You might think that the Archangel Gabriel was right and that Christmas is a time of great joy for all, particularly for those with family sharing the festive season. But, increasingly it seems, the holiday season is one of the most stressful times of the entire year.  We all know about the pressure to cook the perfect meal, to create the most welcoming home, to choose the right presents and so on. But for many people it is the yearly encounter with the family that truly puts the stress into the celebration. In fact, just this week, an Asthma UK survey revealed that spending time with relatives is one of the biggest causes of increased asthma symptoms during the Christmas period. Relatives, it seems, equal stress …

And many of you will already know that. But is the problem that we simply have an over-romanticised impression of what Christmas should be? Television, in particular, often gives us the impression that everyone else's Christmas is utterly perfect. With family reunited and revelling in the time they can spend together. Perfect family Christmases do exist, of course. As do families that live in close proximity or who gladly travel hundreds of miles just to spend time together. But for many people the family Christmas experience is more akin to an episode of EastEnders than a Disney film. For some people the idea of being crammed into a house with people who share little common ground save having the same surname, is enough to send blood pressure soaring.

And is it surprising? There are countless potential areas of disagreement before even the least dysfunctional families unite. It can all become very political. Even something as apparently simple as who 'has' Christmas this year can turn into a major argument. Either it's your turn, when you'd rather it not be, or you'd actually like to host the feast only to find that Auntie Claire has her heart set on doing it again (for the fourth year in a row). You don't want to complain for fear of offending someone, so you're stuck with the arrangements. And Heaven forfend you should want to opt out of the mass family gathering and do something different this year! Because, let's face it, the idea of 'just us' or spending 'a quiet Christmas' just doesn't cut it when everyone else seems up for the idea. If you opt out you know you run the risk of being the one who spoiled the family Christmas. Then there's the in-laws balancing act. And if you've got divorces or new partners to contend with? Well you're surely bound to upset someone! But even when you've sorted out the where and who, there's the little detail of when. As in which set of parents/grandparents/in-laws/aunties/siblings do we go to/have over on which day? It's a wonder we don't all opt out of Christmas entirely!

But for many it's simply the idea of spending an entire day with the family that is the problem. If you're a member of one of those perfect families, you'll have bear with me here and just believe me when I say not every family gets on as well as yours. Many families spend the rest of the year trying to avoid each others' company, only to find, on that special day, that they are trapped for 24 hours in a house too small for the people stuffed into it. Is it any wonder they dread it? Or that tempers flair. You might think that even the most dysfunctional family could manage for one day without arguing. But you forget - if you spend 364 days avoiding each other, it stands to reason that's the reason you haven't argued since last Boxing Day.

Every family has its own problems, but one of the most common is the bossy boots. Someone, not necessarily that year's host or hostess, who can't resist trying to organise everyone and everything. From the moment you open your presents to the Trivial Pursuit rules, they know the very best time and way to do everything. Counter that with the misery guts - there under sufferance and determined to show it. Mix in the relative whose compliments are disturbingly close to insults ('so nice to see you wearing a colour that suits you') and the one who insists that even six-year-olds don't get any adult help during round after round of Scrabble. Then add in a little more alcohol than you usually drink and it's not long before all those opinions, egos and moods begin to rub up against one another and mouths, that less lubricated by snowballs and sherry might otherwise remain closed, begin form harsh words. If there are no young children - whose presence often acts as a buffer between their older relatives - then things can soon turn nasty.

Of course it doesn't have to be this way. The obvious way to avoid the annual palaver is simply to do your own thing. But if there are relatives you would like to spend time with, opting out is not ideal. You could try only appearing after lunch - by which point the 'liveliest' conversation may well be over and most of us are lulled into a post-prandial stupor. But, assuming that you do feel the need to do the entire day, there are a few things you can do to make the time go pleasantly.

Firstly, remember, that year's host and hostess are the only ones who should be organising peole or setting schedules. They've done the hard work, most likely they've paid for everything, so it's their timetable! Other than that, you should not feel obliged to go along with anyone else.

Don't feel the need to be competitive. Other family members may want to do this, but you really don't have to. Little Emily, aged 3, may well have been voted the kindergarten's pupil counsellor and 9-year-old Ariadne's piano recital might have gone splendidly, but you don't have to retaliate. As someone with no children I suppose I shouldn't say this, but parents who use their kids as a means of showing off probably shouldn't be encouraged anyway. And you know that nothing you say will make any difference. And you also know that, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter - you know your kids are cleverer anyway!

Steer the dinner table conversation away from controversial topics. Morality, politics and your views on censorship are almost guaranteed to trigger potentially disruptive disagreements. This is particularly important if you have readers of the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian eating around the same table.  Christmas Day is not the occasion to debate the future of the NHS or the legalisation of cannabis.

We all have relatives with irritating traits (we probably have a few of our own), but it is possible to use those foibles to our advantage. Got a relative a little on the stingy side? You could let them set a gift cap. This has the advantage of saving everyone money and removes yet another area of potential competition between sides of the family. Or maybe you have wine snob in the clan? Why not suggest they are responsible for providing the wine for the dinner table? Of course, make sure they're going to be paying, otherwise you might find yourself with a hefty bill, but you may well find that,  the prospect of providing alcohol for 20 adults has a remarkable effect on their snobbery. Particularly if they also happen to be the stingy one …  In these financially difficult times it's probably not unreasonable to ask that each guest makes a contribution to the feast. Delegating in this way not only involves everyone, it also shares out some of the pressure.

Perhaps the worst thing about family Christmases is gift giving.  And providing you can all agree on when to do the present opening (and you'd be surprised how very ritualistic some people can be), and assuming you don't have a relative who always gives terrible presents (in which case cue fake smile), then it should all go swimmingly.

Don't rise to the bait. It's sad, but true, that some people take great delight in causing ructions no matter what the season. Others don't mean to but somehow manage to do it anyway.  Particularly galling can be personal criticism. Say, how your side of the family does something and how much better it could be if only …. Do not, repeat, do not, spend Christmas Day arguing over it. There are another 364 days when you can do this. If it gets to the point that you just can't hold back anymore, go for a walk. Even better, suggest the whole family goes for a walk. Nothing like a bit of fresh December air to blow away the cobwebs and the tensions.

Above all remember it's Christmas. And the truth is, you can never control Christmas entirely. Accept this. And accept that you can't control your family either or how they choose to act. You can control your reaction to it. Yes, you may find it a stretch, but at least you'll go into Boxing Day with the moral high ground and your dignity intact. And you get another 364 days without them.

And, if the worst comes to the worst, and you really can't bear to do it all again next year, you could always do what we do and celebrate with friends instead …

Merry Christmas!


Some family members are the perfect Christmas guests!

But it's not necessarily to seek refuge in Berlin to enjoy a peaceful Yuletide!

Spending Christmas abroad is always an idea …

Spending Christmas with people you love is the key!