Nov 30, 2013

Tis the Season to be Having Uncomfortable Family Gatherings and Awkward Conversation

The holidays can be a strange time.  Families who may not see each other much throughout the year often come together en masse, and that can be joyful and heartwarming, or terrifyingly uncomfortable. And that's even before the conversations and questions begin. The movies would have us believe that all the discomfort is temporary - just long enough to have some good laughs at the Griswolds, or those nutty folks who left their kid home alone - but holiday reality sometimes feels more like "The Shining."

For those whose homes are not turning into a holiday encampment for familial guests, fortunately "family" is an inclusive term.  We may have our own family unit - a partner, children - or we've developed a network of friends that are like family that we can celebrate with.  Should you find yourself completely alone during the holidays for some reason, and not wanting to remain so, many cities host dinner events or even full travel packages for people who have no other holiday plans.  And if you are wanting to lend a hand, of course there will be many places that would appreciate a volunteer at this time of year.

For the rest of us, who bite their tongue while pouring the wine, and who take the jabs while wearing the paper crown from the Christmas cracker, and who try to find a polite way to answer all the well-meaning-but-inappropriate questions, I want to share my little list of things I do to ensure I survive the holidays.

Holiday Helpers To Prevent You From Cowering in a Closet With a Bottle of Bailey's During Christmas Dinner or Drunkenly Serenading Yourself in a Bathtub (Alone) Like Bridget Jones.
(Working Title)

1.  Have a backup plan.  Always.  Find a friend who knows your situation and let them know that if they see you with your nose pressed up against their window like an old-timey English street urchin, they are to let you in and pass the turkey, and act like nothing happened.

1a. If you don't have friends or alternate family in the area, make like that millionaire show and have a phone-a-friend on standby.  Someone who will talk you down from taking a piece of your aunt's hair and creating a poppet with it and some turkey bones, and then burning it in the bathtub.

2.  Don't be too proud (or ashamed) to let someone in on your holiday concerns.  Tell a good friend (see #1) or a good therapist.  If you have a family member you trust, share with them.  You may end up with an ally across the dinner table.

3.  Do something nice for yourself immediately before and after the holidays.  This is a crucial step - and I recommend booking your appointment now, because I can guarantee that plenty of folks are doing this.  Get yourself a massage, take yourself out to a fancy dinner, buy yourself the holiday gift you want and are sure no one will buy you (with gift receipt, just in case) or whatever else will make you feel really special.  The "before" present is to remind you that you deserve to be treated well, and to give you a bit of holiday hope, and the "after" treat is the reward for not stabbing anyone with a candy cane.  Yay!

4.  Consider donating your time and/or money anyway.  Even if you aren't alone for the holidays and looking for some meaning, find a cause you can contribute to.  It is important all year long to be aware of who needs help in your community, but this time of year can be especially hard on folks who cannot afford to feed, house, or give gifts to their children, let alone provide them with any kind of holiday cheer.  Local food banks accept donations, food, and manual help.  Our little credit union has a "pajama tree" up, where you take one of the ornament cards with a child's gender and age listed on it, and return the card with a pair of appropriate pj's.  There are so many places that are accepting help - finding somewhere to volunteer this time of year shouldn't be a problem at all.

5.  Try to find something to laugh about - or some kind of wonder or joy.  Make a snow angel.  Watch the sky for Santa.  Invent a new drink called "The Steaming Hot Mistletoe Kiss." You can think of something.

We're in for a wild month.  Hang in there. I know you can do it.

*picture via wiki commons


jaz@octoberfarm said...

we have no one, just the four of us. sometimes it makes me sad. most of the time, it makes me happy!

Aine O'Brien said...

Fantastic post, funny and sad. Interestingly enough, I have had both funny and sad holidays. I remember a few where I stayed alone and counted the hours till it was over. But I also remember those where I was in a room full of people still counting the hours until it was over. And one where I treated myself to a trip and met the love of my life. So, there is still some magic left in Christmas.

Anonymous said...

I am blessed with a family which, while not picture-perfect all do care a lot for each other and are *generally* quite good to one another...that said, I am quite pleased to live far enough from all to have what I expect will be a quiet season with my wife.

So my blessings and thoughts are with all who can expect a less fun, quiet season. I'll be saying sweet things for you all over a candle as the season progresses!

As Mission of Burma sings:

Don't let them cut you baby
Don't let them make you cry
Don't you waste your time
Trying to find a reason why
They must do what they must do.


Rue said...

