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5 Hacks for Holiday Disaster Prevention

How to handle political brawls, empty chairs, and clashing styles.

Key points

  • You can prevent holiday disasters this year by remembering that while you can't control other people, you can control how you react and respond.
  • Some tips include avoiding catastrophizing, reframing problem situations, and reigning in expectations of others and of yourself.
  • Hosts should plan strategically to head off political brawls, problem drinking, and other holiday minefields.
 Alliance Images/Shutterstock
Source: Alliance Images/Shutterstock

Amid cheery carols and sparkling lights, holiday angst has come into season. I’m hearing it from clients every day:

  • “If my son doesn’t come for Christmas, it will ruin everything!”
  • “Being alone for the holidays is the worst. I feel like pulling the covers over my head and sleeping through the next two weeks.”
  • “It will be horrible, a real disaster, if my nasty sister shows up for our family celebration but our mom insisted…”
  • “Especially since my mom died last summer, I want to keep family holiday traditions alive in her memory, but none of my siblings want to get together. They all want their own small celebrations rather than a big family get-together and that breaks my heart…”

To be sure, problematic relatives, empty chairs at the table, a holiday alone, a dramatic change in traditions or conflicting celebratory styles can be challenging and make holiday cheer elusive. But there are ways you can stave off disaster and re-introduce joy into your holiday season.

1. Banish “ruin,” “disaster,” and “catastrophe” from your vocabulary

The absence of a loved one—due to death, estrangement, or simply alternate plans—can be sad but doesn’t have to mean the absence of any joy in your days. You can choose to enjoy the people who are present to celebrate with you. You can be warmed by memories of the past and, in some instances, hope for the future. It may be a bittersweet holiday with a mix of pain, love, and laughter. Letting yourself feel some measure of joy despite your pain can be healing.

When a relative behaves badly at your family celebration, take a deep breath and help to mitigate the damage the best way you can but don’t give the person or the incident the power to ruin the day. Remember that you can’t control another person’s choices or actions, but you can control the way you react.

2. Reframe events

It’s possible to change a disappointment or a challenge to an opportunity through reframing. Suppose you set a lavish spread and only a small number of expected guests show up. Reframe this as a chance to have a cozy Christmas and to spend more time with the people who did come to celebrate with you.

If siblings choose to splinter off the big family gathering after the death of your parents, you might choose to see this as an opportunity to form new traditions with your immediate family. If you find yourself alone for the holidays, consider this an opportunity to have a holiday entirely your way. That might mean eating takeout while binge-watching your favorite holiday movies. It might mean doing things your other family members would never have considered—like going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve and reconnecting with the spiritual meaning of the holidays.

Or it might mean volunteering to bring cheer to others. One friend, alone after a divorce, has volunteered with a charity that feeds holiday meals to the homeless and finds new joy in giving. My brother Mike saw the first Christmas after the death of our beloved Aunt Molly, who had made all of our holidays special, as an opportunity to do something totally different. He and his girlfriend baked cookies and took them to a local nursing home where they not only distributed the treats but also spent time visiting with patients, some of whom rarely had visitors.

He saw this as a way to heal and a way to honor our emotionally generous elderly aunt who had given us so much joy over the years.

3. Reign in your expectations

This can mean not expecting others to enjoy celebrating the holidays exactly as you do or to spend extended amounts of time with you when they may have a number of pressing holiday obligations.

It can also mean not expecting too much of yourself. I learned this the hard way some years ago shortly after my husband Bob and I had purchased our first home and subsequently decided to host three consecutive holiday feasts. The first day—Dec. 23—I cooked a turkey with all the trimmings for my brother, who was a newly minted physician doing his medical internship and who was required to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas, and our Aunt Molly. The next day, Christmas Eve, I cooked a holiday ham dinner for my in-laws. On Christmas Day, I tackled another turkey and trimmings dinner for my sister and two cousins and their spouses.

Midway through Christmas Day cooking, the turkey pan split, spewing turkey juices and grease all over. As smoke poured out of the oven, I morphed into a shrieking harridan, ordering our guests to go outside on the patio despite cool and drizzly weather. They hastily complied. I cleaned the oven, found a new roasting pan for the turkey to continue cooking and brought my bewildered guests back into the house. Dinner was fine and on time. However, I vowed then and there to never, ever again throw three holiday parties in three days. And I never have. Now my husband, sister, and cousins laugh when we remember that time and the question always arises “What were you thinking?

4. Plan strategically

Anticipate challenges and state your rules in advance to all attending a holiday feast you’re hosting. If it’s a large family get-together at someone else’s place, talk with the host in advance and/or with those who will be attending to come up with some strategies to prevent political brawls or other problematic behavior. Perhaps talk privately with people who have triggered holiday disasters in the past and seek their help in preventing a repeat.

My client Pam told me recently that she had a talk with her politically opinionated sister in an effort to pre-empt another holiday political brawl among family members. "I told my sister that while we have different opinions politically, the most important thing is that we love each other and for the best possible holiday experience, we need to keep politics out of the mix this year," she said. "My sister agreed with me, especially when I told her that I planned to make this request of everyone in the family."

My friend Cecile talked with her delightful but problem-drinking friend Lisa in advance of her New Year’s Eve party last year. “I wouldn’t say Lisa is an alcoholic but on occasions when she does drink, she gets over-the-top drunk and, frankly, obnoxious," she told me. "So I decided that last year, I was going to serve only sparkling cider and let people know in advance, including Lisa. I told her that I enjoy her so much when she’s sober and that with sparkling cider, we could all be at our best. It worked out well. We all had a good time—and started 2022 with no hangovers.”

Sometimes strategic planning means letting others know in advance what you want or don't want to do this year.

My friend Chuck, who lost his spouse of 43 years in September, is letting loved ones know that he isn’t in the mood to make merry this year. “I feel surrounded by love and by caring friends and family,” he told me. “But I really want to be alone this year—to grieve and reflect and heal my own way. It’s hard telling people this. I fear they’ll think I’m crazy or be hurt that I don’t want to accept their kind offers for holiday gatherings. But I need to be alone right now and also need to trust that those I love most will understand.”

5. Tap into humor to heal differences

This can be particularly helpful when your style of celebrating is quite different from that of another loved one. Perhaps one person enjoys traditional feasts with music and a crowd. Another might prefer a scaled-back holiday with minimal fuss. Both ways of celebrating can be splendid if you can see your differences in a humorous light and enjoy simply being together, going with the style of whoever is hosting.

Left to my own devices, I tend to gravitate toward tradition. I love Christmas trees, the music of the season, and a sumptuous turkey dinner with family and friends coming together. My brother Mike is a minimalist. He usually does without a tree. The charm of holiday music eludes him. His preference for holiday meals tends toward the eclectic.

We tease each other gently about our differences and, depending on the person hosting, we've learned to go with the flow. Several years ago, I was at Mike's house for the holidays and found myself taking some deep breaths as I realized that Christmas Day was looking like any other day of the year as noon approached. I willed myself to say nothing, but my brother sensed my confusion. “I’m just not up to pulling off one of your holiday extravaganzas,” he said with a smile, squeezing my shoulder. “But don’t worry. We’ll celebrate Mike-style this year. There will be a feast. I’m ordering take-out Chinese food for dinner.”

I started to say “What???” But then reconsidered and laughed. And we had a lovely meal and holiday celebration.

This year will be a quiet Christmas with just my husband Bob and me at home in Arizona. And I’m thinking that takeout Chinese food will be just perfect for our holiday feast!

It’s a new family tradition.

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