Home for the Holidays


Merry Christmas. Happy Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, New Year. For people used to contentious, crazymaking visits with family during the holidays, these upbeat greetings can feel cruelly off-base. No amount of plum pudding can neutralize the bad family chemistry that bubbles and explodes when the family “reconnects.” My friend Kerry Weinbaum’s experience is all too typical. When I asked her to relate her home-for-the-holidays story, she replied that sure, she’d be happy to talk about “the two minutes of pleasantness in exchange for five days’ misery.”

My own encounters with family tend to be much more harmonious than Kerry’s, but with notable exceptions. When I travel from my little Oregon town to San Diego around Passover (my home-for-the-holidays equivalent), I often get into it big time with my younger sister. We have a long history of medium-to-high volume spats that goes back to … oh, I don’t know, her birth. Until I learned some new tricks, I also battled with my in-laws. The almost inevitable hostilities made every visit home feel like self-inflicted punishment, on my tab.

Can spending holidays with difficult families go better than this? Can wounds that have festered for decades heal well enough to allow one to experience a true season of joy? Can you actually do something to make this year’s family holiday thing successful, rather than just hope for the best?

Yes, yes and yes. But before you accuse me of dipping too deeply into the holiday cheer, keep in mind that we’re not necessarily talking Miracle on 34th Street here. Your family——good, bad or ugly—isn’t likely to change anytime soon. But you can, and that makes all the difference. 

Holiday spirit—fact or friction?

There are as many paths to a saner holiday with family as there are individual family situations. Divorces, assorted family members with diverse holiday traditions, touchy choices about which partner’s family to visit this year—all these factors, and more, complicate the picture. But unmet expectations and bad blood between relatives seem to be the two issues most people face. As you might imagine, the problems are often tightly intertwined—as is the case with my pal Kerry.

Like many people, Kerry struggles to reconcile the simple, cheery yuletide she remembers from her childhood with the far more complicated, stress-filled holiday visits she weathers as an adult. She fondly recalls the classic, Bing Crosby-esque Christmases of her childhood, and when she visits from across the country these days, she finds many of the basic elements still intact. Mom even sneaks around after midnight to stuff the stockings Kerry and her sister hang before they go to bed. But acrimony, resentment and Kerry’s decidedly mixed feelings about long stays with her loved ones now conspire to temper her enthusiasm.

What accounts for this change? For one thing, instead of the nice Christmas that Kerry’s parents created for their two darling children, the holiday is now a complex interaction among four adults with their own psychological flaws and disparate personalities. For another, the difficulties between Kerry and her parents represent a microcosm of the Red-State–Blue-State culture war.

Mom and Dad and almost all of Kerry’s relatives still live in a conservative small town in northern Wisconsin, where Kerry grew up. Kerry, 38, broke the family pattern by getting a college education and then transplanting herself to arty, progressive Ashland, Oregon. There she drives a Honda Civic hybrid, maintains an ultra-green household with her partner John, runs to keep fit and is as distraught about the Iraq War as nearly all her fellow townspeople.

These contrasts become sore points—especially between Kerry and her mother—whenever she visits home. According to Kerry, Mom is a moody, controlling type who is still a regular smoker, which infuriates her daughter. Mom, on the other hand, resents Kerry’s flaunting her education by using sophisticated words or spouting complicated ideas. And she can’t see why Kerry insists on taking time out for a run.

“Basically, I can’t have an opinion,” says Kerry. “I risk a fight that will put a rift in the entire visit.” Those visits can last up to a hellish 10 days, so she tries to bite her tongue for the whole stay. It’s not a perfect solution—“I’m an opinionated person, so I feel that in some ways, my parents don’t really know me,” she says—but it beats the alternative.

Family therapist, professor and author William J. Doherty, who wrote about Christmas issues in his 1997 book The Intentional Family, would approve of Kerry’s partial fix. The logic is obvious: Since it takes two to tango, refuse to be anyone’s dance partner, no matter how hard your kinfolk try to provoke you.

“The sheer intensity and duration of family holiday visits almost guarantees moments that violate the spirit of the occasion,” he notes. “Family members who’ve maintained a safe distance from each other all year are suddenly thrown together for days on end. Dangerous topics that were mutually avoided in phone calls and letters suddenly come up in face-to-face contact—perhaps aided by alcohol.

“Plus, the stakes are raised by the holiday. Anyone who starts a fight will be accused of ruining Christmas, so if a fight breaks out, it casts a pall over the event for a long time.”

Squabble potential grows exponentially, of course, if the family has members who actually relish a good fight. “But you don’t have to take the bait,” says Doherty. “In other words, don’t expect them to change, but you can react differently.”

He’d also advise Kerry to ratchet down her expectations, however. Unmet expectations mar many visits home, but the problem really begins with the unrealistic hopes of a Hallmark-perfect holiday. “Leopards don’t change their spots just because it’s the Christmas season,” says Doherty. “When people expect everything to go well and nobody to be disappointed or frazzled or irritated, then they can crash. My credo is ‘high hopes and modest expectations.’”

Kerry’s visits home go more smoothly when she’s on Doherty’s wavelength—at least temporarily. “To prevent arguments I try to let my mom have her way. And I remind myself I don’t need to be right,” she says.

The one problem with this tactic, though, is that it only works when you use it. What happens when you forget and then find yourself in a bitter feud? Case in point: me. I’ve learned to hold my fire with my in-laws. While they’re still feisty and combative, they’re in their late-70s, so I’m more than willing to unilaterally disarm. But all too often with my sister, I pull the pin, throw the grenade and then wonder—with bombs exploding all around me—how I could have been so stupid.

