Happy, Not Harrowing

Ten Tips for finally Making the Holidays Happy

The catalogs and television commercials are full of smiling families greeting each other with holiday joy- gleeful reunions full of peace and goodwill. What they don’t show is the screaming match that took place in the kitchen just before the guests arrived or the eye rolling during dinner when dad launches into his favorite diatribe. They don’t have any pictures of your drunken uncle passed out on the couch or your backbiting sister-in-law picking fights. If your family is more “Dealing with Difficult People” than “It’s a Wonderful Life” read on. Here are ten tips for keeping your own sanity this holiday season, even if you’re surrounded by nuts.

  1. THEY WON’T CHANGE BUT YOU CAN: Know that your crazy family will probably be the same as they always are and be prepared. Just because your jerk big brother wants to push your buttons doesn’t mean you have to indulge him. When obnoxious behavior fails to provoke, it’s so much less satisfying for the instigator.
  2. SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW: Introduce a new tradition or revive an old one. Nothing too elaborate but if you can keep the family busy with something else their fascination with conflict might just fade into the background for a few minutes. This year on Thanksgiving my youngest sister brought materials to make simple gingerbread houses, graham crackers, canned frosting, and LOTS of candy. The big kids helped the little kids and the experience made for happy memories of the day for adults and kids alike.

  3. CREATE A DIVERSION: Become adept at changing the subject or excusing yourself if old arguments heat up. Does your dad like trains? Your mom like antiques? Pick up a few coffee table books at the bookstore or library and bring ‘em along for conversation starters. Have a few stories of your own ready to entertain or simply distract. Has one of the kids learned a new song they can sing for everyone? Is your grandfather good at telling stories from his youth? In my family all we have to say is, “Grandpa, tell us the story of the day you met Grandma,” and he’ll entertain the crowd for half an hour or more.
  4. PLAN YOUR ESCAPE: Especially if you’re visit involves days not just hours. In case things get too stressful have a little escape planned. Bring a book or a favorite movie, visit an old haunt or make plans to see old friends while you’re home.
  5. EAT, DRINK, AND BE WELL RESTED: Get as much sleep as you can the night before you face the family. It’ll put you in a better frame of mind to handle the crowd. Watch your alcohol intake the day of, one too many can make you a little more honest (in a bad way) than you might otherwise choose to be. Do you really want your sister to know how much you hate her new boyfriend or your mom to realize that you’ve never liked her cooking?
  6. BE MERRY TOO: Having a sense of humor about the characters in your family drama can help smooth out the rough spots.
  7. DO IT FOR THE KIDS: or your kid brother, sometimes it helps to think of it as a sacrifice for someone else, “it’s good for the kids to see their grandparents” or “I’m not going to leave my sibling at the mercy of Aunt Frida.” More than once I’ve made an “I’ll go if you go” pact with a sibling on a holiday I just didn’t feel up to for my own sake.
  8. WHEN THEY LEAST EXPECT IT: Just because someone expects something of you doesn’t mean you’re obligated to do it. If it drives you nuts that the women do all the cooking AND all the cleaning while the guys lie around and watch the game. Clean until you feel like stopping then go watch the game. Don’t just surrender to the role because it’s always been that way.
  9. PLAY WITH THE KIDS BUT BE AN ADULT: If there are little kids around it’s a great place to avoid big people conflicts. Personally its one of my favorite places to hide out, you make points with the moms for keeping the kids out of everyone’s hair and that’s often where the best fun is. If the adults find you there anyway just remember–you’re a grown up in every other arena of your life, you can be one here too! If other members of your family insist on revisiting childhood conflicts imagine how you would deal with the problem if you were among co-workers or friends. You have a whole new set of experiences to draw from as an adult. You don’t have to remain in childhood roles.
  10. COMMIT YOURSELF (not to an institution): Decide that you want to do this. There are lots of reasons for getting together with your family or not totally giving up on them. Make a mental list–or if you’re REALLY having a hard time convincing yourself write it down–of the things you like about your family; let it convince you that it makes the annoyances worth it. If you go in committed to the idea of a “successful” holiday, you might just emerge, well, happy.