With Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up soon many families are starting to plan their holiday get-togethers, a sort of family reunion for some families. No matter how much planning goes into the holiday, problems can arise anytime a family gets together. Old wounds can open and long held secrets are often revealed.
Family conflicts do not simply disappear because it is "a time of thanksgiving and cheer." Family members are individuals, members who have their own feelings, past hurts, unresolved issues with siblings and parents, and their own personalities. Though one might believe that as adults conflicts could be resolved maturely, this is not necessarily the case.
Expectations of Holiday Family Reunions
Thanksgiving and Christmas bring with them expectations of family love and harmony. While it is true that families tend to have tighter bonds around the holidays; there is also an increase in family tension. People tend to expect the holidays to compensate for a year's worth of behavior. This attitude has evolved over time. Originally, Thanksgiving and Christmas were times for communities to celebrate and they did so with festivals and other community events. Now, the two holidays have taken on more family oriented meanings and with them, the fantasies of wish fulfillment and family closeness. People want perfection and go to great lengths to achieve it; amply portrayed in the movie National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.
Thanksgiving is usually only a one day or one afternoon event for families; but Christmas is most often a lengthy affair. Thanksgiving engages the emotional gears and they seem to stay in overdrive right on through the end of the year. Dreams of family unity and the anticipation of the perfect family holidays are high. People start planning, baking, and shopping to make the holidays everything they dreamed.
Family reunions on the holidays ignite nostalgia about childhood experiences and stir up a good helping of leftover family issues. It often begins with the seemingly simple question of which house will host the holiday dinner and other festivities. The answer makes a bold statement about the family: who is the central member of the family; who has the most influence or pull in the family; who is willing to travel thousands of miles through horrible weather conditions and considerable expense to be with the others?
During the year, family members often find "safety" by keeping their distances from each other; but during the holidays this may not be possible. Typically, the longer the relatives stay; the greater the risk of a break down in harmony. Though both Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to bring emotions to a high level; emotions tend to be at a higher level during the Christmas holiday. Thanksgiving is a national holiday and tends to have less family traditions; Christmas is steeped in family rituals and traditions which can cause emotions to overload.
Holiday Family Reunion Traditions
Christmas traditions are deep in the psyche and tied more to memories of childhood. Every word, gesture and act is emotionally charged. Family members tend to fall right back into the roles of their childhood the minute their cars pull into the driveway. Issues resurface that have been held at bay for the past year. The host or hostess is doomed to fail; perfection cannot be achieved and there may be feelings of "burn out" before the holiday is even over. When everyone leaves, there are often feelings of relief mixed with guilt.
Family reunion games may bring emotional baggage as well. The traditional football game on Thanksgiving afternoon may bring about issues of competitiveness between siblings, feelings of being the favored child of the parents, or the "star" athlete. Siblings may dread the holiday as they anticipate the family reunion tradition of such games while other members may relish the chance to once again be the "shining star" of the family.
Marriages bring two family cultures together and this alone can be the instigator of holiday stress. Which traditions are observed? Subtle differences can make attendees who were not born into the family or socialized into doing the holidays in that particular tradition, feel like it was not really Christmas at all. This can lead to morose in a subgroup of participants. Furthermore, people who force others to comply with their traditions often end up disappointed in the outcome.
Stepfamilies, blended families and divorced families all have their particular stressors to add to the burden of overwhelming emotions. As each family of origin has its own family holiday culture, conflicts are bound to arise. When children are brought into a family, even more decisions must be made regarding how to celebrate the holidays.
Rituals are powerful and connect people to their past. However, they can also become hollow when there is a strict adherence to them. Young children flourish with familiarity, consistency and cohesiveness. As children age and become adolescents, they begin to question things and this can be a great time to try new ideas during the holiday season. Families of divorce have additional stressors because there is often the feeling of someone missing. Children of divorce often dread the holidays as they feel like they are always hurting someone they love.
Differences in religious beliefs often rise to the forefront during the Christmas season. The best way to spend Christmas is to simplify the celebration. For those who are Christians, celebrate the birth of Jesus and deny the commercialization of the holiday a spot in the planning of the family reunion. Believers and nonbelievers would do better to treat each day throughout the year as if it was Christmas day.
Reality of Planning a Family Reunion for the Holidays
People tend to bring the actions or lack of actions to the forefront at Christmas time; they reflect on their deeds over the past year and face the reality of their accomplishments. A better way to spend Christmas is to simplify the celebration.
Great family reunion ideas include activities the family can do together without the baggage of the past. Create a scrapbook for future generations to enjoy, play a board game, or take a walk around the neighborhood. No amount of planning will ensure a perfect holiday celebration. Families who have the ability to adapt will create their own traditions, using a piece of each family culture from the past and incorporating the pieces to begin a new way of celebrating. Making a pact to "leave the past behind" may seem like a solution, but this often fails as the deep roots of traditions are not easily broken.
Planning a family reunion during the holiday season will take its toll on the planner. The best plan leaves room for change. Reality is there will not be perfect harmony; everyone will not be happy 100 percent of the time. Accommodating members as much as possible will be tiring for the host and/or hostess. However, all is not lost. Those who can detach themselves from the family baggage will fair well during the holidays. People who are able to take care of themselves emotionally will have their own plans on how to deal with possible family issues; for example, the non-athletes may simply play a board game rather than engage in the traditional family football game and will be assertive enough to stand their ground. Acknowledging issues but refusing to engage in conflict and gossip can be healing for the entire family.
Estroff Marano, Hara. (1998, November/December). Surviving Holiday Hell. Psychology Today, 21(6), 32.
The copyright of the article "Problems of Holiday Family Reunions" is owned by Cheryl Weldon. Permission to republish "Problems of Holiday Family Reunions" in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.