'Tis the season of goodwill - and rampant materialism, drunkenness, indigestion, family breakdown, depression and suicide. As the jingling of sleigh bells gives way to the sound of domestic ding-dongs, Ruth Brown offers some seasonal survival tips
The tyranny of Christmas is upon us. Reminders of our seasonal obligations are everywhere. It's not just the high street shops, with their self-serving homilies ("Christmas is a time for giving") and ceaseless panpipe offerings of "O Little Town of Bethlehem". And it's more than the demands of the Nativity play.
Fake snow and tinsel, reminders of this long-awaited date on the retail calendar, have been with us for weeks already. Now it's time for that small but vocal band of well-intentioned celebrity columnists, society commentators and welfare agencies to issue the yearly litany of advice about the correct way to celebrate. We're offered recipes for perfect mince pies and ideas for homemade presents - and there are plenty of tellings-off for the merchants who parade expensive toys in front of those who can't afford them.
Brace yourselves - it's going to be a rough ride. Even if you do manage to escape the Queen's message ("Christmas is a time for families"), chances are that along with the "just-what-I've-always-wanted" gloves from Auntie Margaret and the "lovely" two-sizes-too-small jumper from Gran, your unwanted presents will include tension, family arguments, gastric upsets, hangovers and impending financial ruin.
In a 1998 street poll of 1,000 people conducted by the mental health charity Mind, Christmas was cited as one of the most common causes of stress (along with that year's World Cup). Ingrid Collins, consultant psychologist at the London Medical Centre, a Harley Street clinic, says much of the stress is caused by unreasonable expectations that everything must be perfect, and misplaced attempts to live up to the rosy-cheeked, happy-family image. "Christmas has to be traditional, everyone has to love their presents; it is an impossible goal," she says. "People measure themselves against this and find themselves falling short."
And if that's not enough to drive you crackers, the heaviest burden on us all is the spirit of enforced jollity and merry-making - the grim determination, against all the odds, to enjoy ourselves. Party fatigue soon sets in. The pressure of shopping, organising the treedecorationsrelatives, combined with overeating and drinking, makes the Christmas spirit melt away faster than a snowman in a sauna.
The answer is to be realistic and pace yourself, says Mark McPherson of Turning Point, the organisation for people with drug and alcohol problems. "People often go out for lunch, and before they know it it's 2am. Don't pretend to yourself, 'I'll have two glasses of wine and then go home', when you know that's not going to happen. Instead, plan ahead, admit to yourself that you're probably going to be there all night and drink soft drinks in between alcoholic ones. Maybe even try to drink halves rather than pints." If you don't manage this, there's always the all-important hangover cure - plenty of orange juice to put back the vitamin C that alcohol diminishes.
Christmas can bea time of nostalgia, as adults remember the days when it used to be fun. And we may be right. Professor Stephen Palmer, director of the Centre for Stress Management in London, says pressure and responsibilities have increased over the years. People now spend much more time than they used to at work, and often have too little time to prepare for Christmas. To avoid slipping into boring routines, he urges a less traditional approach to how and when we conduct our festivities. "Don't always do what you've done before," he says. "Don't feel obliged to do everything on Christmas Day. It's an artificial date - and, if you're Christian, the Bible is flexible. Why not see your family the weekend before or after Christmas? And don't just sit watching TV and getting drunk; plan to do something, such as going for a walk."
Professor Palmer also warns against leaving your shopping and preparations until the last minute. If you're caught up with Nativity plays and extra activities until the school term ends - December 22 for some this year - it's best not to flop on the couch on the first day of your holiday because there's a good chance you'll come down with the flu as a result of your immune system slacking off. "Try to get out and do the Christmas shopping the weekend before school breaks up. Keep up the pressure until you get everything done," he says.
A dose of realism can help in other ways. A spokeswoman for Mind says lowering our aspirations for Christmas is the first step towards avoiding disappointment."Things don't necessarily live up to our amazing expectations. Just think of it as a little bit of time off - a time to relax. Ease up on yourself and others."
If you happen to be going through a rough patch, take extra care. "For anyone going through a difficult time - such as work or relationship problems - the stress will be much worse at this time of year," says the Mind spokeswoman.
The number of calls to the Samaritans helpline routinely jumps by 10 per cent over Christmas and, surprisingly, shoots up another seven or eight percentage points once the holiday is over. "Adrenalin keeps people going - then suddenly it all gets too much," says a spokesperson for the Samaritans.
TeacherLine, the telephone helpline which launched three months before last Christmas, reported more calls than usual in the week between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve - more than half of them work-related, including two from suicidal teachers. This year, with the service's higher profile, counsellors are bracing themselves for another yuletide rush.
To top it all, Christmas comes at a dark, cold and damp time of year, which can make it all the more gloomy. If it's all getting on top of you, try this to cheer yourself up. Take a bottle of the finest champagne you can afford and put on your party frock (or a paper hat with a bit of tinsel will do). Draw a large figure 8 on your lawn (or living room floor), take your champagne and recite the following couplets in between hefty slugs, while hopping on one foot around the figure 8 and trying not to fall over:
"Diddly-diddly-dee, I am the spirit of the Christmas tree. Twinkly-twinkly-twee, the angel on top looks like me."