) his advice on how to reduce the chances of a family fall out over the coming festive season.
How do I tell relatives not to come?
Hermans recommends explaining any decisions about who is invited and who isn't with reference to government guidelines.
"That is quite helpful at the moment because it is not so much about one's own personal views," he said. "In case of doubt, you can justify narrowing the invited circle down by saying 'look, these are the rules, and we should stick to them.'"
Hermans suggests having difficult conversations face to face, if possible. "Personal is best, but that will often not be possible if the family's spread out geographically." In these cases, it might be better to have an online video call rather than an email exchange.
What if family members are pandemic deniers?
"At this point, I would distinguish between real deniers who ignore the facts and people who criticize some of the measures or have different views on them," Hermans said.
"Ultimately, you have to ask yourself if you can respect their position as a different but reasonable point of view." If this is so you can perhaps agree not to bring up certain coronavirus topics at your gathering.
If you suspect that this will not be possible, it might be best to agree not to celebrate together under these circumstances. "Being open about this will be better than inventing some lame excuse and hiding behind it," says Hermans.
How do I decline an invitation?
"As transparently as possible," Hermans said. "Openly tell them you're not coming, and ask them not to take it personally. And make it clear your decision is simply based on concerns about spreading the virus."
How soon should I cancel?
"A certain amount of advance notice helps everyone else to come to terms with it and gives planning security," Hermans said, "but you still have a little time to do this, and probably don't have to pick up the phone tomorrow or the day after."
He recommends a cut-off point of two weeks before Christmas Eve or New Year's at the latest.
How should blended families cope?
"I would look at the needs of the individual family members, especially those of children, and ask yourself if it's possible to find a solution that everyone can live with."
It will be difficult to decide who is more important to you – and who is less important. "Those who are not prioritized are likely to feel like the losers," Hermans said, adding that this can undermine the idea of a family as an interconnected network.
Is there any silver lining for families?
The restrictions give everyone the opportunity to question how they handle winter holidays and not carry on doing them just because they have always done them that one way.
"But be aware that everyone feels that differently," Hermans said. "For some, it is beneficial and liberating; for others, it can make everything very problematic. Ask yourself how important it really is to get together this Christmas, and whether it might be better to put off the big family get-together until Easter or summer."
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