Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Pain of the Holidays

Bob showed me a New Yorker cartoon series the other day that featured a numerical scale for measuring the pain of family encounters during the holidays.

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. 
New traditions, revised rules and special treats can ease holiday pain and make this holiday season well worth celebrating!


  1. Another fabulous post! Christmas can definitely be a time of JOY but it also can be a time of SADNESS…. Here are some of my thoughts today:
    -I remember much joy growing up with my mother preparing a huge dinner for the family.. At the time, I never realized how hard it must have been on her--since she did not have any time just for HER.
    -I remember, as a young bride, having demands put on us by my husband's family (which my family did not do). We were 'forced' to give gifts to every Tom, Dick and Harry in that family --and we barely had money for food ourselves (both in college back then).
    -I remember spending WAY too much money (going into debt) at Christmas --for our kids. (Money was a huge problem in my first marriage.) I started resenting Christmas due to all of the debt…
    -I remember being very lonely as a single parent whose kids were grown up and married. Seems as if my son's wives always spent their time with 'her' families… It was hard adjusting after being so involved raising kids and having them such a part of MY life.
    -I remember getting an invitation to one of my son's inlaws home for Christmas Dinner each year --and HATING to go there (with people I had nothing in common with)…
    -BUT---I changed my life!!!! I changed my priorities! I met George and got married. I now HAD a life. We started our own traditions.
    -I realized how much stress and pressure it was on me as a young bride ---so I have never demanded much from my busy sons and their families. In fact, we are going to visit them this year and will take them out to dinner on a day other than Christmas Day. That way, they don't have to travel to see us--since they are all so busy.
    -George and I PREFER to have a nice quiet Christmas together --when we can move at our pace, listen to the Messiah, eat a nice dinner --and just be thankful that we are together, happy and BLESSED in so many ways.

    Merry Christmas.

  2. Kathy.....what a WISE POST on managing all the little ups and downs of the holidays. We are spending the holidays pretty much by ourselves this year....and I figure we have earned it. lOL LOL LOL



  3. Ahhhh! I recognize all of this. I definitely would propose the last one move up to #1
    Happy Holidays, Kathy.

  4. These are all wonderful and well stated, Kathy. As the kids have grown (and also as part of a separated family) we long ago had to adjust to Christmas not on Christmas and now we're adding Molly to the family, Kevin has yet a third spot to go. You learn to punt. Try to make it fair. One of the good things that has come out of this is that we get two Christmasses (that would be pain for some!) -- one with the kids, one with our friends whose kids are far away. So far, so good!

  5. I really liked the part about starting new traditions. My sisters this year have passed the entertainment wand down to their children. The kids (all approaching middle age) now hold the annual parties. Gift giving is also confined to the children which I totally agree with. This has taken a huge burden off the grandparents. I had my Christmas early with the family and will miss all the stress. Ahhhh.

  6. It's taken years to find new ways of participating in the season. I used to think that less was less. Now, less is more. Fortunately!

  7. As always you are so wise.
    For several years our oldest son did the run there/ then Christmas Day run to our place, arrive late, eat our dinner even though they had eaten earlier blah, blah. Now we have a new tradition of having Christmas with then either before (last year) or after (this year) and it is wonderful.
    Merry Christmas to you...I look forward to more of your wisdom in 2014.

  8. Marathon of work at our house - we are the sandwich generation and have our grown children as well as our widowed or divorced parents come for dinner. My Christmas is on Boxing Day when I don't do a thing! Wise suggestions here, Kathy.

  9. We're still working on this here. Enough said. We have many pressures because of stepchildren who don't seem to accept change. I can't just blame them. Like I said, we're working on it. So far, the season has been quite merry and bright because I took charge of the boundaries. Enough said.

  10. How wise you are dear Kathy.......Unfortunately we have addicts and alcoholics in our family the holidays are always up in the air. As i have grown older I have ZERO expectations......I stay in the moment and love the one's I'm with. It has made everything so much easier.

    Happy holidays to you.


  11. Hope you and your family have a Merry Christmas Kathy!

  12. My advice is: emigrate for the day!

    Happy New Year, Kathy!