Going home for the holidays does not have to be agony

How to avoid the drama and tension that surfaces when families reunite for the holidays

family dinner at christmas, holidays

It’s that time again…the holidays loom large, and people everywhere are thinking that “this year it will be different.” The problem [and it’s always the problem] is that reality diverges from the picture you’re showing yourself. Despite endless evidence to the contrary, people naively expect Norman Rockwell gatherings…when those gathered together more closely resemble the Bunkers.

TV Guide front cover
The Bunkers Family
Norman’s Thanksgiving

In no particular order, here are a few ideas that just might lead to a more interesting and insightful Holiday season:

1. Examine your pictures

No, really. Go through old photos, either photo albums or digital. Take a look at photos of the people you plan on spending time with. Also have a look at “oldies”, featuring those who are no longer with you… whether dead or moved on to greener pastures. Let your eyes flow over faces, and pay attention to the stories that pop up. Likely, many of the stories will be “inflated”—stories designed to create warm, fuzzy feelings. Others will be “conflated”—stories designed to confirm your worst thoughts about the person featured.

The thing to get is how easily the stories pop up, and how, if you decide to, you can focus on one and really flesh it out. But notice how inflated or conflated it is; how, the more you focus in, the more guesses and judgements pop up.

It’s just what minds do.

Now, take a breath. Let go of the stories and judgements, and have another look. This time, pretend you’re looking at strangers… as if you’re looking at someone else’s family. Don’t try to do anything; just look. This is how we begin to notice our story-making, and how “judgey” we are; we notice our unreal expectations. For example, family dinners with my wife’s family is decidedly different from my memories of my family dinners. And, of course, since different people were involved. But judging one gathering as “good” and one as “bad” would be silly, as it’s based not on reality, but on inflated or conflated memories that only exist in my head. This season, notice what projecting judgements on people and gatherings get you: nothing good.

2. Try a little tenderness

Some years ago, I met briefly with the mother of a friend of ours. She really didn’t like her husband, and especially didn’t like him around the holidays. She had all kinds of stories about how he “ruined Christmas”. My favourite: he was, as we were talking [it was October] at home, putting up the Christmas lights which, she swore, “he always puts up wrong, just to spite me and ruin Christmas!” I said, “Why don’t you go home and help him by telling him what you want him to do?” Silence, with a glare. Then: “I’”l be damned if I’ll tell him. We’ve been married for decades, and he should just know what I want!”

Well, no. Not unless you want to keep your story going.

And many of us do have much invested in how hard-done-by we are. Evidence to the contrary is ignored or demeaned. Because… poor me!

Tenderness isn’t just for meat anymore. Give the drama and “poor me” a rest. Ask for what you want, without judgement or rancour. If person “A” won’t or can’t do what you ask for,  wait for it… ask someone else! Because you’re aiming for a drama-free zone this season.

3. Develop your own holiday traditions

If your family gatherings are warm and fun, by all means enjoy them, and engage fully. At the same time, see about setting up one tradition for your principal family [with your partner/spouse, and your kids, if any.] And if you don’t much like the ‘Home for the Holidays’ tradition, shorten it, eliminate it, book a trip…in short, change it.

In my family of origin, by the time I was a teen I was expected to help out with family dinners. In my wife’s family, not so much. My 30-something niece and nephew and their significant others mostly just sit there. But see? There it is. Everyone gathered, repeating the past, and me, wanting to grouse about it.

Another option, which will happen eventually anyway, is for the next generation to start planning their own events. You know, their own dinner parties, featuring them…

Stop looking backward and trying to recapture or repeat something. Instead, create ceremonies, activities and timetables that are meaningful for you.

Your task is to create a memorable life, for you. This requires actually doing something different.

4. Take it easy, baby

How about seeing the holidays as a time for reflection and renewal? A decade ago, there was a Zen Centre in Buffalo that my wife and I attended as often as we could. They had a Buddha’s Birthday meditation session in December. We went, and sat for some hours. Best gift I ever gave myself. Quiet time, reflective time. A chance to wind down, as opposed to the endless tearing about that the holidays seem to engender.

Not sure how the whole holiday thing turned into an endurance contest, but hey… you can call a halt by calling a halt. Take a break, take a holiday, take some time for yourself. If it doesn’t all get done, who cares?

5. Deepen, Deepen

This season is either a thing to be endured, with a fake happy face, or a time of reflection, self-knowing, intimacy and sharing—a deepening. You pick. You choose. All moments are bare of meaning. We add meaning. Or, we go brain dead and numb and run [literally and figuratively] ourselves ragged as we attempt to avoid the pain we create.

Instead, capture this season and make it your own. Provide meaning to everything you do, real meaning—meaning significant to you. Use this time to deepen your commitment to your spiritual path, and to find more groundedness. This opportunity exists in each moment, and it’s up to you to use it. In the end, your path is yours, and you make of it what you will. Strive for more depth, more understanding. Bring yourself back to bare presence. Invigorate and enliven yourself.

Celebrate the gift of living and being!

A version of this article was first published here.

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