Stupidity isn’t the problem, says mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg. Awareness is. Not that mindfulness students can’t blow up like everyone else, but they have learned relevant skills they can apply to family events.

“We often have the same old reactions but have a much better way of dealing with them,” says Salzberg, author of The Force of Kindness (Sounds True, 2005). “We’re less likely to fall into the usual extremes of either completely identifying with our reactions and getting lost, or disliking ourselves so heartily for having those reactions that we get lost in them in a different way.”

You needn’t be a dedicated Buddhist to acquire similar skills, Salzberg says. Train yourself to notice from moment to moment how you’re reacting in your mind and body. Learn how different emotions feel by paying attention to bodily signals—the rhythm of your breathing or bodily tension. “It’s no small thing to be aware quickly, because then we actually have a choice [in how we react],” notes Salzberg.

You can also learn to have a more optimal holiday season by cribbing ideas from families that get it right. Comedienne Bret Butler, star of the mid-1990s sitcom Grace Under Fire, hardly claims to come from a model household. She describes her dad as a bipolar alcoholic who physically abused her mother and left the family when Brett was 4. One of her five sisters—whose fundamentalist religious beliefs put her at odds with her wry, literary family—isn’t currently speaking to either Brett or her mom. In the past, there were bitter divorces that made gathering the entire clan “unwise,” Brett admits, although those wounds have since healed.

All that aside, Brett says that Christmases with her family in Georgia tend to be pretty darn gingerbready. Things that set her family apart and make the get-togethers go more smoothly include intimacy, forgiveness and frequent contact. In fact, Brett so values being with her family that ironically she’ll sometimes stay home in Los Angeles for the holidays and save the Georgia trips for non-yuletide months. She’s found that quality one-on-one time is easier to manage without the hubbub of the Christmas season. When she does go home for Christmas, she’ll often steal away from the group to get closer to certain family members, if that’s what it takes.

“You have to pick and choose,” she says. “Like I’ve got to take one niece and one nephew out to do something sometimes, because otherwise we just get lost in the crowd.”

She also makes sure that if someone’s holding a grudge, she won’t be the one doing the holding. “Some apologies don’t need to be said out loud, they just need to be included in my behavior,” she says.

Finally, this family stays in touch all year, so no one feels compelled to catch up—and make up—on Christmas day. The afternoon she and I spoke, Brett had already been on the phone with two sisters and her mother. Although Brett’s intermittent approach to Christmas visits may not be widely recommended, especially where children are involved (see below), it works for her because she makes the journey several other times throughout the year.

Family first

If you and your family make sour music together, you may need to avoid them on the holidays and do something less complicated—go to Disney World, say, or just stay home. Before you cement your plans, however, check out a 50-year review of research on family rituals by social scientists from Syracuse University. Published in 2002, the study found that the rituals—including Christmas, Passover and family reunions—were associated with marital satisfaction, adolescents’ sense of personal identity, children’s health, academic achievement and stronger family relationships.

These results surely would not surprise psychologist Mary Pipher, PhD, a leading advocate for family traditions in books such as The Shelter of Each Other (Ballantine Books, 1996). “The fact that there’s going to be trouble during the holidays is not a good reason to stay away,” she says. “If you decide, ‘Family’s too big a hassle, I’d rather not mess with it,’ then you deprive yourself of a connection to your own people. And in this culture, once you cut that tie, you’re lost because there’s so little besides family that you can stay with your whole life, that you can give your children for their whole life. The great thing about family is that you don’t have to achieve membership; that right comes with birth.

“So I always counsel people, yes, you may want to think carefully about how to structure your visit so that it’s the best possible way it can be. You don’t overstay the length of time you can stay without really getting upset with someone and so on. But you figure out some way to make it work for you.”

Family therapist Doherty also believes that avoiding family gatherings is misguided, but for different reasons. “I think there’s this balance between your own needs as an individual or nuclear family and your responsibilities as a member of a larger family. That equation changes over time, so I don’t have rules for it. But to simply collapse it on the side of doing what’s best for me and us and avoiding all those people for the holidays? That’s not a very generous way to be in a family.”

Doherty feels that in some sense everyone is a citizen of his or her family. “And sometimes as a citizen, you do things not because you authentically want to do them at that point, but it’s the right thing to do for the whole.”

Although she hasn’t managed to wring all the “dys” out of her dysfunctional Christmas visits, Kerry Weinbaum understands Pipher and Doherty’s points intuitively. “I ask myself why I continue to visit year after year. This is why: Ultimately, I love my family, despite their unhealthy faults, and I have perpetual hope for a better relationship with them. It all boils down to hope and love.”

Self-Help for the Holidays

The following advice from William Doherty, Mary Pipher and Sharon Salzberg can help put the “happy” back in “Happy Holiday.”

Don’t just visit—connect. Look for opportunities for long conversations, or visits with lonely elder relatives. Try to schedule family events in large homes or other multi-room spaces that support one-on-one time as well as group mingling. (Pipher)

If you can’t visit, find another way to connect to family. Can’t make the big family gathering this year? Find at least one relative nearby with whom you can connect with this season. (Doherty)

Forgive yourself. Meditators learn to refocus when their minds wander. Do something similar with your family. If you blow it with a relative, forgive yourself, and begin again. Don’t get lost in recrimination. (Salzberg)

Include yourself. Don’t use your alternative beliefs or lifestyle as a wedge between you and your relatives. Kindness is the paramount virtue. It won’t harm your alternative identity to participate with people who are your family and to take joy in their joys. (Salzberg)

Breathe. If you’re a meditator or practice other awareness techniques, use them. When family dynamics make you wacko, use your training to center yourself and be more present with those you love. (Salzberg).