How I learnt to love the chaos of Christmas

Last night I dreamed it was Christmas morning. Outside, the snow lay thick and soft. Inside, the fire burned in the grate. I stood in front of the Christmas tree, dressed in an elegant red dress, my hair styled, make-up perfect.

In the kitchen I could hear my mother and six brothers and sisters laughing and talking, as the smells of a roasting turkey gently wafted down the hall.

Then I woke up. The house was freezing. Our central heating broke down three days ago and we’re still waiting for the boiler repairman.

We haven’t got the tree yet – there’s been too much going on. I’m on the other side of the world from my Australian family. Outside, there’s no white snow, only grey light.

Great expectations. We all have them at Christmas. Images of festive perfection are drip-fed to us every day by glossy department store ads, purring voiceovers, jolly music and our own hopes and dreams. We know the real thing will never match up, but still every year we harbour secret wishes.

Maybe this is the year it will all come together. There’ll be no tiffs or tensions, no cooking mishaps. As the sarcastic saying goes, ‘in your dreams’.

This year, I’m turning my expectations upside down. I’m focusing not on what might go right, but on what might go wrong.

I’m not hoping for a white Christmas, but a chaotic one. A turkey that won’t cook in time? Hurrah, more hours to watch TV! Presents that aren’t well received? Oh well, off they go to the charity shop! Tensions between relatives? Better than movies any time!

Because the truth is, there’s more entertainment to be had – and better stories to be told – when things don’t go perfectly. And not just at Christmas time. Who wants to hear about people’s idyllic summer holidays, for example? No one. The stories we all like to share are the ones detailing disasters of missed flight connections, rude waiters, cockroach-infested apartments.

Let’s finish the year in that state of mind too. Deck the halls with tales of folly. Because none of us have perfect lives or perfect families. That’s truly what we all have in common, all year round.

I tested my theory this week by emailing my mum and six brothers and sisters in Australia, asking for favourite Christmas memories.

The tales flew back and forth. Not one of them mentioned the years when things went well. What we shared were the stories of things going wrong.

The time one brother did a deal with a farmer friend and brought home an enormous turkey that barely fit in the front door, let alone the oven. The time my youngest siblings stumbled upon Dad’s Santa suit hidden in the bottom of his wardrobe and believed the real Santa had been vaporised. The time the tree toppled under the weight of our homemade Christmas decorations, crashed into the china cabinet and broke every last dinner plate.

We all remembered the benefit of that incident – paper plates meant there was no washing up that Christmas. All these stories are now part of our family folklore. Yet those kinds of Christmas tales rarely feature in TV ads. Mishaps do sometimes happen in calamity-driven festive Hollywood films, but the endings are always still happy and blissful. Real life is different.

So, with apologies to Charles Dickens, this year my Christmas is going to be one of Low Expectations. Or perhaps I might raise it a notch to Gleeful Expectations, hoping a few things go wrong to provide us all with stories to tell in years to come. Like last year’s re-gifting mishap, when a relative of mine received a present from a neighbour of a tin of biscuits that she herself had given the neighbour – five years earlier.

Or the year I was in charge of the table decorations, and cajoled everyone into wearing cheery Christmassy headbands I’d found in a pound shop in town. Twenty minutes into the dinner, all of us were turning pale, complaining of splitting headaches, feeling faint. A gas leak, we wondered? No. The effect of child-size headbands in a vice grip on adult-sized heads.

Or the time a family friend in Cork had a narrow escape, when the traditionally lit candles in her window on Christmas Eve set fire to the net curtains.

Staying calm, she grabbed the first thing to hand to douse it. Unfortunately, it was a bottle of sherry. It was quite spectacular, she said. So was the burn mark on the ceiling.

Life doesn’t go smoothly the rest of the year, so why should we expect it be any different in December? But it’s still possible to not only survive, but also enjoy Christmas. All we need is the right attitude, a sense of perspective and – most especially – a sense of humour, at all festive times. Happy chaotic Christmas, everyone.

(First appeared in the Irish Independent)