The Good, the Bad, and the Family: 7 Tips for Holiday Togetherness
If there’s a time of year that puts everything you do and don’t love about your family on display, it’s the holidays. Yes, the people in your family can be the ones you love most on earth. But they can also be the ones who drive you the craziest. Even in the most functional, fabulous, fun-loving families, holiday dynamics can test the limits of patience and peace. So how do we keep the happy in our holidays?
Here are a few thoughts.
1. Bring those expectations down a notch. Or four.
The actual people in your actual family are the actual ones who will be showing up for the holiday dinner again this year. They have not transformed into the shimmery versions of sequin-clad models from the latest Target commercial.
Yes, you can hope for a special day—and do your best to create one—but if you’ve invited seven cousins under the age of eight, your five-course dinner probably won’t feel magically serene. And if Uncle Charlie has argued politics at every family gathering in recent memory, it’s probably not realistic (or helpful) to expect that he’s changed.
Heading into the holidays with sky-high expectations is a recipe for disappointment. Remember that each person will show up with his or her own personal quirks. And you will too. So do your best to embrace that reality—and create space for joy and togetherness in the midst of it.
2. Choose your sacrifices intentionally.
The larger the family, the less likely everyone will love everything about every moment. This is proven almost every single day in my little three-person family. It’s almost impossible to find a movie (or outing, or restaurant, or conversation) that both my son and daughter want to engage in. If we are spending time together as a family, it’s almost guaranteed that someone is making a sacrifice.
That’s the nature of family. We each give up some of our own personal freedom and preferences for the sake of being together. We stay up late making the cranberry sauce. We sleep on cots in grandma’s basement. We skip our neighbor’s famous holiday bash for the in-law’s potluck. All to be together.
The important thing is to choose those sacrifices willingly. If you find that some sacrifices are just too much, or you notice you’re becoming resentful, try thinking about why you are sacrificing. Does that sacrifice resonate with the kind of person you want to be around the people you love? Good. No? See #3.
3. Notice the “rules”—and break them if needed. (With love.)
Family dynamics can often include a sense of obligation. There can be assumptions made about how much time everyone will spend together, how that time will look, and how each person will contribute to the gathering. There can also be hurt feelings if those unspoken “rules” are challenged. There can be guilt.
But if certain parts of a family gathering become stressful to you, pay attention to that, and consider alternatives that can support your needs. Genuine family love leaves space for each person to have individual needs and preferences.
Too tired to stay for the traditional midnight viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life? Kindly bid adieu during the opening credits. No time to make your famous homemade dinner rolls this year? Pick some up from the bakery. Can’t take the aforementioned political rants of Uncle Charlie? Start your own side conversation, excuse yourself from the room, or ask him about his upcoming trip to Kathmandu to change the subject.
4. Get your rest. And your naps.
Family takes energy. Hosting takes energy. Traveling takes energy. Wrapping 46 tiny stocking gifts takes energy. Heck, feasting and festivities take energy. (Especially if you’re an introvert, hello.)
If you’ve run yourself so ragged trying to create a “perfect” family celebration that you’ve become a snappy, crabby zombie-martyr, you might have missed the whole point. So do your best to show up rested. Let go of what you need to. And sneak a nap in a cozy corner as needed.
5. Be kind. Especially to yourself.
You might be wishing your family could look a little more like those shiny Target commercials. You might be fed up with your brother-in-law’s preachy-ness, or your aunt’s over-the-topness, or your cousin’s tardiness.
And then you might feel bad that you feel so frustrated by people you love, and you might start beating yourself up for your own apparent judgey-ness. Which might then lead to you feeling horrible about your own lack of patience or cooking skills or gift-choosing prowess or any number of other real or perceived weaknesses.
Take a breath. Let it out. And remember that all the people in this equation are pretty messy and also pretty great, including you. Of course you feel frustrated by the frustrating things in your family. Anyone would. But, since you can’t fix it all, and you’re not responsible for it all, perhaps the next best thing is to be kind. Be as gracious and forgiving as possible. Leave some space for people to be imperfect but lovable.
Including yourself. Maybe, especially yourself.
6. Find the good.
Yes, it’s cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason. Focusing on the positive really can make things a little bit brighter. Some people seem to be better at this than others. Maybe their family gatherings have more beautiful moments than everyone else’s. Maybe it comes naturally to them. Or, more likely, maybe they’ve trained themselves to truly see and appreciate the little things—the things they’ll miss someday. Like the candlelight flickering in Grandma’s eyes. Or the savory aroma of Mom’s green bean casserole. Or the delirious excitement of the littles.
It might take some work to see past the warts and find the glimmers, but noticing them—and being grateful for them—can be incredibly powerful.
7. Bring the cheer.
A little humor goes a long way—so if you can’t avoid the crazy, maybe try giggling at it. While you’re volunteering to bring the sweet potatoes or the sugar cookies, decide that you’ll also bring the joy. Be playful. Maybe play Apples to Apples. Or Family Feud. Or Twister.
Or play the movie Elf. Who can’t smile at that?
I’m obsessed with the movie Christmas Vacation. I watch it every year to kick off the holiday season. It’s got everything I love about the holidays—twinkle lights, tree hunting, gift shopping, snow sledding… and family.
But it pushes all those lovely, nostalgic ideals right over the edge into crazy town. Which is pretty much what the holidays can do, right?
Happy family holidays to you and yours, friends!
Julie Rybarczyk is a freelance writer, fair-weather blogger, and well-intentioned mom who has almost never remembered to send lunch money to school. She’s perpetually the chilliest person living in Minneapolis—so most of the year you’ll find her under layers of wool, behind steaming cups of tea. Or at shortsandlongs.net.