My family is Irish and full of women, which means we’ve had our fair share of dysfunctional family holidays. Birthdays, Christmas’, even probably 4th of July’s have been inhibited by some kind of family drama that leads to the police being called, people vowing to “never speak to each other again”, the host kicking everyone out of the house (and everyone eating duck at the local Chinese restaurant like in A Christmas Story). Holidays always bring up so much anxiety. You see these holiday movies where everyone gets along, and you feel bad when your own family can’t get along. You know they are going to ask why you don’t have a boyfriend, and you cringe at having to provide that answer. Dirty laundry and hurt feelings always get brought up. You bring a gift for everyone, but want to avoid watching them open it in case you disappoint them. You feel guilty that you haven’t seen your family since last holiday season. Up until a couple years ago, holidays in our family were extremely caustic and unwelcomed. Since then, we have been working to curve some of those anxieties. Here’s how I stopped having crappy holidays:
Re-train yourself to NOT expect the worst: I used to dread my birthday, because it always brought up some unwanted repressed memories from my childhood. I watched all of my friends get their driver’s licenses at 16, and had to wait until 17 to get mine because my dad was living out of state. On my 18th birthday, I was stuck at a track meet all day. Twice, I’d been dumped the week of. As Pavlov discovered, we are condition-able; these string of bad birthdays trained me to believe EVERY birthday would be bad, and I would go into each year with these bad expectations. It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy: what I expect TO happen WILL happen. If I expect my birthday to be bad, it probably will be. So, when I turned 24, I had to re-train myself to NOT expect the worst. And guess what: nothing bad happened.
Invite everyone: For my family, a good majority of the tension occurs when people don’t feel involved or didn’t receive an invitation to something (this also seems to be the most stressful part of planning a wedding–picking who gets to come and who doesn’t). By rule of thumb, I always just invite everyone. That way, if people choose not to come, they can’t get upset, because that is their choice. Of course, if you know people don’t get along with each other, you should probably warn them, and potentially schedule drop in times. But, that’s their beef with each other; not yours. And, chances are, the un-invited person may not show up anyways, but inviting them will at least curve the wrath you might experience post-holiday.
Leave when people start bickering: We train people how to interact with us, what kind of behaviors we will put up with. So, when people start bickering, if you feed into the bickering, you are training them that you are supportive of it. But, if you don’t participate in it, then you are therefore training people that you do NOT bicker, and eventually, they won’t do it around you. It’s setting up boundaries. When my parents first got divorced, they would do the, “I can’t believe your mom did this”, and “What did you dad say about me?” I had to set up boundaries, to train them that I wasn’t going to participate in conversations about the other; whenever one of them dropped the other in conversation, I informed them I could not talk about that, and if the conversation derailed back to that subject, I would let them know I was hanging up the phone. The same thing happens with bickering; depending on the situation, it could be that leaving just means leaving the conversation, leaving the room, or it could also mean leaving the venue all together.
Structure activities: Bad things happens when people get bored. Our brains crave stimulation, so when we leave them idle, they start seeking occupation. I think the most caustic environment I’ve ever worked in is the restaurant industry. Inevitably what happens is, at the beginning of your shift, everyone stands around. They are bored, so they start making up stuff to do, and that often results in gossiping and creating drama that really isn’t there. But, if you can give people structured activities, things to do, then that occupies their brain space. My family has started bringing a craft, a movie, and a game to every holiday. That way, when things start going downhill, we can divert the tension into something productive.
Don’t feel guilty for splitting your time: Coming from a divorced family, part of the reason holidays were especially painful is that I knew one parent would always be lonely and left out. So, when one parent made me feel guilty about spending time with the other, I always reminded that parent THEY were the one who choose to get divorced, not me, and divorce has consequences; one of those consequences is that, as the children, we have to split our time. And, when I get older and married, I will be splitting my time even more, so we should be grateful for the time we have together now.
Serve others: Believe me, I’m thoroughly enjoying my single-ness right now (less presents to buy, less awkward company parties, less family gatherings to attend), but it does get a little lonely when are unwrapping presents, or taking pictures in front of the tree, or playing games, and you realize you are the ninth wheel–with no one to share those moments with. But rather than wallowing in my single-ness, serving people always makes me feel better. I’m really lucky that I can be footloose and fancy free, and I don’t have expectations to go anywhere or do anything at certain times. So, if I sense people might be needing some couple-time, maybe I sneak upstairs to call a relative that I know is alone today. Or, offer to run an errand buy everyone peppermint milkshakes from Chick-Fil-A or pick up the wrapping paper mess. The holidays really are about learning to live selflessly, and if I have a free moment, I might as well take advantage to serve others.
Lower your expectations: I recently conversed with a lady who worked in a jewelry store. She said Christmas Eve always made her so sad, because these men would come in, last minute, and buy any piece of jewelry for their significant other, without any meaning or thought. The present was an expectation that they were attempting to fill. But, the problem with expectations is that they always let us down. When we expect our stockings to be filled with Visa gift cards, or we expect our significant others to buy us a 5 day stay at the spa in Vail, or we expect our dad to buy us a new minivan for Christmas, and we don’t get those things, we are disappointed. So, lower your expectations. Don’t expect to get anything FROM anyone else. Don’t expect your holiday to be more fun that your bachelorette party. Don’t expect everyone to show up to your birthday party (but be pleasantly surprised and grateful) when they do. We expect people to fulfill all of these social customs, but there really are so many rules and so many nuances to those rules that we could never expect anyone to know them all (or to read our minds). Lowering your expectations makes your holiday better than you expected.
Live in reality: Thanksgiving, Christmas, 4th of July–those are all just days we set aside for celebrations (and days off work), but they really are just days that we, as humans, made up and stuck a tag to. Just like death, there is a reality to the holiday season. Every year, we get these messages that we need to drink pumpkin spice lattes every day. If we haven’t gone to The Nutcracker, zoo lights, made snowmen, been to at least three cookie exchanges, hosted an ugly sweater party, watched Elf, A Christmas Story, Santa Claus, Miracle on Elm Street, Pee-Wee’s Christmas Extravaganza, visited Santa in the mall, and rode our dogs like sled dogs, we aren’t “in the holiday spirit”. The thing is, holidays come around every year, and I think it’s a little presumptuous for us to think we can be rah-rah Christmas every single one of those years. Sometimes, life just happens. Sometimes, we get laid off right before, so gifts are a little tight. Sometimes, we move the day after Christmas so our house is already in boxes. Sometimes, our family is all out of town. Sometimes, we have to work. Sometimes, we are so busy leading up to Christmas, we haven’t even been to any of those events. There certainly is a magic to Christmas, but it doesn’t mean we have to be ready for the magic every single year; sometimes, life just happens.