Every year at this time, although I am Jewish, I rent National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and howl with laughter. It's not that I can relate to family-man Clark Griswald's botched struggle to put a zillion glowing lights on his roof. I've also never had a XMAS tree, no less one that accidentally electrocuted my cat. My long-lost brother visits but not unannounced in a broken-down trailer.

What I can relate to is Clark's heartfelt desire to create the perfect home for the holidays. Yet (despite all the cleaning, fixing and fussing) as my grandfather use to say, "People are the most important furniture in the room." Especially during holiday times, is it possible to create rooms that encourage us to gather, allow us to ‘escape,' and may even help heal old wounds?

In my book, Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places, I discuss ways our home's layout, style, furniture and special objects constitute a "hidden dimension"(1) that influences our interaction with others and affects our own sense of well-being. During special occasions, our choice of rooms for overnight guests, seating arrangements, special plates, menorahs, mistletoe, etc. subtly, non-verbally ‘speak' to and can influence the family dynamic.

Following tradition can be great but, life changes. Thus, it's important to create holiday gathering space based on your real, not fantasy family. Pause and think:

  • Does my family include non-traditional, not just traditional nuclear families? Traditional family households with two or more people related by birth, marriage, or adoption decreased from 85% to 68% throughout the U.S.(2) With an increasing number of people now living in non-traditional households, your home can welcome and celebrate these new configurations. For instance, I am a single parent with two grown children who travel the world. On special occasions when we are together, I set our table with three beautiful, handcrafted plates. It's my way of celebrating the fact that we are very much a nuclear family.
  •  Is my family multi-cultural? Roughly three-quarters of the US population growth that occurred over the past decade was due to immigrants, according to an analysis of census data by the Center for Immigration Studies.(3) There's no better way to celebrate resulting multi-culturalism than through food. Rather than keeping everyone out of the kitchen, if appropriate, invite family members in, either to contribute their unique dish or to help with the cooking. The kitchen, even more than a living or dining room, is a natural gathering and bonding place.
  • Does my family span the generations? According to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data, as of 2008, a record 49 million Americans, or 16.1% of the total U.S. population, lived in a family household that contained at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation.(4) Consider the diverse needs of these generations. While "Jingle-bells" playing in the background may sound cheery to you, it may hinder grandma's ability to hear the conversation. Meanwhile, did you realize that your children, now young adults, feel infantilized by still sitting at a "kids" table?
  • Does your family feud? Every family experiences tension. Arrange living room furniture so all can gather together, yet also allow for private places where people can ‘get some space.' It's OK to set boundaries, close a door and breathe when needed even (or especially!) when it's holiday time. Reduce the chance of emotional over-heating by ensuring proper temperature control. Soft light, pleasant aromas, and/or a roaring fireplace are primal sources of relaxation that can help make your holiday house feel more like a nurturing family home.

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1) Hall, Edwin T., The Hidden Dimension. New York: Doubleday, 1966.

2) Bestler, Karlie, "Statistics Show Single Parenting on the Rise," Single Mother Resources (online), 2010.

3) Grier, Peter, "2010 Census Results: Why did US population growth slow?"Christian Science Monitor (online), December 21, 2010.

4) Pew Social Trends Staff, "The Return of Multi-Generational Family Households," Pew Research Center (online), March 18, 2010.

Copyright Toby Israel, 2010

About the Author

Toby Israel Ph.D.

Toby Israel is an environmental psychologist who studies design psychology.

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