I will be honest; I get a sick feeling in my stomach the first time I see Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and Christmas on my calendar. I am not happy or proud about it, but I acknowledge it. It all started when I was six and forced to sing “I Have a Little Dreidel” as the lone Jew at the Christmas pageant, continued at eight, after writing a short story about Thanksgiving from the turkey’s perspective beginning a vegetarian phase, and changed forever when my parents divorced when I was twelve. From that year on, holidays lost most of their meaning for me, and became more about unintentional progressive dinners, strategic planning, and personally becoming a sounding board for all things passive-aggressive.
Twenty-four years later, I have my own family, an adoptive and biological family, stepfamilies, and in-laws, so since I still have not figured out how to successfully clone myself, it really should come as no shock to anyone that I wish that I could hide in a cave from about a week before Thanksgiving until the day after New Year’s.
Trust me, I do not like being the Grinch. I do not want to get caught up solely in obligations and expectations and lose the meaning of holidays, and I do not want to become resentful about having to play unwanted games of emotional Twister year after year. I would much rather emulate those of you with the glow in your eye when you talk about sharing the holidays with your family, and the smile that parts your lips when I see you already envisioning yourself by the warm fire, sipping hot toddies and having the perfect Norman Rockwell holiday. (Even if that exists only in my own mind.)
So after receiving a strange revelation in the form of a status report on Facebook from someone I love dearly, “Sometimes it is very difficult to respect a person’s strengths and overlook their weaknesses, especially if that person is yourself,” I have decided to take a different approach this year.
For those of you like me, who identify and chuckle when watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Madea’s Family Reunion, and hope that there will be less drama than Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner when you sit around the holiday table, let us think ahead and ask ourselves, what can we do to be sure that some sanity reigns supreme this time of year?
1. Prepare for the oral exam.
Practice your funny retorts for “So nice of you to make it,” “Why do you live so far away,” and “We wish we could see you and our grandkids more often” before you go. By now you should be able to know which comments are coming and have plenty of time to cut them off at the pass.
2. Write your practice essays and keep notes.
Journal like a fiend before you go, so your issues stay on the page, and do not end up under the tree or flying onto the latkes. If all else fails, take mental notes and learn to laugh and cherish the unique characters and great writing material that your family can provide.
3. Learn to play and fight fair.
Use the football games you will be forced to watch as a gentle reminder that just as football has distinct rules and boundaries—four downs to move the ball ten yards; if the receiver steps out of bounds, the play is over—so should you. Set them before you go, even if it is just in your own mind.
4. Ignorance is bliss.
Lose your usual familial role at the door, and keep your children unaware of any family drama as long as possible. Weren’t holidays more fun before we knew the back stories, resentments, and family politics? Forget all the psychoanalyzing that has been shoved down our throats for nearly three decades, ignorance is bliss, don’t you forget it.
5. Bring something to the table.
Stop complaining about the holiday meanings being lost, inject them where you can. Whether that involves you purposefully hanging at the kids table all night, or asking people to bring a story or thought to the celebration beforehand, do your best to add something memorable to each occasion.
6. Make everyone uncomfortable.
Push your family out of their comfort zone by making them wear a costume, play board games where they are forced to interact, or bring a karaoke machine to all family functions to drown out any ensuing arguments and give everyone an embarrassing and silly outlet.
7. Feel the love, but be prepared to duck.
Since some family members are masters at guilt, unstated expectations, and hoops they expect you to jump through without telling you what they are, remember to duck to miss their throwing up and projecting their issues on to you, but after that is over, know that you will be able to find the love underneath it all.
8. Fake it till you make it.
Smile, breathe, and think of the celebration as you do speed dating when you get caught in small talk. Find your favorite people you can really talk to, and hold on to them all night. Stop judging your family, learn to love them for who they are, and see how that might allow them to stop judging you. If all else fails, go back to the kid table.
9. Make your bed and lie in it.
Know ahead of time that if and when you have children, any and all issues you had with any and all of your family will resurface all over again. Know that no matter how you try to bend to the will of others to be sure to spend time with everyone each year, someone will be upset. If you feed into it you will be exhausted, so make your choices, stand your ground and make your bed as comfy as you can so you do not lose any sleep.
10. Reward yourself for a job well done.
Go online the day before any big holiday and book a trip just for your immediate family far, far away from everyone and tell no one about it. Do not even share it with your spouse if they are accompanying you to your family’s house, so you have a bargaining chip later if things go really south.
Join me this year in trying to find a cure for HAD (Holiday Anxiety Disorder), removing stress and guilt and putting the meaning back into the holidays.
Go into the holidays with a better attitude, do your best to play fair, clean up your mess, eat well, smile even if you don’t feel like it, and see if any of it makes a difference. Either way, meet back here after New Year’s so we can all share our stories.
And remember, even though you do not want to admit it, you probably drive your family as crazy as they drive you.