Marriage and Family — 28 December 2005
The challenge of holiday family gathering

The holiday season is often portrayed by images of happy families, wonderful food, fun activities, gifts, music and love. For many families this is indeed their holiday experience. For others, however, the charm of the season is tinged with mixed emotions, some discomfort and even sadness.

The holidays awaken in us our family connections. Knowing that you belong to a special group that holds your membership in it as a sacred right is reassuring, supportive and comforting. Yet, it can also be disconcerting in some ways.

Since the holidays are about unity, belonging and sharing, the greatest discomfort people report is about their own sense of exclusion (“I was always the black sheep of the family”), or about the challenge of accepting those whom they see as having harmed them or embarrassed them in the past. All people gravitate to those with whom they feel safe, accepted and supported.

All families have histories, life experiences and legends that are unique to them. Some are endearing and others are difficult. The anticipation of this holiday gathering is based on previous experiences. People may remember with dread their discomfort of having been crowded, offended, quizzed, criticized, ignored, embarrassingly praised, hugged by insincere people, or even given undue credit. The legend of “a great time was had by one and all”, may not match one’s recollection.

The sadness some individuals feel during the best times may be about the loss of loved ones to death or divorce. The whole family is no longer the one of past years and the new experience is hampered by their absence.

We all have some people in our family whom we might not have chosen, had we had the option. Yet, in a strange way even that less beloved individual helps create family unity. The person who is least liked may cement the connection between those who hold him in disfavor. Large families often develop secondary smaller groups of allegiance in which their participants feel accepted and loved.

As much as we may dread being in the presence of Uncle Z or Cousin W, he or she stretches us to live up to our higher self. During the holidays we are called upon to be kind, cooperative, civil and happy even when the circumstances are not ideal and may reawaken for us old painful memories or harsh judgments about others.

Holiday family gatherings challenge us to be at our best. For example, we need to:

• Be civil and treat everyone with respect, even when we may not think that some people warrant it.
• Refrain from joining others in gossip, prejudice or exclusion of someone in order to be accepted by a sub-group.
• Contain our old anger and hurts. Note them and decide to deal with them directly at another time.
• Remember that whatever anyone thinks of us –does not define us.
• Rejoice in others’ accomplishments without comparing them to our own. Respond to others’ misfortunes with empathy.
• Kindly repeat one more time to our great-grandmother who we are and what we do.
• Be patient with the kids whose noisy ways irritate us.
• Be thankful for the gifts we receive, even those we do not cherish.
• Remember to appreciate the beauty of the home, cooking, efforts of the hosts, and hospitality given to us.

• Listen to our great uncle’s silly jokes out of respect for his need for attention and his desire to entertain us.
• Accentuate our commonalities and minimize our differences, by reminding ourselves that everyone yearn to be included, accepted and liked.
• Stay in the present and enjoy the uniqueness of the moment without allowing the past to tamper this year’s holiday happiness.

This partial list is demanding enough to make some of us have reservations about family get-together during the holidays. Yet, as concerned as we may be about our extended family holiday celebration, we are fortunate to have the family we do have. As imperfect as it may be, it is a blessing to have all these unique people enrich our lives.

It is up to us to create a positive experience for ourselves by bringing to the party our best selves. This year’s holidays may be our finest ever, and we may create new positive memories for the years to come. All we can do is choose to behave cheerfully with goodwill and love toward everyone, which is more likely to set the tone for a happier time for all.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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