For Mark*, going back home for Christmas means doing a lot of family activities. With his mum, dad and two sisters, he’ll watch The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Muppet Christmas Carol, while eating inordinate amounts of mince pies, mulled wine and cheese. In their house, the Doctor Who Christmas episode always trumps the Queen’s speech. It seems like a pleasant, archetypal festive gathering.
“You know, there's a lot of good times at Christmas,” Mark tells me over the phone.
But between the family's usual festivities, politics will be making an appearance at the Christmas dinner table this year. Mark's family lives in a Conservative constituency and both his parents hold right-leaning views. Mark, however, voted Labour. After the Tories' majority election win, the prospect of amiable family time around the TV looks less likely.
“Christmas is the only time where we're all together, so it's the time that's most fraught with tension anyway,” says Mark. “And if there's anything coming up, politically, like an election or say the Brexit vote, someone mentions it… then everyone starts arguing. My dad [has brought] me to tears by just slamming into me about it.”
Mark isn't alone. Christmas 2019 is set to be one of the most politically fraught of recent years, as we recover from the first December general election since 1923. With voting allegiances now aligned more than ever by age, family members of different generations are statistically likely to disagree with each other. As well as the new government to argue over, there’s also the tricky subject of Brexit – an issue that returned to the spotlight after Boris Johnson committed to bringing the withdrawal bill back before Christmas. Indeed, a (small) survey from this October found that 42 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds have had heated arguments with their family over the subject. Simply, having, a difficult Christmas time.
It was the Brexit referendum, when Britain narrowly voted to leave the EU, that aggravated the tensions in Mark’s family. “I feel that the conversations we’ve had around Brexit have made everyone less likely to trust they're going to have any sort of dialogue about [politics],” he says. “I think everyone's a bit like, ‘Well, my position's this and your position is that.' I messaged my dad about this election, and his immediate response was, ‘I respect your right to be incredibly wrong about Labour.’ Which is like, when that's our starting point…”
The political differences between Mark and his parents have resulted in them spending less time together. “I definitely feel like I used to be more willing to go home more often before arguments started getting intense like this,” he says. “Since Brexit, if I've got a weekend spare I'll stay in London rather than heading home. Trying to open myself up to trauma a bit less.”
Christmas hasn’t always been this politically divided. “I feel like a few years ago,” Mark says, “we were having slightly more respectful conversations.”
For some, the political intensity of this year’s election means avoiding family altogether over the Christmas break. “My family tease me for being a socialist,” says Phoebe. “I feel kind of disturbed by the scale of the [Conservative] majority and the sort of things that it symbolises [so] I'm not sure I can be around my [Brexit-voting] family because I’m not in a place where I can be teased.”
She continues: “I did some campaigning in [my area], and I hadn't come face-to-face before with the sway that The Sun and the Daily Mail have over people's opinions in those places. [But] I think that hearing that from people in your own family makes it even harder to argue with or enter into those debates.”
This year, Phoebe won’t be spending time with her Brexit-voting side of the family. “We normally see them on Boxing Day, and I’m probably not going to go because it will just be me, because my sister and mum can't go and I don't really want to be a lightning conductor for the mess of the general election.”
Eric*, from the Midlands, has also considered skipping family celebrations after the results of the general election. He voted Labour, while both of his parents voted Conservative. “I’ve thought about [not going home],” he tells me over the phone. “It’s occurred to me.”
If Eric does return, however, he doesn't feel that he can have an open conversation with his parents. “I guess, practically speaking, I'll probably try and spend a lot of time out the house,” he explains. “But for Christmas Day, I'm just gonna have to try and keep my mouth shut when it comes to those things.”
“The sad thing is that I'm not going to be myself around them,” he continues. “I'm certainly not going to be like chirpy and super-outgoing and engaged because I'm disappointed in them. I'm not someone that can hide those kinds of feelings.”
When tensions are high, and the Christmas booze is flowing, is there any way to avoid the inevitable drunken battle over who should run the country? Lesley Ludlow, a therapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, advises recognising when to take a step back from the conversation.
"Christmas is kind of that time when you feel forced to spend time [together]," she explains over the phone. "There's this pressure that it's all got to be lovely and jolly and and for a lot of families, it's not, you know? There's so many moving dynamics within the family."
"I think it's about being self-aware enough to recognise when a conversation is getting out of control," she continues. "I think it's being self-aware, but also trying to be an adult about it. If you get embroiled in a heated discussion – in terms of the bigger picture – is it worth really fighting over that?" Ludlow also recommends acceptance of the election result – however grudgingly. "What's happened has happened, you can't change that," says Ludlow. "So, while you might not be happy about it, at some point, you have to accept what has happened. This is about accepting, and blaming a family member isn't going to change anything." For some, trying to avoid the debate completely is one option. For others, it’s finding constructive ways to express the disagreement that isn’t screaming over the sprouts and then storming out for a walk in the freezing cold.
“With my dad, it's getting better, and we are pretty close,” Phoebe tells me in regards to her Jewish father, who voted Labour but expressed concerns over antisemitism. “I do find some way of speaking to him that's reasonable and at the right decibel.”
“And with my dad, over antisemitism and problems within Labour, he's understandably concerned about what that meant,” she tells me. “I'm hoping to send him a long email of stuff I’ve read.” Whatever tactics are employed over the festive period to keep the peace, political conversations are bound to become charged. Today, politics for many of us is so much more than just a theoretical argument – it’s personal. And while anyone who has a family home to visit over the Christmas break – especially one with central heating, second helpings of pigs-in-blankets and a Sky+ box – is undoubtedly in a privileged position, political arguments with family can still sting like no other. “It's one thing to think of it on abstract terms,” concludes Phoebe, “but it's another thing to confront it with members of your own family. We’re not stranger to arguments but I think this year will be pretty fucking divided.” *Some names have been changed.