For some, the holidays are a whirlwind of tree decorating, turkey carving, watching It's a Wonderful Life whilst sipping eggnog by the fire and cuddling our loved ones. This is a time for bonding, tearful toasts and Sears family portraits. For the rest of us, the holidays are a harbinger of doom. We cradle our maxed-out credit cards in fear, book flights at the last possible minute, stock up on meds, and pray no one will notice the ten pounds gained or the husband lost. We're delayed at the airport to visit the people we've spent the great portion of our year avoiding, and when we arrive at our final destination, we inevitably overeat, binge drink, dole out presents we can't afford, sputter obscenities, sob, and plot our early escape.
Maybe this isn't your holiday. Maybe you don't find yourself flinging a wing at your father. Good for you! Crack another chestnut over the fire! Ho! Ho! Ho!
For me, the holidays bring back fond memories of department stores and the clawing stampede desperate to ransack them, burnt turkeys and nervous breakdowns in locked bathrooms. Once, I was caught in a Beanie Baby mosh-pit. Another year I almost choked on a turkey bone. And, when I was twenty-six, I endured the right of passage of recently coupled women: holiday dinner with the boyfriend's relatives. As I kicked off my snow boots, his mother lamented that I wasn't Jewish and his father had already nicknamed me fellatio. His sister (and host) was Beelzebub in LL Bean; she took up psychological warfare like sacrament. On the flight to Boston, my boyfriend confided how his sister's extensive home renovation, which required contractors to drill, drywall and knock down walls at all hours of the night, terrorized the neighbors. Plywood hailed out of windows, contractors parked where they pleased, and when one of the electricians walked in on his wife and her boss in a compromising position, he let the whole neighborhood know about it. For three days straight. No one dare complain because Beelzebub was blackmailing and/or threatening everyone in a thirty-mile radius. She knew secrets, had videotape. When my boyfriend told me this, I said: this is your family? He took a long swig from his flask and said: Wait until you meet my mother. When we landed in Boston, the airport officially shut down due to the pending storm. Our escape plans? Foiled.
Cut to his sister's living room and his mother wailing that I looked ethnic. I made a beeline for the booze. Over Thanksgiving dinner, I learned that my boyfriend was the fat failure whom everyone loved to pick on. It came from all directions, from the young and old: When are you getting a job? You gained more weight! Is that possible? Can't you find a nice Jewish girl instead of these alcoholic shiksas? What's wrong with you?
Seriously, they pantomimed. Your mother wants to know what's wrong with you.
Later that night the basement caught fire. We would later learn that it was due to faulty wiring (the lovelorn electrician!). We flew out of the house half-naked and stood barefoot in the snow, waiting for the fire department. My boyfriend and I hit the flask pretty hard while his family played the blame game. As the flames flickered, I could spy Beelzebub's neighbors peering out their windows. I thought I caught a waft of charred marshmallows, heard a lyric of "Burn, Baby Burn."
Five years later: my boyfriend married a WASP and I no longer drink. As someone who has survived her fair share of holiday drama, I feel compelled to share my holiday survival guide.
1. Be Realistic: You're not going to change your family in the course of the weekend. Consider this a confined amount of time to spend with the people you conceivably love. Give peace a chance and set aside your differences for the holidays. Breathe, hop on the basement treadmill, and try to remember the good in people. Take meditative bathroom breaks. Remember, you have the rest of the year to be cruel to one another.
2. Don't be Brave: If your definition of sanity requires a daily cocktail of medications, the holiday is not the time to re-evaluate your required dosage or whether you should be on meds in the first place. Deal with these dilemmas after the holidays, in the comfort of your home, where you are able to scream into pillows. While we're talking legally prescribed pharmaceuticals, a note of caution: don't leave your meds at home. You may feel a false sense of empowerment. Ignore these momentary flights of fancy because when faced with your relatives who start in with the conversation landmines - Why are you still single? When are you giving me a grandchild? When are you getting a real job? - you'll regret the momentarily lapse of reason.
Note: Although I recommend making use of your legally prescribed meds, I don't recommend binge drinking or illegally prescribed meds. Inebriation evokes diarrhea of the mouth and the holidays are not the time to let everyone know exactly what you really think and have been thinking since birth.
3. Deflect, Deflect, Deflect: When faced with the questions no one wants to answer, do what publicists have been telling celebrities for years: deflect with charm. Be funny, change the subject, answer with a question or spend an hour not answering the question thus wearing your relatives down.
4. Bring Reinforcements: Families tend to be on their best behavior in the presence of an outsider. Invite a friend to accompany you for dinner. You'll have an ally and a proverbial shoulder to cry on should the relatives get drunk and the insult parade ensues.
5. Don't Go: This is a controversial stance; however, if the idea of spending time with your family is too painful to imagine, stay home. Inevitably, some of your friends will be in town (or dodging their family), so why not plan a potluck or an impromptu take-out feast replete with trashy DVDs? Cultivate the healthier relationships in your life and spare yourself the familial anxiety.
For more tips on preparing for the holiday season, click here for more from Huffington Post's Living!
Follow Felicia C. Sullivan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/felsull