November 2015

Holiday Makeover: It’s Complicated

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

a complete transformation or remodeling of something.
synonyms: transformation, renovation, overhaul, new look, remodeling, refurbishment, reconditioning, improvement.

If you are one of those jolly people who loves everything about the holidays, then go carve a pumpkin, string some twinkly lights and stand under the mistletoe while the rest of us try to make sense of the season. Holidays are complicated enough in small nuclear families where marriages are intact and traditions are well-established. For single parents, newlyweds, blended families and large extended families, Thanksgiving to New Year’s may not be “the most wonderful time of the year.” No matter how well you get along otherwise, holidays can bring out the dysfunction in the best of families. Is it time for a makeover?

Enter expectations
Chances are, a very long time ago, a vision came to you of what holidays should look like, feel like and be like (thank you, Norman Rockwell). Inevitably, our annual efforts fall short, perhaps because we are all contributing to the same painting, but with different ideas of what the finished scene should be (like working a jigsaw puzzle without seeing the outside of the box).

The picture gets even more obscure as families grow and evolve. Every marriage, birth, death or relocation potentially upsets the holiday applecart. Special get-togethers that were once celebrated in a specific way or on a set date may now coincide with traditions that the other side of the family enjoys in a similar or different way. Since it is impossible to be in two places at once or to make everybody happy, some concessions are in order.

Many choose to celebrate with one side of their family on every other occasion, some may split their time between two events in one day, while others may choose an alternate date. Planning a large event that includes all family members from both sides (at a restaurant, banquet hall or vacation destination) may be a reasonable solution, but that isn’t always possible. Space limitations, geographical distance, health issues, financial circumstances, work schedules, or objections from extended family may make it difficult to combine celebrations. In these cases, partners may need to adjust their own expectations in order to do what works best for their immediate family.

In an ideal world
Like outdated hairstyles and defunct fashion trends, sometimes we must let go of what was to make room for what is. And sometimes it’s a gradual transition.

Ideally, the first step towards resolving the holiday conundrum is an honest discussion about what’s meaningful and what’s not—what’s expected and what’s optional. In order for holiday plans to change or evolve, somebody has to gently open the valve on the pressure cooker and start the conversation. Otherwise, resentments are bound to build up and may someday blow the lid off the whole family pot.

What if everyone’s voice could be heard? Make a family wish list by having each person fill in the blank: The holidays wouldn’t be complete without______________. Maybe it’s a visit to Grandma’s house, a drive through the mountains, watching football, going ice skating, or something as simple as Aunt Sally’s sweet potato casserole or a cup of hot chocolate by the fire. Let everyone have a say and then see how those essential elements might be combined to meet the most expectations. Everyone may not get everything he or she desires, but collectively, all will find satisfaction in knowing that their opinions mattered.

In the real world
Since the world is not ideal, inevitably some family members (insert name or names here) are so set in their ways they don’t know the meaning of compromise. In such cases, if the majority are happy maintaining status quo and you happen to be the outlier, then suck it up, buttercup. Repeat after me: “It’s only one day.”

This doesn’t mean sulking in the corner, but it does mean taking responsibility for your own comfort and joy. For example, if you want homemade cranberry sauce, bring it even if you know you are the only one who will eat it. If everyone loves football and you detest it, take along a book, go for a walk or do the dishes during game time. If the conversation tends towards controversial topics you prefer not to discuss, offer to babysit the little ones or organize an activity for the children.

At the same time, don’t be that person who refuses to consider someone else’s circumstances, beliefs or needs. Be open to your son’s vegan lifestyle or your teenager’s desire to slip away early and hang out with friends. Be tolerant of holiday traditions of various faiths and ethnicities. (Maybe everyone in your family wasn’t raised Presbyterian.) Be supportive when your newly married daughter and her husband decide to get a cabin in the mountains for Thanksgiving instead of fighting over whose parents will stuff the turkey this year; be accepting when your adult children choose to stay home so that their children can experience a traditional Christmas morning with gifts from Santa under their own tree. If they invite you to join in, then it’s up to you to blend with their plans or not. You might also look at it as an opportunity to start a new tradition of your own—take a trip, have a party for your friends, volunteer to help at a community event, or spend some romantic time with your significant other.

Rock on
No matter what your holiday plans, you are unlikely to achieve that picture of perfect harmony we see on old timey greeting cards and posters. But with a slightly adjusted attitude and a willingness to compromise, you can and will survive. When the clock strikes midnight on December 31, life magically returns to normal, and you’ll have eleven months to work out the kinks before doing it all over again next year. 

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