I heard horror stories about family blow-ups during the holidays and realized, with surprise, I don’t have many good tales on the topic. For a writer and southern storyteller, this is not good. Through introspection, I figured out the cause of my appalling lack of horrible holiday happenings and decided to offer my devoted readers Five Steps to Joyful Holiday Family Gatherings. I thank my extended family in both the Rankin and Giles clans for teaching me these things.
- Don’t drink. Or don’t drink much. Both my parents came from families who did not drink alcohol for religious reasons, and even now we don’t usually serve it at big family gatherings. Even if we had a mean Aunt Sally or a randy Uncle Albert, which we probably don’t, without alcohol they both stay nice and in control while we’re together.
- Say what you have to say before the big event. Neither side of my family is known to hold back from sharing their opinions. Which is not to say we don’t have differences or occasional disagreements, it’s that they’ve usually been aired long before the table is set and the turkey carved. That results in a refreshing lack of bombshells or hidden agendas to act out when we’re together.
- If you don’t want to go, don’t. There are plenty of lonely people who would welcome a holiday invitation to YOUR table, or service events to feed the homeless, or cheap holiday excursions to warm sunny beaches. If you can’t face the family for a reason out of your control, find other things to do. I remember the year after my divorce when I would be with my sons on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning (my two preferred holiday times, in fact), but not again until after New Year’s Day. My favorite artist Georgia O’Keeffe was featured in a once in a lifetime exhibit in Zurich Switzerland showing pieces from private collections rarely seen in public. After a beautiful Christmas Eve service, and our traditional Christmas breakfast of hot bacon and homemade cinnamon rolls, I delivered my sons to their father and drove to JFK Airport for a week in Europe! Was I terrified to travel there alone? Yes. Yet I had a great time, and I will never forget that trip. Last year when I dreaded the first Christmas without my father and my sons had another commitment, I ventured to New Mexico to share the holiday with my brother and his lovely wife. They were gracious and fun, and I enjoyed magical moments plus the benefit of an in-house doctor when I got sick!
- Find a diversion. Both sides of my family share an addiction to a card game called Rook. Perhaps it helps to act out aggression in games, for example by bidding over your partner or setting someone who had a perfect hand. Some observers have suggested that we get along at holidays because we don’t talk much, just play the darned card game.Regardless, family drama is more fun when it’s about your sainted grandfather bidding over you and going set (Brian), or your beloved aunt getting mad when you discarded the wrong card (Nancy Lou).
- Serve enough carbs and everyone will feel mellow and calm. My family loves food and eats well. We don’t worry about health at the holidays. I heard cookbook author and TV personality Nathalie Dupree expound on this subject at the Southern Festival of Books:
“When you cook for the holidays your goal is to make something so delicious that after you’re dead and gone your family will lie down in their beds Thanksgiving night and say to themselves It just wasn’t the same without _____’s mashed potatoes.”
Or pecan pie, or whatever your specialty—remember all is calm when everyone’s carbo-loaded and fighting to stay awake.
I intended to follow Five Steps to Joyful Holiday Family Gatherings with another section called Three Statements Guaranteed to Piss People Off. On reflection that sounded snarky, not aligned with the loving spirit of the season. Instead, I’ll close with gentle suggestions for what not to say:
- To the person with a loss—
All is well, you can have another child/relationship/dog.
- To the unemployed—
It must be relaxing to have so much time off.
- To one with a health problem—
Oh my. Let me tell you how much worse is my ailment.
For me, connecting with family helps me understand why I am who I am. As Elizabeth Huergo said in the November/December 2014 issue of Poets & Writers magazine:
“Identity is very much rooted in time and place, in history and community, and that human will is sustained, shaped by identity, which is itself an aspect of story.”
Whatever your story, family and community are part of your identity. I wish you thankfulness, joy, and acceptance for those who shaped you.
None of us are perfect, but we are all beautiful in our own way.
©2015 Booktalk Lady LLC