And there should be an extra big gift for you under the tree this year from Santa, because we all know how much work you put into those meals that go to your local shelter. (And your neighbors!)

Rue said...

And now, I'm definitely making plans for a trip next year.

Rue said...

Love this!

Linda Wildenstein said...

you must have spied on my childhood, you wiley one you. I hated Christmas more than any other time. I had the original "irregular" family. No matter what someone always pitched a fit and someone else acted like the world was coming to an end and I hated it. Nothing was ever good enough, clean enough, orderly enough, quiet enough.
And now...there are just us chickens and we happy and things go smoothly...or a facsimile thereof when you've got kids.
Thanks for this post. Much appreciated by those of us who have "suffered" through family gatherings. Oma Linda

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Thank gawd I'm at that stage of life where all my pain-in-the-ass relatives are either dead or estranged so I don't have to deal with them anymore. I only see the ones I want to now.

Jennifer said...

I love this post! I often feel blue during the holidays. My family is very small and not close. I am so thankful for my husband, sometimes it feels like we only have each other. But that is enough.

And I agree that giving to others in need can really lift ones's spirits during this cold, dark time of year. I buy a food box for our local food bank each week at the grocery store throughout the season, and I like to give a donation to Doctors Without Borders at Christmas. This year I'm thinking of donating some cash to our local animal shelters, too.

Tilda said...

The holidays have always made me uncomfortable for all the reasons you mention. Growing up, the holidays were a time for family members to drink and scream at each other. There were years I refused to interact at all. Some of my best Christmases have been spent with just my cat! Now I have limited family contact, and a husband who is very supportive. In my own home I focus on decorating (especially lights and christmas gnomes)and food. And going snowshoeing :)

Mario Zeleny said...

Nicely done! Great article, nicely written with really helpful advice! I am glad I stopped in!

Jeanne said...

This was a wonderful post! With some great light-hearted but sincere advice.
Holidays used to be horrible when the kids were little and we'd go to the ex-inlaws. I dreaded those times. Yes, it was The Shining all over again (hhhmm...not sure The Shining had been written yet). And I vowed that the Holiday get-togethers with my kids and their families would not be like that. I would prefer to spend the holiday alone than put someone through what I went through.

Hex Parker said...

Wonderful advice and survival tips, however there is an important one that is missing: You are under no obligation to endure a horrible holiday gathering. If family stresses you out, don't go. Your health and well being should be paramount. No one has the right to make another miserable, nor to manipulate them into such a situation (guilt). I have a wonderful gathering with my family, but my husband does not go. My step-dad, in the past, was a horrible, rude jerk whenever he felt like it (holidays weren't immune) and my Husbeast decided he refused to deal with it any more. Our kids and I go and enjoy the evening (and bring him tasty food home) while he spends a quiet evening at home. Our private family celebration (just the 4 of us) Christmas day is wonderful. Enjoy your holidays, don't feel like you have to martyr yourself because of them. If asked why you choose to abstain, be honest. If family refuses to accept your choice, that's their baggage, NOT yours. Make your holidays how you want and let everyone deal with their choices how they wish. :)

Rue said...

You are absolutely right. I choose my battles, but I learned years ago that a stern "I'm not interested in being spoken to in that way," while leaving the situation is often the best bet.

I'm glad your arrangement works for you - that you can still see your family & your husband is happy to stay home. It's nice that you don't have to pick a side, and then you get to enjoy your own celebration too.

thirtysomethingbites said...

thank goodness there are other people out there that share my same sentiment- my immediate family (there are 5 of us) moved away from our extended family a few years ago due to a job transfer and ever since then I feel like we are outsiders...only my husband's parents and my parents (occasionally) reach out to us to see how we are doing. As far as all the siblings are concerned, in my opinion because we are more successful monetarily then most of them are which did not happen by chance but came from many years of hard work and personal sacrifice- we are now the outcasts and they think of us as snobs. I am so tired of all of them and even though they are family hanging out with them is so painful and uncomfortable and makes me so tense. My husband has a who cares what they think attitude and I really wish I could learn not to care about it but the thought of spending an entire upcoming week with them makes me sick to my stomach when you can painfully tell they don't really want you there....

sunwyn said...

This will be the first holiday season without my Mom. She died from cancer on 9/11/2014. I hope my other family members act like something passing human as I miss her terribly since I was her primary caregiver for the last 10 years.

Rue said...

I'm so sorry to hear about your mother, Sunwyn. I hope your holiday season is bright and that your mother makes her presence known in little ways and lovely memories. Blessings to you.