LET'S face it, pleasing everyone at Christmas is close to impossible. Children just want to play with their new toys or electronic games and ride that shiny bike Santa brought; they're certainly not too keen on spending half the day in the car travelling between relatives' homes, however much they might love those aunties, uncles, cousins and grandparents.
As grandparents become more elderly and less mobile, the pressure is on younger generations to go to them, and it's at this time of year that both sets of grandparents love to see the children, especially those youngsters who live far away. But with families spread around the country, and throwing in the extra elements of various remarriages, step-children and new families to make the equation even more complicated, the country's motorways are a non-stop stream of traffic on Christmas Day, as family units dash to fulfil their obligations.
Stress, list-ticking and squabbling in the confines of the family saloon can replace that feeling of calmness and bonhomie we wish was the prevailing festive mood.
With the best will in the world, most of us are bound to let someone down – and all because our expectations of Christmas Day are unrealistic and time and energy are finite. In some families, or among certain family members, making a date to spend Boxing Day or some other day together over the holiday is seen as not quite good enough; for some, there is simply no way of squaring the circle.
Perhaps it's time to rethink how we do things, and question the merit of spreading ourselves too thinly across the people who need us less, while we don't pay enough attention to the people who may need Christmas cheer the most.
While almost 70 per cent of Britons will spend Christmas Day with family, according to research just carried out by the theological think-tank Theos, six per cent of us will be alone, a figure that rises to 11 per cent among the over-65s. That's around a million elderly people who don't get to join in the embarrassing crazy games, walk the dog in a rosy-faced posse, over-face themselves with pudding, or doze in a chair while their grandchildren make irritating noises with electronic gizmos or sing karaoke.
Theos's research also showed that 54 per cent of Britons think Christmas is "overrated" – which might be to do with the pressures outlined above (increased by also feeling that we must be domestic gods/goddesses and have the most spectacular tree imaginable) or could possibly be a reflection of feelings about the many superficial values associated with modern Christmases, brought about by the wake-up call most of us have been dealt thanks to a dose of enforced austerity.
"People who said they felt Christmas was overrated often also mentioned that there was too much pressure for the day to happen in a certain way, and it usually fails to live up to expectations," says Paul Woolley of Theos.
"More than 80 per cent said they would be spending the same or less than they spent last year, and of those spending less, one in five said they felt spending less was a good thing because it would make them focus on the things that really matter. I'm a 'glass half- full' man, and I thought it was very encouraging that a healthy number of 16-24-year-olds said they buy into the religious significance of Christmas, even though many of them don't formally observe religion during the year.
"I'm not saying that means we're about to have a full-scale resurgence in interest in religion, but historically there is a correlation between recession and increased religious observance." Recently, the decline in attendance at church has stopped, and in London it has actually gone up. One in three of us will attend a church service over Christmas, compared to around 15 per cent attending church at least once a month during the rest of the year.
A goodly chunk of the population clearly attaches some spiritual
importance to Christmas and we create time in our busy lives to listen to words that express wonder, joy, family sharing, loyalty, the extension of love to all people – values that cross all creeds and cultures. But at the same time, some of us are letting down an elderly person we know we should be embracing at a time when their isolation is probably more deeply felt than at any other time of year.
Perhaps the best thing we can do this Christmas, then, is to put elderly relatives, friends and neighbours at the top of all of our lists, and make them feel that our gesture of inclusiveness will not fade away as the festive candles splutter and die.