A Survival Guide For Christmas And Other Family Gatherings
Whether online or in-person, family gatherings can be quite challenging, full of intrusive questions and misleading assumptions. Here are four tips to help you feel at ease and playful at the Christmas table. Yes, it can be fun!
Since Christmas celebrations usually follow the same pattern within a family — even on a special year as 2020 —, it is easy to anticipate and get ready. If you are aware of what might happen, you can choose how to respond to it rather than being the victim of the situation.
The initial question: Why do I do it? When it comes to family gatherings, you are either invited (physically or through a screen) or receiving. In any case, it is important to know why you accept the invitation or why you decide to invite. Is it because you truly want it or is it because of something else? Because it is the tradition, to please someone, not to disappoint another one?
Sometimes it is good to do something we don’t really want to do just because we know it is going to bring so much joy to a loved one — like watching for the tenth time in a row the same cartoon with your little cousin because she is so excited about it. But if you find yourself engaging into something that you profoundly dislike, that is going to harm you or that goes against your values, maybe it is time to pause and think.
What is the benefit of doing something just to please someone else when you don’t get to enjoy it all? Maybe you are afraid of disappointing them. But shift the perspective for a second: how happy would it make you feel to know that the person who is sitting next to you came here just to please you or to avoid upsetting you and is in fact suffering in silence?
How happy would it make you feel to know that the person who is sitting next to you came here just to please you or to avoid upsetting you and is in fact suffering in silence?
Setting the scene: Where, what and who? Anticipate potential challenges and create solutions before problems even get a chance to arise. Where? Will the family gather physically, online, or both? How much additional stress might this cause? How can you ease this — when I say “you”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to take responsibility for organising everything. You can also delegate to your brother the task of helping GrandMa to join via Zoom, for instance, or tell your aunt not to come earlier so that you have enough time to prepare things at your own pace.
What? Brunch, dinner, breakfast, apéro dînatoire? If you know you don’t eat meat at all and the menu always consists of turkey, politely remind your parents that, no offence, you will not eat meat and please let things be easy in order to avoid having the conversation when the dish is proudly brought to the table.
Who? This one is probably the most important. And first of all, who is the “you” people will meet this year? There are certain members of our family that we see only at Christmas — who were you last year, who have you become since? You have probably changed, a lot or a just bit, and who do you want them to see? How does the person you want to be in front of them act and speak? They might have changed too. Even if you are convinced that they cannot or don’t want to change, give them a chance, be curious about who they are, who they have become. Maybe you will discover some interesting things (or the confirmation of what you suspected, but be curious first). Also, consider who is not present. How is the memory of those who passed away honoured? How are those who could not travel included in the celebration? By reflecting on those questions in advance, you can make better-informed decisions regarding how you want to show up.
Even if you are convinced that they cannot or don’t want to change, give them a chance, be curious about who they are, who they have become. Maybe you will discover some interesting things.
The Christmas classics. As traditions usually follow the same patterns, there are many conversations and events that you can anticipate. Here is a chance to change the course of the story, inspired by the work of Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed: imagine you sit in a theatre, relaxed and comfortable, watching the play. On the stage, set all the people you will meet at the Christmas dinner, yourself included. Start playing the scene, observing it for what it is, a theater play. As if you were watching someone else’s family. And when the first awkward or unpleasant situation arises, stop the scene and decide on a new course of action. What would happen if you replied differently? What would happen if your nephew behaved more bravely? Try as many scenarii as you want. It will train you to acquire this infinitesimal distance that will help you on the moment to choose how to act and speak rather than be caught in your automatic defence response. It will also give you the opportunity to let your imagination work, having a bit of fun experimenting, and maybe even discovering more creative and playful ways to deal with a situation that used to be painful in the past.
Decide on a new course of action. What would happen if you replied differently? What would happen if your nephew behaved more bravely?
Remember the basics.
° It is not about you, it is about them. When someone addresses you a reproach or a nasty comment, it tells something of their own insecurities. Breathe and get curious: “I see that you still don’t like my long hair, is there anything that upsets you in seeing a man with long hair? Why is it important to you that I cut my hair?”. If your interlocutor is just a tiny bit willing to engage in the conversation, you might discover wonderful things — and often from the person you would have expected the least!
° Resentment is wasted energy. If someone did or said something to you last Christmas that upset you, leave it there, in the past. Resentment is using up a lot of emotional and physical energy and somehow it lets the other “win” because you are still focusing on the incident (remember this one too: what we focus on is what grows) rather than moving forward. It doesn’t mean that people can be disrespectful, it is about saying that you disagree or feel upset and do not want to continue the conversation and then peacefully move on to something else, something more interesting that feeds your joy and makes good use of your energy.
° It is not because it is addressed to you that you have to answer (the wise person who told me this will recognise themselves). You can pretend you didn’t hear or you can say you don’t want to have this conversation now or something like “If that’s your opinion”, “If you think so”, “Maybe that’s how it is, I don’t know”. We are as equally free to ask questions as to not answer questions.
° Reply to a question by a question or question the question and have fun! Take a look at Kasia Urbaniak’s work to dive deeper into the topic (watch here): when you ask back, you shift the focus on your interlocutor and that is when you get your power back. You are not on the spot anymore, you can start thinking again and decide what to do or say next. Examples range from: “Where did you buy this tie?” to “Did you just ask why I still don’t have children?” to “Do you think you are informed enough of what is going in my life that you can allow yourself to ask me such a question?”. ANY question does the trick.
° Be curious and interested. As said, it is not about you so get curious. If you explore the other person’s reactions, questions, and comments, you move from a feeling of pain to an attitude of discovery. Maybe you will realise that your suffering meets your interlocutor’s one or that you actually stand for the same values.
Christmas is a celebration of joy, the light returns after the Winter Solstice and we exchange gifts to show our love and appreciation. Join the table well prepared and, even more importantly, with the sincere desire to look for the good and the beautiful in everyone — you included.
Merry Christmas! Enjoy and be well.