9 ways to make the holidays happy

Try these techniques for handling common issues during family holiday gatherings
By Katie KlabusichPublished on 12/13/2017 at 11:00 AM EDT

It’s that time again: “the holidays.” Thanksgiving has come and gone, ushering in the busy season of meals and gifts and travel. Even those of us with zero family conflict (you’re out there, right?) can dread this annual marathon of coordinating calendars, hustling and bustling, gift selection and wrapping.

Turning conflict into joy is one of my specialties, so allow me to make a few suggestions on handling familial archetypes and common situations. High pressure holidays aren’t the time to resolve estrangements and do dinner-time therapy; why not ensure you can enjoy your pie without mainlining antacids?

Challenge #1: The empty chair

The first year after a loss is especially rough. If you’re already thinking about that person who won’t be there, honor them, maybe by cooking their special dish. Families that say grace, can include a remembrance. Consider a toast before the holiday turkey or ham or pie is served. Digital picture frames make it easy to compile a set of moments that person shared with each and all of you over the years and make it easy to tell happy stories.

Not everyone is good at handling grief. Remember to give some slack to those who remain dry eyed or don’t participate in the memory sharing.

Challenge #2: That cousin who can’t leave old grudges at the door

Enlist a few family members to take turns being interjecting subject changers. Make it a game; keep score like in Cards Against Humanity. Points for speed and creativity as well as effectiveness (i.e. do they return to their story or give up).

Challenge #3: The adorable nephew who’s too young to know there are things we don’t say at the dinner table

Suck it up and laugh. Make dead eye stares at adults who can’t roll with it.

Challenge #4: The sister who never taught her kids boundaries

This is going to require being upfront with the parent(s) ahead of time. Maybe it’s a reminder about your great grandmother’s China cabinet in the front hall being off limits, that the dog isn’t too keen on having its tail pulled, or that your children aren’t allowed to go off and play without talking to a parent.

Also, be sure to talk to your kids in an age appropriate way ahead of time, or you’re going to hear “but cousin Carrie gets to!” And as awkward as it might be, asking your sister to step in the moment her kids break the house rules is always an option.

Challenge #5: The first holiday with grandma’s new “friend.”

The most important thing here is to make them feel welcome and comfortable. Ask ahead of time about how this new person should be introduced. And please remember that they’re adults. It’s all too common to infantilize folks over 70, especially when they’re “getting back out there.” Don’t use a cutesy tone, and make sure you introduce them to new guests as they arrive.

Challenge #6: The parent who doesn’t respect your food choices

I know someone whose in-laws used to put bacon in every single Thanksgiving dish because she and her partner are vegetarians. Remind whoever is making things difficult that—beyond occasionally rolling their eyes—they never bothered your cousin Jack when he refused to eat nothing but hot dogs and mashed potatoes for most of his childhood. So maybe they can take it down a notch about your passing on the mac and cheese or turkey.

Challenge #7: Answering “catching up” questions when you’ve been through a break-up or job loss you don’t want to talk about

Responses like “fine” and “pretty good” don’t work with many of our family members. Even if they only see you once or twice a year, they feel entitled to be as up in your business as they please. There are a couple of tactics that work depending on your family dynamics. I used to favor oversharing. Answering questions about your romantic life with a touch of honesty will often dissuade followups. And feel free to turn things around on them!  Just about any work-related question can be deflected by asking a nearby younger family member about school or an older family member about retirement/social security or a health concern.

Challenge #8: The aunt who still behaves as if you’re 5-years-old

As the baby on both sides of the family, I know how irritating this can be. Unfortunately, there’s no snapping them out of it, so I suggest making the best of it. Ask to lick the spoon while they’re making dessert, get there early and put the comfortable chair at your place setting. Enjoy always getting one of the two turkey legs while your brother groans, and feel free to pass on helping clear the table. If they’re going to treat you like a child, you might as well act like one.

Challenge #9: The grandparent who tells the same family stories every year.

Listen to them. These stories actually do matter, and you’ll be glad someday that you heard them enough times to remember them yourself. Plus, if you prod them along just right, you can usually hear some gems about their younger days. I found out in the last year of her life that my mom’s mom had eloped with my grandfather after only knowing him a few weeks! You never know what you might learn.

Overall, remember too that personalities within families don’t always mesh—and that’s not necessarily a moral failing on someone’s part. If you’re hosting, make place cards. Put the irascible nephew and his girlfriend who always picks a fight with Aunt Mary on one side, buffered by your great grandma who’s beloved by everyone. Wedge your chill little sister between your parents who always seem to push each other’s buttons on holidays. Never underestimate the power of assigned seating.

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