Despite our recent excellent Thanksgiving in Los Angeles with dear friends, we laughed with recognition and recollection at the pain-o-meters. There were some holidays past that brought us to the edge of despair -- and our experiences were not uncommon.
What kinds of family interactions bring the anticipation or the reality of holiday pain?
There is the pain of hanging onto holiday traditions that no longer make sense: insisting that your home be celebration central when the family has grown to embrace and include others, when grown children have in-laws to consider, when young families yearn to start their own traditions.
There is the pain of finding yourself alone this holiday season, either after the deaths of family members or the pressure of new obligations in their lives, and you're reminded so painfully of holidays past, when all the seats around your table were filled by loved ones.
There is the pain of clustering in close proximity to family members you rarely see except for holidays, sometimes for good reason. These may be the family members who set your teeth on edge with sexist, racist remarks or stubborn clinging to old family roles no longer relevant to your daily lives. Or your family may have a volatile mix of Tea Partiers and dedicated Liberals, raising havoc at family gatherings.
There is the pain of crushing boredom as a holiday wears on, hour after hour, and you sigh over the same old arguments, the same stories, the same annoying children, the super boring family drunk, the card games that make you wish you had stayed home with the covers over your head and the cell phone turned off.
There is the pain of feeling that a holiday is never really yours. Do the holidays feel more like a frenzy of pleasing others instead of relaxing and enjoying this special time the way you'd like? This can be particularly true of younger families who still have parents and even grandparents living, who sprint from one family home to another to put in an appearance and please the folks.
How can you cut the pain you've experienced and dread living through again through holiday season 2013?
- Insist on a truce for the day. In the interest of family harmony, put relatives on notice that there will be no baiting, no grandstanding, no confrontations of a political, religious or lifestyle nature. And if it starts, there should be designated family members who step in and call a halt before tempers get out of control. On the other hand, some family disputes are simply part of holiday tradition and legend. I read about one family that gathers every year in the kitchen to hear the matriarch and patriarch have their annual argument about how the gravy should be made. There was a traditional argument in our family -- mostly in jest, only occasionally getting heated -- about Aunt Molly's cheerful holiday spirit and her brother's (my father's) complete lack of interest in Christmas or New Year's celebrating. It's essential to know the difference between recreational or traditional skirmishes and family fights that mar the holiday for everyone.
- Don't insist on 100% attendance. Traditions are great, but people need a break. Especially young couples, with so many parents and others to please, can feel pulled a number of ways during the holidays. Be gracious if a son or daughter needs to spend a holiday elsewhere this year. Plan to do something fun together before or after. Don't assume that everyone shares your vision of how the holiday should be. A close friend of mine dreams of spending Christmas in her pajamas, listening to Christmas music, reading a fat novel and eating pancakes, cookies and sandwiches made from a Christmas Eve pot roast. Instead, her husband has committed them, once again, to spend the holiday at a raucous party with acquaintances who drink to excess, make hours of small talk and play bridge -- which she hates -- relentlessly. We all have our times when we chose to please others for the holidays, but that needs to be balanced with pleasing ourselves -- or allowing dear ones to do so. Another friend actually encourages her daughter to have an intimate Christmas alone at home with her husband and two young children "because they need to build their own holiday traditions as well as celebrating with us on the 23rd -- which has become our special day together."
- Plan activities and a designated family member to keep the kids entertained. One really can't blame little ones for getting restive and bored at largely adult celebrations. Perhaps one or alternating family members can take charge of playing games with or otherwise entertaining the kids to cut down on the emotional chaos that can come from children feeling trapped and hopeless as the day drags on.
- Tame the wildlife. Many very good and loving people are nevertheless not especially enamored with animals. Relegate the cats to a bedroom and close the door. Separate the dog from your feasting guests. Struggling to keep one's holiday meal out of the jaws of a slathering beast who keeps popping beside guests at the table or trying not to see the cat's tail dipping into the gravy boat does not make for much holiday cheer for many otherwise amiable people.
- Start new traditions. This could mean getting together with relatives and agreeing on stress-reducing new holiday traditions: like drawing names for gift-giving instead of budget-breaking gift giving extravaganzas or agreeing on a day -- the actual holiday or not -- for a big family get together with smaller celebrations for individual families on other days. It could mean, too, that you make some adjustments within for celebrating in your own ways on days that you find yourself home alone. Or it could mean creating some preventive new traditions -- like establishing sober holiday celebrations if alcohol is a major family issue or a trigger for fierce family feuds.
- Get real -- and revise your holiday expectations. Some people harbor the wistful fantasy that this holiday season, this time will be the charm. This will be the year when everything goes right, when everyone shows up, gets along and peace and good will are in abundance. Don't set yourself up for disappointment once again. Expect less. Expect that there will be some uneasy moments, some conflict, some boredom. The certainty of some family interactions may be oddly reassuring if you put a positive spin on it. If you keep your expectations for the holiday realistic, you're less likely to be disappointed. You might find yourself happily surprised!
- Plan a special holiday treat for yourself. After a season of pleasing others -- which may be fun and rewarding or largely an exhausting marathon of pain and frustration -- plan a day or a way of treating yourself. Plan a day to do something special: a spa day, a hike with friends, a day relaxing, reading or listening to your favorite music, a trip to a museum or art gallery, a quiet dinner at home with friends, your dearest love or even happily alone, with your favorite menu.