Every year, it starts around mid-November. Clients in my therapy practice, who ordinarily focus on handling marital problems or parenting challenges, bring up a different concern: family holiday get-togethers. Some dread spending time with a noxious family member; some have troubling memories of past gatherings. And some are bothered by the misunderstandings, power plays, and prompts to guilt that accompany efforts to arrange holiday schedules. Having talked with numerous clients over the years about the problems that can occur regarding holiday schedules, I offer the following ten suggestions for planning for family gatherings. For most families, following these recommendations will decrease the likelihood of conflict, dissatisfaction, and hurt feelings when tying to plan what should be an enjoyable time.
Problems often occur when someone--one spouse's parents, perhaps, or friends, or siblings--have extended an invitation for a particular date but others who might want to schedule something the same date haven't said anything. If you're the one receiving such an invitation, take that as a cue to talk as soon as possible with anyone who might also be thinking of that date. It's much easier to change plans when they are still fluid than after an invitation has been accepted.
Run through in your mind all who need to know about the plans, and contact each of them. Be specific--not "We're thinking of the 24th or 25th," but "We're thinking of Christmas Eve starting with dinner, probably around 6." Especially emphasize anything you want to change from prior years.
Just because your son's family was available all of Christmas Day last year doesn't mean that that's the case this year. External factors such as work schedules and in-laws' plans can easily change, and families can change too, in their preferences and in what works best for them. It's dangerous to assume that nothing is different.
In many families, the convenience or preference of some members are given priority, and the convenience or preference of other family members are ignored. Make sure you consider what would be best for each person, asking for their input if they haven't already given it. If in the end someone is asked to sacrifice, they will probably feel better about doing so if there has been an effort to take their input into account.
When family members disagree as to when, where, or how the family will gather, don't squelch their differences by imposing a flat decision. Instead, encourage them to talk to each other, having them explain their positions and seek to find a compromise acceptable to everyone. In discussing differences, try to get everyone to listen at least as much as they speak.
Compromises only occur if the parties to a discussion are open to alternatives and willing to stray beyond their initial ideas of what should happen. Make sure you're not the one who is resistant to working toward a solution. Constantly ask yourself, "Am I digging in my heels over something that matters less than the good will and harmony of this family?" It may well be that not everyone can be present at the same time or for the whole gathering.
Some in troubled families may seek to gain compliance by trying to induce guilt ("After all I've done for you, can't you do this one little thing for me?") or assert power ("If you won't come, I'm not going to keep on paying your car insurance.") Even if such tactics get the targeted person to go along, they won't make for a pleasant gathering. What sort of celebration will it be if half those present are angry about the means used to get them there?
Many of the harshest disagreements are over someone's insistence that the family do things the same way as in the past, despite the problems that doing so would present. This year, for example, I know of a son, whose job requires that he work Thanksgiving evening, who is in conflict with his mom, who insists that the family follow their tradition of getting together late that afternoon. Traditions are worthwhile only if they provide more benefits than complications for those who follow them.
Thanksgiving is for gratitude to God for his many blessings. Christmas is for celebrating God's gift of his son, Jesus. In other words, neither holiday is primarily about having a particular sort of family gathering, nor is it about who gets their way in making the arrangements for that family gathering. Keeping in mind the reason for the holiday helps us put into perspective our concerns about the family's plans.
Whatever plans are eventually made, put aside disappointments, whether these be about the time of the gathering, the type of gathering, or who will or will not be present. Pray in advance that conflicts and dissatisfaction won't intrude. Whether or not the plans made and people who will be present are to your liking, remember that God is your primary source of joy this and every day.
Planning for family gatherings during the holidays can be challenging. Use these ten suggestions to avoid pitfalls in the process. Blessings to you as you come together this year!
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra