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5 Ways to Keep Family Strains From Ruining Your Holiday

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Every single holiday season, my mother was convinced that our extended family would happily gather – think Modern Family but not nearly as pretty or wealthy – and frolic our way through the seasonal celebrations. We’d all gather at my parents’ home on Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then New Year’s to bond over heartfelt conversation, luscious food, treasured presents and good cheer.

Of course, in reality, the conversations became personality clashes, the food was not to the liking of half the group, the gifts were rejected — and needless to say, good cheer wasn’t within shouting distance. But every year my mom spent hours planning, shopping, wrapping and dreaming, confident that the approaching holiday season would be filled with wonder.

Now, my mom wasn’t some romanticist. In fact, she was pretty darn pragmatic about just about everything else. But she held tight to the fantasy that our holiday celebrations would rival those televised on The Hallmark Channel.

Now that I’m older, I love and respect my mom even more for all of the effort she spent trying to create dream holidays right up until she died several years ago. But I also discovered you can create a dream holiday with family and friends if you temper your definition of the term and – to borrow from John Lennon – give (familial) peace a chance. Consider these ideas I’ve used at holidays past to brighten season.

1. Realize no one has changed.

When the holidays rolled around my mom thought my crabby sister, boisterous nephew, and insolent cousin would transform into the warm and loving relatives she imagined. The stress of the holidays tended to amplify the worst in them (and, candidly, in me; I was the whiner). When I gather for the holidays with family and friends, I try to keep in mind that I have characteristics that likely annoy them, too (though I don’t whine as much anymore). I also focus on why I’m at the celebration. Does it mean a lot to my husband to attend? Will I hurt my friend’s feelings if I RSVP “no”? How will I feel if my mother-in-law isn’t here to celebrate next year? I’m no saint, believe me, but I have discovered that zoning in on the person about whom I care most eases my annoyance when the same trite family story is told for the 40th time.

2. Set boundaries.

Do you find yourself running ragged shopping for hostess or holiday gifts that you’re not even sure are appreciated? Do you hate staying out very late even on a holiday? Are you a night owl who can’t stand the idea of jumping out of bed and rushing to attend your brother’s early-morning holiday breakfast? Change the pattern. As an adult, you’re well within your rights to tell friends and family members you want to stop the gift exchange, set a time you need to leave, or pass on the breakfast hoopla. Of course, you’ll do so gently; no ranting, eye rolling, or heavy sighs allowed. Once you break the news, they may be disappointed — or maybe even angry — and that’s fine. They are entitled to their feelings, just as you are entitled to yours. You don’t control them; don't allow them to control you.

3. Take slights in stride.

When I was first married, my husband and I spent a winter holiday at my mother-in-law’s home. I was in the joyful mode of a newlywed but also sad because my dad had recently died. Imagine my shock when my brother-in-law made an extremely hurtful comment to me, out of earshot of my husband and mother-in-law. The glares from relatives who clearly agreed with him heightened the pain. I was heartbroken. Every time I see him – and I’ve come to grow quite fond of him through the years — I think of that incident. And yes, I’ve had plenty of openings in which I could have evened the score, if you will. I haven’t. Holidays are stressful enough. And people say things they normally wouldn’t. Let it go (and yes, you can still crab about it to your spouse and friends).

4. Plan away time.

Whenever I’m with a large group for an extended period of time, I explain that I need a few hours to myself or with just my husband. When my parents were still alive, this was something of a felony. They couldn’t understand why the entire clan couldn’t be together throughout the day. If you want to nudge relatives and friends toward respecting your wishes (again – boundaries), explain to them that you get tired/sad/hungry/overwhelmed even with loved ones. You need time to recharge. But don’t feel the need to explain – or feel guilty if they don’t understand.

5. Don’t try to control others.

Yes, you do that. We all do. We try to convince our families and friends that we’re smarter, healthier, funnier, nicer than they think. Once a family member greeted me at a holiday gathering by saying I had gained weight. I told her I hadn’t. She insisted I had. Yes, it hurt my feelings, especially because she was wrong. But I just smiled and moved on. I didn’t need to buy into her judgment or convince her of anything. I’m happy with me.

Understanding and even accepting these suggestions won’t transform your holidays in TV movie fodder. But they may just ease a few familial strains and help brighten your season. And that’s a worthy dream.

This essay was written by Nancy Dunham, an award-winning freelance journalist based outside Washington, D.C.

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