Updated: Dec 6, 2019
Whether you celebrate Christmas or another holiday, our society has made it easier for families to spend time together by offering time off from work and school during the last part of December. Spending time with family during the holidays can be both a blessing and a curse. It can take a lot of planning, preparation, and emotional fortitude to spend time together with family. Yet year after year we keep doing it! Why? Actually, these rituals of connection at Christmastime are good for us. Putting in the effort to strengthen family ties is important because families tend to drift toward disconnection and distance without intentional rituals and traditions. When families strive for closeness, it creates a more supportive and connected environment for family members. And feeling connected and supported by family is better for your mental and emotional well-being in the long run.
In his book "The Intentional Family" William J. Doherty, PhD. discusses some ways of approaching Christmas celebrations so you can get the most out of your time together as a family. Here's my take on the best tips:
Expect the Traditional Difficulties. Often when families get together, old patterns surface again. Adults who have children of their own can revert to acting out their childhood role of scapegoat, baby (youngest), caretaker, loafer, or other various roles. Maybe there's someone in the family who likes to preach about politics or someone who teases too much. We can't expect people to behave merrily at all times just because it's Christmas. When we remind ourselves that there will be some challenging interactions, then we won't be caught off-guard when those things happen. And they will happen. Remember, you can only control your own reactions. You can't control other people.
Make a Plan. It's easier to get people to get redirected from ill feelings or negative interactions when there is something to do. Maybe you will can go on a walk together or have a few board games ready to play. I know my family on both sides enjoy playing games. And usually those games don't create any tension unless Grandpa makes up a new rule. Haha! (Grandpa, you know we love you!) If you have some particularly difficult challenges, you may even want to make an escape plan. You could have a code word that you say to your spouse if you are struggling and need a break. Then you can run an errand, go for a walk, or even head home early. I often recommend having an escape plan for holiday festivities to my clients struggling with eating disorders because being around food and family at the same time can become very triggering.
People Can Change. Sometimes you will plan for the expected difficulties, and people will surprise you by making positive changes! in this case, be gracious and welcoming of the change. Don't hold people back by keeping them in their same role. Forgive what you can and move forward. Try not to hold on to negativity from the past. You may even be so bold as to express your appreciation to the person who has made a positive change!
Share the Workload. From the physical labor of buying gifts and preparing meals to the emotional labor of deciding what gifts to buy and planning family activities, it's important for everyone to take a part of the work. My husband and I have a young family, and I used to be the one who did most of the gift decisions, the buying, and the wrapping. We are working more as a team these days, and it's actually becoming a bit of an enjoyable tradition in itself! We like going shopping together to pick out Christmas gifts without the kids. My husband helps me wrap the gifts now, too, and it's a great way for us to bond. When it comes to larger family gatherings, it's helpful to give out assignments for food and activities. That way the burden doesn't fall solely on the mother (who is usually the family coordinator) who may feel less-than-merry if she is too stressed.
Honor Traditions, but Experiment with Change. Time-honored traditions make Christmas special. It's those special rituals that you can depend on that offer stability and connection. At the same time, things change. Families grow, move, separate, and shift. Marriage and divorce and death create different family structures that may change some family traditions. When families change, it's ok--and even expected--for family traditions to change. When my husband and I got married, we were lucky enough to both believe in having a real Christmas tree, but we did not agree at all on the role Santa would play in our children's lives. We had to figure out how our own little family would celebrate Christmas and negotiate the differences. I grew up having a special family toast on Christmas Eve where each family member says something nice about each person in the family. My husband and I have started this tradition with our own children. We always used sparkling apple cider, but not all my kids like that. So now we use homemade eggnog for the family toast. It's especially important to create new traditions in step-families and single-parent families. When my husband's father remarried, we had to figure out how to combine our traditions with a new step-family. Over the years we have begun to settle on some time-honored traditions from both families like gingerbread men and clam chowder, with some new traditions like playing Christmas songs on chimes. If one parents has died or is not longer in the family, sometimes creating a new tradition is helpful to deal with the absence. The idea here is to incorporate traditions without rigidity. Changing traditions doesn't mean that Christmas is ruined. It just means that the family is changing, and that's normal.
Discuss Gift Exchanges in Advance. If your extended family is like mine, we like doing gift exchanges rather than buying for every single person. This minimizes the hustle and bustle and is easier on our wallets. In the early years of our extended family, we weren't always sure whether we were going to do it, and that caused some confusion, especially for those who were getting Christmas taken care of early. We have started drawing names and setting a specific price range well before Thanksgiving. It helps me out to already know who I'm buying for when Black Friday rolls around so I can score some online deals.
Don't Be Alone. Sometimes there are splits or estrangements in families. Maybe there was abuse, neglect, religious differences, a marriage that wasn't approved of, or some other trauma or conflict. It's still best to reach out to a relative and build connection on the holidays. Of course you don't want to wait until the actual family party to try to make amends after an estrangement or intense conflict. But there may be a family member that you can connect with where the relationship isn't so strained. Even if it's something as small as sending a card or making a phone call, family connection during the holidays is and important ritual that can help you ease the pain of alienation. You may also be able to spend time with friends during this time to combat some of the loneliness.
I hope these tips have given you some ways to help you enjoy Christmas with your family this year! How do you celebrate Christmas with your family?