My dad used to joke that holidays are that time of the year when you find yourself thrown together with people you don't really know that well or have much in common with any more. You spend too much time jammed into too little of a space, and wind up making each other miserable all in the name of "togetherness!"
Dad wasn't a humbug and he was kidding... well sort of kidding. He just saw what could happen when, as he put it, we start "over-expecting" and romanticizing at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And let's be honest, if your family is at all like mine, at big family gatherings, there always tends to be one (or more) family member or family friend you would rather not see. A sister shows up who just happens to mention to another sister that it looks as if she's gaining weight, or a mother-in-law says something just slightly sarcastic about her son-in-law's choice of careers. The uncle who drinks more than he eats, inevitably starts flapping his big fat mouth, telling embarrassing stories about his brother's first marriage. And at some point, an overly-sensitive niece will break into tears because someone will ask her point-blank if she is EVER going to "catch" a husband. During the holidays, a lot more can get carved up than turkey!
I know that it's usually the women who have to deal with holiday stress. In most homes, while the men are sitting in the den watching football, their better halves are working their fingers to the bone preparing the holiday meal, carefully setting the table, deciding where everyone should sit -- only to see it all ruined when, as soon as everyone sits down, Grandpa starts extolling the virtues of the Republican Party, which leads the nephew in college to call all Republicans lunatics, which then sets off 30 more minutes of shouting and finger-pointing across the table.
So, if this isn't you and your clan then great! You can stop reading now and go enjoy. But if you are ensconced in a slightly or even seriously dysfunctional group called "family" then read on for what to do to avoid the seasonal mayhem and have happier holidays:
- Make your expectations realistic. What gets people upset is not what actually happens: it's having their expectations violated. If you want everything to be perfect, with dinner starting on time, and all the kids behaving, you're probably setting yourself up for disappointment. The thing to do is lower your expectations and give yourself permission to not have perfection. The house need not have every light hung perfectly in order for the holiday to be beautiful and special. Would your kids rather have your attention or every ornament on the tree properly placed? If you're striving for perfection, give yourself a break so you won't be frustrated year after year. Decide that "pretty much okay" is acceptable and take the pressure off of yourself.
- If you've got one of those combustible families, then give everyone a little speech at the beginning. Tell them that you want this year to be an event where everybody leaves the table and the house feeling good about him or herself. At the McGraw house, we have a family Thanksgiving tradition where, before we eat, everyone at the table must share one or two things that have happened in the last year that they are most thankful for. We make it clear that this day is important, in which we stop our usual routines and focus solely on celebrating the lives we've all been given -- at least, for this one day, to put aside any of our disappointments so that we can say, simply, "Thank you."
- Remember also that the holidays are not time for group therapy or problem solving. They are not annual events to solve one's problems. If your family conflicts are worth talking about in December, trust me, they will still be "hot" in February, so save them until then. Remember, instead, what the holidays are really about -- family togetherness, spiritual enlightenment and camaraderie with those who are an important part of your lives.
- Give to others. If you're feeling empty during the holidays, the best way to get is to give. Fill up your heart by helping those who are less fortunate. Give away that which you most need. You will be amazed at the outcome!
- Finally, if all else fails and your family is still getting on your nerves, take a step back and relax. Make a conscious decision now to keep smiling, no matter what happens. And if you have to deal with a real meltdown-like the old argument erupting over who gets the last plot that's left in the family cemetery -- just keep smiling and try to remember, "There's always next year."
You know, I'm always moved by those old stories I read of soldiers from both sides of the battlefield who, on Christmas Eve, put down their guns, paused for a moment, and either sang a carol, lit a candle or read some Scripture. Yes, of course, the battle resumed the next day. There was not permanent peace on earth. But the significance of that one little moment was not lost. It gave the soldiers a chance to believe in a better, different world. And in the end, isn't that what the holidays are all about?
May you find peace this holiday season.