The most wonderful thing about Christmas is being able to be with family. The hardest thing about Christmas is being with family. If you checked statement one, you can skip today’s blog post and go back to your eggnog. If you checked the second statement, keep reading.
Many of us carry an expectation of how Christmas should be… the kindly grandparents welcoming families home, in-laws who are as close as blood family, a dinner table crowded with aunts and uncles enjoying being together, rosy-checked children who are delighted with their gifts.
Your reality may be different.
Mom and your sister still aren’t speaking over that Wal-Mart disagreement. No one has ever liked your brother’s wife who returns the favor with repeated dramatic sighs and snide comments. Even though you have explained with being a vegetarian means, your father insists on putting turkey on your plate. Your uncle is drunk again, even though everyone pretends not to notice. During the dinner table discussion you are told that people who think like you either have ruined this country or are going to hell… or both. Because of divorces and remarriages, you will be expected to eat five Christmas dinners in two days… and less than hearty eating will be considered an affront. At least 30% of the Christmas toys are broken within two hours and the kids are so wired on sugar and Santa that they will not sleep until Tuesday.
So how to survive going over the river and through the woods?
1. Have realistic expectations. Some families do take advantage of the holiday get together to resolve differences and begin healing. But other families will simply intensify their dysfunction. If your family has always been more Rosanne than Norman Rockwell, don’t walk in expecting Rockwell.
2. Make a plan. Decide beforehand how you will respond to invasive questions, offensive comments or your usual family dramas. You cannot control what others do. You can control how you respond. If you decide not to opt in to the old family games, they cannot make you play. Statements like, “I guess we just disagree” are good to have in your back pocket. They are most effective when followed by a question that changes the subject: “So, tell me about your new car/Susie’s braces/ your team’s season…”
3. Take care of your own self. All of us have inside of ourselves all of the ages we have been. If your family was fractured or hurtful, you may have inside of you a little kid who keeps waiting for his or her parents to get it right. It may leave you feeling deeply disappointed or hurt when it doesn’t happen again this year. So, whatever the family experience, make sure that you carve out a little time to do something that’s meaningful for you. It may be putting up the tree that you want to have instead of the one out of Southern Living. It may be watching “a Christmas Story” three days after Christmas when you’re finally back home.
4. Step back. If all else fails, step back and become an observer. Pretend that you are watching the latest “Christmas Vacation” movie. It’s a lot less intense when you’re watching it from a little emotional distance.
5. Be responsible for your own celebration. Whatever your family experience, you can still choose to focus on joy and delight. Create the celebration that you want to have. Hopefully it can include your family. But if not, you can still celebrate.