The traditional family gathering of the holiday season has always had a special warmth. Entire clans get together for a barbecue and Christmas pudding, but mostly to renew family ties and celebrate together. Aunts, uncles and countless cousins converge into a single household; the real excitement comes from simply having the entire family together at one time.
Going home for the holidays is a custom of long standing. Yet, these days it isn't so easy, despite cut-price airline tickets and smaller families. The family structure has changed in recent times, with blended families and divorced parents almost the norm, and families with differing religious and cultural backgrounds much more common. Added to this is the perennial problem of: Whose “turn” is it this year?
Tom and Sue divorced just before Christmas last year. For the first time since their wedding, they didn't spend the holiday together. Nor did they attend the traditional Christmas dinner at Sue's parent's place.
For Sue, Christmas morning was just the biggest disappointment. Tom had the children. “Waking up alone on Christmas morning was the most difficult adjustment of the divorce,” she admits. To someone used to the anxious, excited voices of little children spying a gift-laden tree, a quiet Christmas is no Christmas at all.
But holiday headaches aren't the exclusive domain of divorcees. Solid families must choose among several family gathering options. Elaine and Rob have the problem of too much of a good thing. “It got to be a competition between in-laws,” relates Elaine. “Rob's family and mine both had family dinners on Christmas Eve, and all family members were expected to attend. We had to keep tabs from year to year on whose party we went to first and how long we stayed,” she says, “or else be accused of favouring one family over the other.”
Families place special value on get-togethers at this time, and they can become a cause of competition, especially when grandchildren are involved.
But the issue of where is simple compared with that of religious and cultural difference. For example, families with both Jewish and non-Jewish members may argue over what holiday to celebrate—Hanukkah or Christmas? Then the holiday just disappears.
Joyce and Paul, along with their three children, celebrated the holidays in the usual manner until two years ago. Joyce converted to a religion that doesn't celebrate any holiday. She considers Christmas a commercial rather than a religious event. Joyce and Paul disagree over which religious and traditional practices the children should observe. Joyce has done a complete reversal, from participating in many holiday traditions, including decorations, gift giving and family gatherings, to shunning any recognition that Christmas is different from any other day. For the past two years, Paul has taken the children to celebrate Christmas at his mother's house despite Joyce's wishes and beliefs. Paul doesn't exactly look upon his wife as The Grinch who stole Christmas, but he hopes to find a way to be fair to himself and the children while at the same time acknowledging his wife's new beliefs.
Dr Brent Dennis, PhD, a psychotherapist, says he sees many people who express concern over the pressures of the Christmas season. “It's an emotionally charged time,” he says. “I wouldn't recommend making any major decisions during this season!” He feels that families should make plans for holiday celebrations as far in advance as possible so that all parties can be made aware of any deviation from tradition, and the issues can be ironed out prior to the season. This way once the holidays arrive, family expectations will not be shattered.
Too many have a Christmas card image of Christmas—the generations sharing gifts, food and friendship that is never going to translate into reality—a bit like Clarke Griswald.
Some families do rise to the occasion, however. They load up the station wagon with food and kids and drive kilometres to Grandad's house. Then after frantic festivities they return home, tired and frustrated. Is spending the holidays with grandparents practical?
“The kids were getting older,” explained Mary, “and the toys were getting bigger. It became too much of a production to drag all that stuff back and forth.” Now they spend Christmas at their own home, and although they admit to missing the warmth of the traditional gathering, they don't miss the confusion or stress.
Here's where “scheduling” can help, especially when children of divorced parents are involved. “The holidays raise many difficult issues for divorced families,” says Dennis. “Even choosing the kind of gift to give the non-custodial parent becomes an emotionally charged issue.” Again, things can be worked out—if arrangements are made ahead of time.
If possible, it's best that the children don't get involved in the decision-making. “Parents should discuss the alternatives, make their decisions, and then inform the child of the results,” Dennis advises. This keeps the child from having to choose between parents. Most often, the child will spend alternate holidays with each parent. The main thing is to resist the urge to use the child to play out old conflicts between parents.
“Parents can model responsible behaviours by avoiding confrontations,” says Dennis. They can also use holiday time to teach the children good communication. Having children travel between two different households can be a positive learning experience, Dennis suggests.
Family members may disagree on major issues and still remain close. By “agreeing to disagree,” issues that might otherwise be explosive can be defused. In the case of Joyce and Paul, where religious differences might appear irreconcilable, the solution may not require a change in faith but simply a change in attitude. “Different faiths among family members can be a positive, not a negative experience as long as the differences are not used in a battle for control,” says Dennis.
Husbands and wives who appreciate each other's values and convictions can put aside their differences and not use them to “win points” in an argument.
The holiday season holds many joys, but it also has the potential for conflict. While the nuclear and extended family is no longer the norm, and getting together for the holidays can be difficult, some families will manage in spite of the difficulties to continue traditional celebrations. Others will choose to have smaller, quieter family get-togethers. Whatever the choice, one thing is clear—Christmas is what you make it. You can focus on the fun and good feeling that the season brings, or the issues and conflicts.
Christmas, as the traditional celebration of the birth of Christ, with all that implies, must remain a time of joy, a renewal of faith, and peace among its celebrants.