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Page last updated at 12:48 GMT, Monday, 3 December 2007

It's Christmas (lack of) time

This man was only 25 when the Christmas season started

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News

It's that time of year again. How did the season of goodwill turn into a scheduling nightmare, where we see everyone except our own children?

There's a giant inflatable Father Christmas hanging from the front of a house around the corner from where I live.

Whether it's been used as target practice by the local Asbo kids or else just lost the will to float, the giant Santa has already started to deflate. His grinning head has folded on to his chest like an exhausted drinker at the office party.

After a few moments looking at the calendar for the next few weeks running up to Christmas - I know how he feels.

Christmas is meant to be a special time for families (yes, OK apart from the divorces and speed-dialling Samaritans). But it seems to be turning into calendar gridlock, a breaking point for overcrowded family life.

Until this week, Christmas seemed over the horizon. Now it's Tinsel City and the panic is on to get everything underway. But where are we going to find the time?

For starters, parents are already working long hours to feed a mortgage the size of Siberia and pay off credit card debts from last Christmas.

Motorway miles

They're already taking part in Wacky Races-style sprints across town every day, rushing from work to the childminder or school.

Christmas airports
Last December, 10.9m passengers squeezed through UK airports

Then, when the stressed-out parents arrive, their children's free time is immediately outsourced - back into the cars for after-school activities, music lessons or whatever. No one is allowed to pause for breath.

Then Christmas comes. A schedule strung tighter than Santa's vest has even more to pack in. Present shopping, cooking stuff, writing cards, Christmas performances, work parties, school shows...

Maybe you've recklessly pre-booked a special day-out treat, something like ice skating at a museum, except when the kids get there they only want the gift shop and start tantrumming over stuff they don't really want.

Then there are grandparents and the rest of the family to visit. To get the picture, draw eight random points on the motorway network and plan to visit them all in 48-hours, while listening to a single demented CD of Sing-Along Party Classics for the Under-Fives.

By the way, Amnesty International is opening a whole new torture category dedicated to children's song tapes.

Then there are friends you have to visit who have moved to a location so obscure that Google Maps shrugs its shoulders and tells you not to bother.

Big picture

I know it sounds like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

But there's a serious point here. Christmas shows the cracks in our overloaded, time-starved family lives. No wonder we argue at Christmas, it's the only time we're close enough.

It's a good feeling to be out buying gifts for loved ones

But what does it say about how we run our lives?

Next week, the government is going to publish its big-picture Children's Plan. And in preparation for this, it has already issued a profile of young people's lives in modern Britain.

This revealed one of the strangest characteristics of how we live. We love our children so much that we'd do anything except spend time with them.

They start school at an earlier age than in most other countries and have shorter holidays. And when they're out of school, they spend more time away from their parents.

Another really poignant survey, published by the BBC's Newsround on Monday, shows that most children want to spend more time with their parents - and that a sizeable number never have a family meal.

Even more bizarrely, a quarter don't count their own father as "immediate family". What?

Gloom league

Even when children are at home, they're not necessarily talking. Last week, an international league table for reading standards showed that England had slipped down the rankings - and blamed the time children spend on videogames.

Santa sleigh ride
Santas caught trying to escape are rounded up by the authorities

The most gloomy international survey of all, published earlier this year by Unicef, found that in terms of the quality of "young people's family and peer relationships", that Britain had the worst record in the industrialised world.

These youngsters also had a rock-bottom opinion of their peer group, with fewer children in Britain seeing other young people as "kind and helpful" than anywhere else.

The government refutes this picture of Britain's children being at the bottom of the happiness league - and its Children's Plan is likely to offer more support to help parents to engage positively with their offspring.

But the one item that the government isn't able to stick into the Christmas stocking is more time.

I'm craving a long afternoon of absolutely nothing. The kind of boredom that we can only dream about.

Or maybe I'm just suffering from that pre-Christmas anxiety that afflicts Santa's helpers - otherwise known as low elf-esteem.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Although this raised a smile it also raises a very serious point. I am a working mum (a daughter of two and one on the way) and whilst half of me is excited at the prospect of christmas, I hate the fact that I seem to have no time to prepare. The precious time that I get to be with my daughter and husband I am tired and not to mention sensitive! I hate the fact that I HAVE to work full-time to pay the mortgage - the guilt I feel for my daughter everyday can be overwhelming. I have already been issued charges from my bank for going overdrawn. I know I am not the only one in this position. How has it got to be this bad amongst families? I don't think this is a problem confined to the festive season, it's just perhaps we notice just how bad the problem is at this time. Merry Christmas everyone!
Caz, Market Harborough

