The Art of Navigating Family During Holidays

Keeping the Peace, Inside and Out

Families come together at Christmas because they love each other, deeply, but along with the packaged gifts, mince pies, knitted jumpers, kindly intentions, and tacky conversations, they lug along their childhood irritations or parental peeves. Those festering wounds that have been repressed for years can suddenly surface most unexpectedly around the festive table, after a few glasses of red.

How is it that family gatherings tend to bring out the worst in people? With all the longing to be together, deep desires for meaningful and quality time, and the joy of being with family, somehow things don’t quite go as we hope, or more likely go totally against our plans. The enormous expectations, crazy preparations, excessive pressure, and idea of the perfect Christmas can turn any stable adult into a reckless, exploding Christmas Cracker. It’s the time where the inner child runs riot. Everyone tries to give their own children what they didn’t get, racing around trying to prove they are an adequate parent and haven’t completely screwed up their young tribe. But, quite honestly the whole shebang, while filled with good cheer and never-ending optimism, is often a recipe for disaster.

No family gathering would be replete without some high comedy, a few mishaps, rebukes, and general mayhem. I highly doubt there is a family in the world without its skeletons; those things you daren’t mention, the meaningful looks passed between couples, the raised eyebrows, loud whispers, code words, or trips to the kitchen to ‘wash the dishes’. The smoke-breaks behind the garden shed, or the long trips to the bathroom, family holidays are an opportunity to explore the shadow. They’re an opportunity to take yet another long, hard look at yourself and see how far you’ve journeyed in life, perhaps only to realize, rather soberly, that it is not very far at all, and you really should revisit that therapist.

It’s that time of the year when suddenly we’re surrounded by people we perhaps don’t particularly like or connect with anymore but feel obligated to be with. A time we stop and reflect, perhaps excessively so, and look towards the new year with a rosy glow of optimism that things will turn out much better when the clock ticks over midnight. A time where perhaps we hide our true feelings; wearing the mask of the perfect life, dream relationship and deeply fulfilled purpose, which quickly degenerates into bitter exchanges over trifle.

So, how to survive this seething onslaught of fake happiness, outrageous expectations, and merriment, with your authenticity, sanity, and bank balance intact? Keeping some of these tips in mind may help you spend time with your relatives without any major earthquakes and, who knows, perhaps even enjoy it.

Family dynamics often make Christmas a tricky time. Image: Priscilla Du Preez

How to Take Holiday Stress in Your Stride

1. Have good boundaries

It’s important to be dignified, respectful and tactful. If you feel triggered or someone is baiting you, know when to walk away and take a breather. You don’t need to get sucked into other people’s dramas or leaky emotions. Look after yourself by keeping your boundaries clear, and always having an exit strategy so you don’t regret saying things under duress.

2. Get outdoors

The parts of my childhood family Christmas I loved the most were always the sunny afternoons playing croquet with cousins and distant aunts; the lazy sunsets on the beach, and the outdoor lunches. Any holidays spent outdoors or close to nature will be instantly more relaxing, and the healing effects of the natural world go a long way to preserving sanity. Admittedly, it’s a lot more difficult to kick back in nature in the wintry Northern Hemisphere Christmases, and those I have spent with family in Europe certainly felt more claustrophobic, probably due to the bitter cold that kept hordes of family members indoors, and in close contact. But even so, a snowy walk is always an option! And certainly a good one for cooling the fires of any family theatrics.

3. Be self-responsible

Notice your emotions as they come up, be curious and welcoming, but perhaps do not explode them out at your mother-in-law or your brother. Identifying each emotion and verbalizing them, perhaps even just to yourself in the mirror, can do wonders for helping them pass through you. It’s also distinctly advisable to go slow on the vino. I’m going to say that one again – go slow on the vino! While it may be tempting to drown the barbed comments and your rising ire with another alcoholic beverage, you will regret it later.

4. Practice self-care

Be kind – to both yourself and others. Remember, everyone is suffering through this! Don’t put extraordinary expectations on yourself to provide the perfect Christmas for your family, to make everyone happy, or to be the best parent, daughter or partner. Cut yourself, and everyone else, a little slack. See this time with your family as an opportunity to heal the past, simply by being together. Be open and compassionate, but not unrealistic. We all make mistakes and we are all human. Enjoy the imperfections and unique craziness of your family. Give yourself enough rest over this insanely busy period. Make time to do something nurturing and creative, or something that nourishes your soul and your body. Breathe. Give yourself permission to be imperfect and make mistakes.

5. A healthy dose of acceptance

My all time favorite: do not attempt to change anyone. This is particularly advisable with a few alcoholic beverages under your belt. Acceptance of yourself and your family, despite all those cringeworthy and downright dreadful dramas that will likely unfold, goes a long way for preserving your sanity. Too often, the child inside us holds out hope that this time they’ll change; this time they’ll stop asking us if we have a boyfriend, or criticize our relationship choices, job, and that tattoo. But, they probably won’t change. So, we must. Accept that this is your family and there ain’t nothing you can do about that!

All that wishful thinking and dreaming of the perfect family, with their cheesy holiday snapshots, is not real. So get a grip and accept what you do have, even if you have to remind yourself that your family won’t always be around. Grit your teeth, take some time out, breathe, and love them anyway!

6. Don’t sweat the small stuff

Let bygones be bygones. Choose peace of mind over being right. Let the only games you play this Christmas be the ones that don’t involve gossip, family drama or dysfunctional patterns. Try not to take things personally, because really, nothing is ever about you. Remember, most people are too self-involved to truly be able to see beyond themselves and their own needs, as much as they’d like to. Most things are mere projections of other people’s problems and are never actually about you. If you can remember this, you will save yourself a lot of bother and wasted energy.

7. Commit to gratitude

Try to remember how blessed you are to have family, safety, a home, friends and delicious food to eat. Thinking of the starving people, families grieving loved ones, and refugees out there will snap you back into reality and make your first world problems fade away.

8. Keep your sense of humor

Being lighthearted and seeing the funny side of things goes a long way to keeping the peace, and lightening heavy situations. Of course, having a sense of humor that is rooted in excessive alcohol or aimed at firing rounds in an ongoing battle; or laced with cynicism, put-downs and sexist jokes, are not quite what I’ve got in mind either.

Overall, the good intentions and the heartfelt desires we have for the perfect time with our family, symbolized by the desire to give the most flawless gifts and have the most wonderful time together, are truly worth striving for. These are the people who make your life meaningful, the ones who are there for you when you need support (hopefully!) and the ones who gave you life. It’s worth setting aside your grievances, being generous with your kindness, and creating genuine and real memories that will be treasured for years and years to come.



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