Deck the halls! Light the candles! Hang the lights! Prepare the feast! And then wait with excited anticipation of family and friends coming over to share the celebrations of the season.
Whether you observe Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, or a blend of traditions, the hopes for joy and peace are high in the hearts of most.
Then, for some of us, there are the thoughts of “that” guest or “that” situation everyone knows can turn delight into disappointment. We hope it will be different this year, and sometimes it is. For the most part, though, the disruption is fairly predictable. This is a real circumstance that many families deal with year after year.
How do you break that cycle? Can anything be done to increase the chances of a peaceful, happy gathering?
Gratefully, there are ways to disrupt a disruptive pattern. Because it is so common, a lot has been written on it. You can find lots of suggestions beyond the ones listed here. Generally, within families, a few themes can set off uncomfortable interactions. You probably know what they are: discussions of controversial topics, intoxication, and old family disputes.
Knowing that, here are a few strategies that you can try. They take a little planning, you will need to be vigilant for signs of trouble, and you will likely need some allies.
But remember, the goal is a joyful, fulfilling gathering.
1) In an upbeat way, create a family agreement about non-festive topics and turn it into a game. Before the gathering, make a “swear jar” (or a Krampus jar?) and list the non-festive topics like politics, religion, vaccines, social issues, etc. You may want to pre-arrange to have a few allies who will quickly agree to the game. And when someone brings up a topic on the list, they get to put a dollar (or a quarter) into the jar and come up with a new topic. It can be fun if everyone buys in and quickly catches someone veering off into controversial territory. At the end of the gathering, draw a name for who gets the contents of the swear jar.
2) If you plan to serve alcohol, do so in limited quantities. For some people, alcohol consumption results in a relaxed, jovial response. For others, it can result in a more emotional, agitated, or aggressive
response. So, put away the alcohol in the house to limit access and make delicious low-alcohol punches or festive drinks. Be sure to include alcohol-free options as well. Actually, serving no alcohol at a gathering is perfectly okay. No need to explain yourself — it’s your party. You’re allowed to serve what you wish.
3) Have a strategy in place for heading off a conversation that might be drifting into the red zone. Announce that you are honoring the spirit of giving and that you have some surprises for the gathering that will be handed out at unexpected times. Have small grab-bag gifts for guests and at random times (or when the mood starts to shift), have one of the kids pull a name from a basket for who gets to pick the next gift. Be creative. Sometimes even small redirection strategies can help stop an uncomfortable situation before it starts. They’re also fun.
These are not the last word in ways to keep spirits bright. They are just a few suggestions to start new traditions and slightly change the dynamics of potentially explosive situations. Taking a bit of our control back in what has felt like an out-of-control situation is a major step forward.
May your holidays be merry and filled with peace.
Julie Dostal is executive director of The LEAF Council on Alcoholism & Addictions, Oneonta.