At last, someone has noticed how overloaded family life is in this country. If the government could create a society in which we could afford to house and feed our families without both parents working flat-out, they would solve many of the problems they currently spend vast amounts of money on, whilst achieving nothing! Obesity - we don't have time to cook properly from scratch, or have time to eat properly. Exercise - again, lack of time is the biggest obstacle for the people I know. Problems with children and young people - again, lack of parental input due to time starvation is often to blame. Old people being isolated - family, friends and neighbours do not have sufficient time to spend with them. I could go on.... We need properly affordable housing and an acceptance that the best things in life are not always material goods, before we will see any improvement. Or was I born in the wrong era???
Julie, Poole

I thought it was Claustrophobia?
Kate, Oxford, UK

I absolutely agree, after months of non-stop school activities and sports, kids parties, visiting friends and rellies, as well as decorating 4 rooms at home, I have totally cleared my diary for the 2 weeks up to xmas. I'm going to stay at home chill out in front of the telly and spend some quality time with my son. Let's see if he remembers who I am!
Cath, Doncaster

Just got back from a day trip to Lapland with the Kids. What possessed us to do this I have no idea. It should come as no surprise that all kids want to do is spend time with their parents at Christmas, but all we seem to do is run around like headless chickens trying to lay on bigger and better Christmas 'experiences' for them. I cant wait until the 26th December when the diary is free and I can just lock the door, unplug the phone and be with my family.
Rick, Worcester

You jokingly refer to 'speed dialling Samaritans' at Christmas, but as a Samaritan who will be working a shift on Christmas Day, I would like to point out that the phenomenon of 'time starvation' is also affecting charities around the country. People are so busy rushing around, cramming ever more into their day, that they don't have time to volunteer, and new volunteer numbers are falling. I would like to encourage people to volunteer for a charity - it is far more rewarding and worthwhile than most of the other things we do with our 'spare' time. Oh, and by the way, I am not retired or on benefits, I work a full time job!
K , UK

Oh for goodness sake, get over yourself. Instead of constantly focussing on how hard it is for people with families at christmas (and I'm not denying that there is extra stress and financial pressures), how about, focussing on those who don't have a family? Did it ever occur to you that some of us would love the craziness of having a huge extended family around at Christmas, even if it gave us a headache? Be grateful for what you have. And if you don't want the hassle, go on holiday...
Anna, London

What a true portrait of life in the 21st century. I have run myself so ragged already that I am off sick. Of course I didn't give myself permission to be sick until the weekend and will struggle back to work tomorrow. I have already tried to make an appointment with my husband to discuss the diary over the christmas holidays but he says he is too tired and has to have a lie down. Only good thing about being sick is that I have managed to write the christmas cards and make a long list of things I still have to do. Is 13 for dinner on Christmas Day an unlucky number? Oh and we have booked the ice skating as suggested. Anything else I ought to be doing?
Jane, Romsey UK

Too right. There is nothing more relaxing than doing absolutely nothing. The problem is that there are serious forces at work to prevent us from doing just that (shops, TV / video games / internet, raised expectations as to the quality of your home / garden / body / cooking, etc, etc). Even 'doing nothing' has been redefined as watching TV, going online, gaming, etc! We almost have to force ourselves to do nothing nowadays to truly relax and reconnect with those around us.
Tim H, London

Don't mean to boast, but not everyone suffers this Christmas nightmare. I tend to work in some shopping when the shops stay open late after work, pull a bit of overtime to pay for bits and pieces, and savour the time with the family I almost never see. Once again, being "Northern and Minimum Wage" serves me well!
Frankie, Outside of London (yes, there are people here too).

For my wife and I everyday is the same. 40-somethings, disabled and at home together. We wait for our carers to arrive, rush about, depart. At Xmas they don't arrive so often. They rush more. They depart quicker. They are of to do the family hassle things described above. We will get minimum care now until Jan 08. Then no doubt we will get to hear all about how lovely their Xmas was. We are not sour, just asking that people spare a moment's thought.
whydoeyebother , Lincoln

I couldn't agree more. I make more effort to spend time family and friends around Christmas than at any other time of the year, and yet with expectations so high I'm guaranteed only to disappoint. I head into Christmas fearing that everyone will be disappointed we didn't spend more time with them and come out the other side proved right! Young children, full time jobs and family spread around the country - it's a receipe for disappointment. Escaping the country with my husband and our children looks more and more appealing every year - some day I might actually pluck up the courage to do it!
Hayley McKenzie, Solihull

Last Christmas was mad, we had 8 people for dinner on Christmas day and 15 on Boxing day, we hardly got to spend any time with our two children, then age 2 and 8 months, this year is much quieter and Boxing Day we plan to spend in our pyjamas just eating drinking and relaxing together!
Claire, Billericay, Essex, UK

Thank you for this! I am one of those horrible mothers who gets awful, pitying looks from others in the playground because I actually enjoy spending time with our children, and limit the after school activities/holiday clubs that they attend. Even worse - I refuse to trawl them about the coutry visiting people, and we sit and discuss what we would like to do (whilst having dinner I might add) as a family over the holiday, and work in time for us just to have a break. Thank you for making me laugh!

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