Friday, December 16, 2011

The Holiday Shuffle

“What time are you eating Thanksgiving dinner?”

I shrugged. “Four or four-thirty. Why?”

“Okay, good. I think we can make it. Her family is eating early.” Nathan wore an expression of relief as if he had just weaved through a minefield and survived.

I just shook my head and laughed. “You’re going to get fat keeping everybody happy.”

Our middle son was going through the same thing, eating dinner at Michael’s and then both of them joining us for another helping of Thanksgiving. I didn’t envy them, but I did feel their indigestion. Holidays are tough on new couples as they are suddenly thrust into the midst of the toughest political arena ever formed; that of family politics.

Parents have had years of control, never doubting that their child would be at the table on Thanksgiving Day no matter what time they decided to eat or suffering with them at that open house on Christmas Eve and then all day Christmas breaking the new toys that Santa brought. However, when that significant other finally enters the picture, there is no longer one family. There’s not even two; there’s three, and all of them expect top billing in the family hierarchy. Add to that the statistical divorce and soon that number can climb, and a tank of gas emptied without even leaving the city limits. Never before have they had to share their offspring, and now they find the notion of splitting time alien and unfair.

There are two keys every couple needs to weave their way through the tangled web of holiday family politics: communication and planning early. If Christmas Eve comes around and you still don’t know where you’re going, you’re already the web’s victim.

Before you do anything else, both of you need to sit down and have a heart to heart, because not only are your families used to doing things a certain way, so are you. You’ve grown up with certain traditions and customs and now is the time to discuss which ones are important and which ones you are ready to use your spouse to escape. When Char and I were newlyweds it was easy. Her family celebrated on Christmas Eve and mine on Christmas Day. That left the morning free and clear for us. It worked out perfectly and everyone got time together. Not everyone is that fortunate, however. Both families may have grown up with the same traditions and now some acrobatic decisions are necessary and quite possibly new traditions created.

Because of the power struggle going on between families you need to be on the lookout for those statements that are said merely to ignite guilt. “You always spend more time with her family than you do with us,” and other manipulative whines. Don’t allow yourself to be bullied into not doing what it is you really want to do.

True, the holidays are about family, but really, isn’t the rest of the year as well? Listen to what is being said, weigh it for nuggets of truth, and make repairs if necessary. Toss out the embellishments and don’t allow yourself to feel guilty. If distance is an issue, then perhaps splitting the holidays is the answer. Visit one side of the family at Thanksgiving and the other at Christmas and you will be left with a Happy New Year.

Furthermore, just because you’re the new couple on the block doesn’t mean that it’s your job to always be the one who bounces from house to house. Several years ago, I was working three jobs and always seemed to be in my car. Thanksgiving was the only day that I didn’t have to be anywhere and I decided since I didn’t have to leave my home I wasn’t going to. The announcement was made that I was enjoying remaining home that year and anyone who wanted to could join us. I have kept that tradition ever since and can at least relax one day out of the year.

One of the things that amaze me every year is how the holidays seem to catch everyone unaware.

“Why aren’t you in school today?” A confused parent asks the child perched in front of the television.

“It’s Thanksgiving. Why aren’t you cooking?” And suddenly the fact that there was a parade on television makes sense.

I’m just as guilty as the rest, which is why most of my shopping is done on Christmas Eve. I keep saying I’ll get better, but that goal goes out the door with the New Year’s resolutions I never make.

However, in order to avoid that holiday shuffle stress, don’t procrastinate in the communication area. Make your plans early and discuss them as soon as possible with the people involved. By waiting until the last minute to tell Aunt Josie you’re not going to be at the big Christmas party that year because you made other plans you run the risk of hurting people’s feelings. If you’re coming for a visit, share that information as well. The girls hate surprise visits and much prefer saying, “Pardon the mess,” when the house is immaculate. Communicating your plans early helps people, not only to plan, but also to come up with viable solutions if there’s a conflict. It would put a damper on the holidays if you surprised Grandma Christmas morning only to discover she’s at your place trying to surprise you.

If everyone lives close and you’re scheduling your holiday gatherings between families, make sure to block off plenty of those precious moments for everyone with a few extra minutes thrown in as a buffer. You never know when something is going to pop up or you just need to sit in the quietness of your car between families. Furthermore, you don’t want to spend your holiday racing between houses all day, because you’ll not only wear yourself out, but no one will really be able to enjoy the moments.

Besides, if people feel that you’re just there to unwrap the loot and scamper off to the next gift exchange they are going to be offended. It’s a faux pas you’ll be punished for throughout the year. Make sure everyone has time to visit without anyone feeling rushed or cheated or that you prefer one family over another, even if you do.

The holidays are tough enough on old and young alike without adding the drama of family politics to the mix. However, with communication and some early planning, along with some give and take on everyone’s part, that special time of year can be enjoyed instead of dreaded.

So, how about it? Do you know where you’re going to be this Christmas?

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  1. Finally read it ;) Well written, Rob, as always - and that is advice that will be considered in the years to come...