Now that Halloween is over, most of us are taking a collective deep breath because we know what’s coming: The Holidays. In a few short weeks, we will sit at Thanksgiving tables, and even as we clean up the dishes afterward, we’ll already be thinking ahead to Christmas feasts.
If all we had to deal with were meals and decorations, the stress connected to winter holidays would probably be reduced at least by half. But celebrations involve other people; holiday celebrations practically require the presence of community. And for most of us, holiday guests are not really chosen; they come with the whole package called family gatherings.
This community-over-the-holidays offers gifts that we can anticipate with joy: the laughter and conversations, the good food, jokes, religious services, family traditions, new babies or marriages.
But it’s the rare family that does not possess also that shadow side of together time. There’s the uncle who always drinks too much, the siblings who manage to pick fights at the worst times, the grandmother who is needy and bitter, the just-divorced cousin whose pain is evident in every expression or word. There are family members who always argue over politics or some event that happened years ago. There are the control freaks who can turn even a fun event into sheer stress, and there are also the unprepared who do everything at the last minute and never show up on time. Whatever part of life is hurting or in peril seems to become even more so within the high-pressure expectations of celebrations. This is especially true when family members see one another only at this time of year, some of them traveling far to do so. Everyone carries the unspoken and somewhat desperate hope that this will be a wonderful visit and that everything will go just as it should.
We cannot control much of what happens during holiday gatherings, because they involve people who make their own decisions about how to behave. But I do think we can come to these times somewhat prepared. Here are just a few ideas.
- Decide ahead of time what you will or will not talk about. If a certain cousin is known for dragging others into heated political debates, then plan how you will respond, how you will provide a moderate voice or simply stay out of the fray.
- Arrive with a mental short list of the questions you will ask specific people. Maybe you’ll seek out the introverted teenager and ask about her science project that won an award recently. Or you’ll sit next to great-aunt Beth and ask her about some point of family history. If gossip and complaints tend to pop up frequently with this group of people, come armed with positive conversation—good questions, interesting stories, and specific praise for others’ traits or accomplishments.
- Have a plan for a brief activity, such as a walk after the meal or a slideshow on your laptop or tablet so that others can see photos of a family event they could not attend.
- Make a point to notice the children and interact with them. They will remember the person who read them a story or played a game with them in a roomful of adults. Conversation with a child can lighten the whole room. And sometimes children get shooed away too quickly and too frequently when adults get together.
- Make a point to notice and attend to a person in the situation who seems uncomfortable or not feeling well or simply left out. A family gathering can be very lonely when a person is struggling with illness, anxiety, fatigue, or the general sense that she does not fit in here.
Add a couple ideas of your own.