Miserable holidays are one of the last true American clichés. Scenes of dour relatives hunched around a dining table, wolfing down helpings of cornbread-stuffed resentment and gravy-topped bile -- this anti-Rockwellian scene has become the new cultural tableau, to the point where it's almost expected that a holiday meal arrives in tandem with histrionics and drama.
All in all, this whole scenario sounds about as appealing as a syphilitic mouse in your sausage gravy. But it doesn't have to be this way. Read on for 5 truths about surviving (and maybe even enjoying!) your holiday season with the fam.
1. Before you set foot on a plane/train/highway, figure out how you want the holiday to go.
Most of us don't go into the holidays with a strategic plan for how we'd like it to go. Rather, we compose a mental script of how things are LIKELY to go -- typically a full-length caper packed with dysfunctional hijinks, including but not limited to door slamming, kitchen brawling, and possible police intervention. Perhaps Holly Hunter stars.
But what we don't do is formulate is a clear vision of what a festive, peaceful, and (dare I say it) joyful holiday would look like. We don't really think about holidays (or anything else) this way; rather, we flood our consciousness with memories of How It Was In the Past, and then sift these memories through our system 'til they're sitting like alluvial deposits in our lower intestines, waiting to fester into fresh new disasters.
Permit yourself a bit of fantasy -- what would a NON-dysfunctional holiday look like? Or an ideal holiday, even? How would everyone act? What events would take place? Would it simply mean no fighting between certain parties? Your parents sitting peacefully in the same room? Your kids managing an entire meal without insulting each other on Facebook? Uncle Mark not trying to sell your 15-year-old an ounce of weed? Have some fun with this fantasy. Write it down, even. The objective here isn't to create an unattainable goal, or set you up for disappointment -- but it's near impossible to put together a fun holiday when you haven't even considered what the phrase means.
2. Ask not what your family should do to give you a great holiday, but what you can do to make it happen.
We are remarkable creatures. To a man/woman, we're all absolutely amazing at identifying what's wrong with other people. Particularly our family members. I can name every neurosis my mother possesses -- it may take another 4000 words, but I can list them all. And likewise, she can recite every emotional pitfall of mine (and offer a filibuster-length tirade on what I need to do to solve each of them).
To give the whole thing a hint of irony, each of us is likewise equipped with powerful blinders to our own faults and shortcomings. We know we have them (well, MOST of us know we have them) and we leave it at that -- no point in looking any deeper, right? Plus we detest hearing about them from someone else. We'll go to great lengths to avoid it. Our brains have quite literally evolved to make us fear death, pain, starvation, and 5 words: "There's something wrong with you."
The kicker, of course, is that unless we turn the fault-mirror on ourselves, we will see no change in the way people act/react around us. When we're not diagnosing others faults, we're being fueled by a powerful force that makes our brains continually react to the people around us.
So what does all this mean for the holiday meal? Your actions will, in large part, determine the behavior of those around you. Which means that if you would like your family's behavior to be different, you'll have to start the chain reaction yourself. There's no other option -- you simply cannot make everyone else act exactly how they're supposed to in order to satisfy your personal preferences (trust me -- I've tried).
Does this take work? Sure. It takes far more drudgery to create happiness than it does to bitch about the infinite sources of unhappiness. Quel universe!
3. You have a unique superpower in your family -- use it for good, not evil.
We all have some small adaptation that helps everyone around us. Some skill or talent that enables us to smush 7 billion people onto the planet without killing each other (more than we already do). Mine, for instance, is speed-peeing. I can be in and out of a public restroom in under 2 minutes (ask my husband -- he's convinced my urine teleports itself). While this is a pretty minute skill in the larger scheme (or any scheme), I see it as a small way to make a difference -- I can keep restroom lines shorter, keep my companions from enduring long waits, etc., etc.
Similarly, we all have a unique power in our families. It might be a role that you play, or a talent that no one else has. I'm the clown -- I lighten things up in a family full of a-glass-broke-it-must-be-Armageddon types. My sister is the aesthete -- she creates beautiful food, flower arrangements, paintings, etc. that we all enjoy. The key is figuring out your superpower, and then using it for good. I can make a quip that gets everyone laughing, or I can slash my relatives in half with a barb -- the choice is mine. So take a close look at your superpower, figure out what it is, and use it with abandon. (This will help quite a bit with the chain reaction discussed in #2.)
4. To get a great holiday, all you really have to do is dole out acknowledgment.
Being with your family can be an exercise in unyielding repetition. We show up at our parents' house, marching through the door with the same sloped-shoulder shuffle we've used for 4 decades. We flop into the same couch, our bodies filling out the same groove that's been forming since 1987. We fall effortlessly into the same old behavior patterns, our mouths spout the same petulant complaints, our psyches fall into the same state we've inhabited in that house since we were in diapers and spitting up peas.
And it doesn't help that everyone else is exactly the same, descending into their own emotional baggage simultaneously. You can see it in their faces as you look around the table. Your Aunt Molly is resentful because she never got married and feels judged for it. Your brother is still clawing to attain your dad's approval. And your dad's girlfriend hates that no one gives her any respect, even though she's been in the picture for 6 years now.
You're a smart individual -- you know exactly what's happening with each of these people. You know exactly where their hurts lie, how to probe the old wounds, what to say to set them off on a murderous fray (what else is family for!). But on the other side, you know what they NEED in order to feel like whole and complete human beings. Molly just wants someone to tell her that her life choices are respected. Dad's squeeze just wants to hear that you love her turkey stuffing, and that she's an appreciated part of the family.
It all boils down to acknowledgment -- telling someone that you appreciate/admire/respect something about them. Everyone wants this, and almost no one ever gives it. Especially to their families. Seriously -- we almost never do. We take the least expensive thing we possess, and we lock them away like a 12-carat diamond. It's like driving a taco truck through a Somalian village without ever stopping to throw the starving kids a burrito. Which you would never do, because you're not heartless. And yet we march through the holidays without ever once doling out a kind word to our family members.
So try it out. Release the Acknowledgment Minotaur and let him tear through your living room. Proffer acknowledgment to everyone who steps through the door. Then snap Polaroids of their reactions (to give you something to laugh at once you head back home).
5. Everything's more fun when you turn it into a game (if no one gets physically assaulted, you win!).
Outside of Hollywood and stand-up comedy, we don't always treat concepts like "family" with much fun. Rather, we treat them like Atlas-type weights crushing our shoulders and dragging us into Hieronymus-Bosch levels of Hell.
Still, there's nothing stopping you from lightening things up. And a great way to do this is to turn the entire holiday experience -- the travel, the awkward interactions, the inevitable gaffes -- into one big game. Games are inherently not life or death -- you can win, lose, and play again indefinitely -- which is why they're great for leeching out the significance and emotional weight we attach to concepts like "My Dysfunctional Family." We play them to have a good time, experience a range of emotions, and develop the skills necessary to win. If you approach your family holiday like you would approach a game, the results could be astounding. Think about it: You're the Mario in your own universe of Fire Flowers and Super Mushrooms and undermining brothers-in-law. It's not your chain-smoking, absinthian grandmother -- it's a Koopa Troopa begging for defeat (if you think Super Mario Bros. is stupid, just run with me on the metaphor -- and accept that you're wrong).
The kicker is that everyone wins in this scenario -- if you're keeping it light and enjoying yourself, the fun will trickle down (it's useless in economics, but Reagan could've been a decent family therapist). And after a few hours of contagious fun, who knows what could happen?