Before my husband John and I married, we discussed family holiday visits at length during our premarital counseling. Both of us enjoyed childhood celebrations with extended family for birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July, Mother’s Day and others.
Since our families lived out-of-state, out of respect to both sets of in-laws, we agreed to spend Thanksgiving with my parents, and Christmas with his mother. We happily did so for the first ten years of our marriage and learned a tremendous amount about family dynamics and history in the process.
However, many families find themselves in a quandary. Where should they go for the holidays? Should they try to visit both sets of parents on the same day? One the day before? Financial considerations, such as travel expenses, may be a deciding factor. However, many times, the solution isn’t so easy. Consider these 6 tips for gracious visits:
- Set Realistic Expectations: Expect the best and plan for the worst. When we set our expectations too high, we are disappointed. During the holidays, family may be frazzled and rarely has that coveted Norman Rockwell calmness. While family members strive to be on their best behavior, they may not be - just because it’s a holiday.
- It’s Not About You: With stressful holiday times, the added tension can cause poor behavior, especially when alcohol flows freely. Remember, a family member’s indiscretions are more about him or her than they are about you. So mounting a defense isn’t necessary. Smile, nod, and keep the peace.
- Encourage Teamwork: If your families are visiting your home, meet them at the door with a warm welcome regardless of how you truly feel. Invite them to bring a traditional family dish or favorite dessert. Include them in activities happening throughout the day. Request their expertise with decorating, setting the table or setting up outdoor games. Try to make your guests feel comfortable and welcomed. When visiting them, never show up empty handed. Be sure your children arrive with gifts for their grandparents too! Ask not if, but how you may help your host. Whether they may or may not need your assistance, stay and visit with them. Ask questions, compliment their attire, home, and cooking, and show your genuine interest.
- Humor Hunt: The easiest way to survive the holidays with your sanity intact is to discover the humor in situations with your in-laws. Avoid sarcasm which can be spiteful. These faux pas may not inspire genuine laughter, but sincerely search for the humor anyway. Using this approach allows us to keep a safe distance and avoid taking things too personally. Think of the silly stories you also share with your friends!
- Remember, it’s just one day: Anyone can make it through one day, even if that day may be long. Knowing that there is an end to the evening — and that in a manner of hours, you’ll be seeing their taillights at the end of your driveway (or you’ll be buckling your seatbelt) — can make all the difference. If you’ve traveled from afar and are spending the night, you will still get to close the guestroom door soon enough.
- Confirm an Advance Exit Strategy: When visiting your in-laws’ home, you and your significant other can agree in advance as to the length of your stay. Then depart at the predetermined time. If you anticipate that one of you may wish to stay longer, plan ahead and drive two cars. When you arrive, advise the family that you (or he) needs to leave at an agreed upon time. If visiting, be sure a hotel is booked in advance. Premarital counseling may be the best place to start addressing this question; it's frequently covered in that setting.
The most important takeaway is to communicate openly and ahead of time with both your significant other and your relatives. Holiday plans can be stressful, but early communication will help ease the pain.
Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural trainer, modern manners expert, and the founder of Access to Culture. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE centre, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary seriesConfucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People. She is the resident etiquette expert on two popular lifestyle shows: ABC Tampa Bay’s Morning Blend and CBS Austin’s We Are Austin. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, and the National Business Journals. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business, Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, now in its third printing, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. She’s a winner of the British Airways International Trade Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards.