Julie’s family is scattered all over the Midwest. We gather every Christmas, well except for last year. Our arrangement is simple, we go to Minnesota for Christmas Day one year, and on following year we drive there on the week after Christmas. This pattern has worked out well for us, as it has allowed us to celebrate Christmas Day in Naperville every other year giving us memories and traditions for both an extended family Christmas as well as a more Kuna-centered holiday.
We are Christians, and for us, Christmas symbolizes the birth of Christ and the inception of Christianity. However, there are many non-Christians who celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday. For them, December 25th holds importance for other reasons. I’m not about to weigh in on the level of that importance or to compare it to the religious importance of Christmas for Christians. Today I’ll write about the aspect of family, and holiday expectations.
I am fortunate that both my extended family and Julie’s are reasonably mature. It is unlikely that we will experience any of the outbursts or breakdowns that some families have during the holiday season. If I had to come up with generic descriptors of our extended family members terms like nice, kind, and conflict avoidant would come to mind. That is not to say that individuals don’t have quirks, we are humans after all.
Although we try to return to Minnesota several times a year to see Julie’s family we only gather in total twice a year. Specifically, Thanksgiving (in Naperville) and Christmas (in Minnesota). Those events span multiple days and are imbibed with a variety of traditions ranging from watching football and The Christmas Story on Thanksgiving Day to playing a variety of games on Christmas. Each host family has customized their particular event with traditions whose repetition gives the get-togethers a sense of familiarity and comfort.
Naturally, the pandemic curtailed all large gatherings last year, and we had to forego our traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas socializing. Julie, the kids, and I worked hard to make those days memorable, but they were different. Also, my Minnesota sister-in-law and brother-in-law want to spend more time with their far-flung adult children. In addition, it has become difficult for Julie’s parents to travel as they are now in their 90s. These facts have ended our large Naperville Thanksgiving gathering, which leaves Christmas as the only holiday that draws all of her entire family together.
It was with both excitement and trepidation that I approached Christmas this year. Weather is always a concern when driving 400 miles northwest through Wisconsin in December. Bad weather during past travels has caused us to eat Christmas Eve dinner at a truck stop, and we have spent more than one night at a roadside motel due to ice storms.
We have had unseasonable warm weather, and so I felt confident that our drive to Minnesota would be uneventful. That is until my brother-in-law, Mike sent me a news article that 50 miles of Interstate 94 were shut down due to an ice storm pile-up on the day before Christmas Eve. Thankfully, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation was able to clear the road the morning of our departure.
We arrived on Christmas Eve in time for a traditional Swedish dinner, which always includes a variety of desserts. After a lot of socializing it was time to retreat back to our hotel. Christmas Day brought gift opening, games, movie watching, and conversation. Our gathering allowed us to catch up on the happenings of various family members. This year my brother-in-law and sister-in-law announced that they will be retiring soon, and my nephew said that he would return to the states after a 4-year work stint in England.
I have always been proud of our younger generation, and it is delightful to see that they are now becoming quality adults. If you have read my past posts you know that I think my kids are awesome. The same can be said of my nephew and nieces. We now have an additional bonus as two of my nieces are married and their spouses are equally considerate. It was delightful that both of them made an effort to connect with Julie and me.
Like many major events, our two-day Christmas celebration was quickly over, and yesterday we made the 6 hours drive back to Naperville with new memories to add to our collection of Minnesota recollections.
I feel fortunate to have not had to experience drama holidays. However, I know that for some families Christmas get-togethers are a time of stress, crisis, and trauma. Yet, many of those same individuals hold on to the idea that Christmas should be like a Norman Rockwell illustration. This is while they approach the holiday with dread as they anticipate gift debt, or fights, or drunken behavior. Very high expectations combined with traumatic outcomes can result in significant holiday anxiety and depression. It is for those individuals that I make the following suggestions.
Black Friday is named Black Friday as this is the date when many retailers’ books go from red to black. Because of this, there is a tremendous push for consumers to buy. A variety of tactics are used ranging from changing social norms to guilt creation to get holiday shoppers to spend well beyond their means in an effort to have the perfect Christmas. In addition, advertisers manipulate consumers to believe that Christmas is all about getting and giving gifts. My best advice to all is to reduce holiday gift-giving. It is nice to get a present or two, but excessive presents can turn a special memento into something meaningless. In addition, who wants to spend months post-Christmas paying off gift debt? You don’t have to be a pawn to consumerism. Tell others of your change in plans before Christmas so there are no surprises, limit what you spend to a set amount per person, and find items that fit that amount. Treat gift-giving like any other expense, budget it.
When I was actively working as a psychiatrist it was common for me to treat patients who would report Christmas disasters. In some instances, adult children would try to please their over-critical parents. In other cases, relatives would get into heated arguments or even fistfights over the most ridiculous things. In still others, spoiled children would sulk, isolate, or have tantrums. My patients would put forth efforts to have the perfect Christmas only to have the day crash and burn year after year. To those folks, I would suggest that they change their game plan. In some toxic cases, this meant a need to establish a completely different tradition. In fact, I have suggested that some families go on vacation at Christmas time to avoid a family get-together.
In other cases, corrections can be made. If Uncle Billy always gets drunk and abusive consider having an alcohol-free holiday. If mom or dad is supercritical, consider alternatives to a traditional full Christmas Day. Perhaps, an early brunch can get them in-and-out of the house so you can then spend the rest of the day in peace. What I’m suggesting is that you think outside of the box. If this was some other event that didn’t involve Christmas would you modify it or eliminate it? If that is the case then apply those changes to Christmas. Of course, there will be ruffled feathers, but in the end, you will turn a miserable event into a more pleasant one.
Christmas can be a time for family members to act out and exert their negative power on other family members. Do you have a child who always wants to get into a fight on Christmas or a relative who refuses to come if some other relative is invited? Those are sad situations. However, they should be sad for the acting-out individuals, not everyone else. Celebrate with those who want to celebrate. Let the troublemakers stew in their own torment, but don’t let that pain bleed onto your Christmas.
It is also important to set expectations for both yourself and those around you. I like Christmas celebrations, but I don’t feel that they are life-changing events. If the roast is burnt, or I get the wrong sized shirt… well there is always next year. The great thing about a repeating holiday is that it repeats. Also, I make it clear to those around me that the holiday can be stressful, and so we need to be cooperative and considerate towards each other. I know that this latter point may not be possible for some families, but I also know that some families expect their Christmas to be a disaster, and that expectation contributes to its eventual outcome.
Conversely, it can be very difficult if you are alone during the holidays; so much of the advertising that you see involves joyful families. These presentations can lead solo celebrants to a sense of failure, emptiness, and sadness. There are many options that can be employed to alter this trajectory. However, the bottom line centers on creating your own tradition. For some, this may mean cooking a special dinner and watching some holiday movies. For others, it could be volunteering to help with a meal for the homeless. For others, it could be establishing a Christmas tradition that includes friends in similar situations. That could be anything from a game night, to a pot-luck or pizza party, to a full-on celebration including a Christmas meal and caroling. Creating a custom tradition that fits your needs can turn a downer day into a pleasant one.
In all situations, it is important to adopt reasonable expectations. If you use advertisements and Christmas movies as your standards you will always be disappointed, as these are artificial constructs that are designed to manipulate either your pursestrings or your heartstrings (or likely both). Instead, accept the day as it comes and it is likely that you will find aspects worth remembering. Don’t be ruled by merchant manipulations, high personal expectations, or acting out relatives.