Surviving Holiday Hell
Why do things go so wrong during the holiday season? Here's how we can make them right.
By Hara Estroff Marano published November 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
From Thanksgiving through Christmas, the rallying cry is "home for the holidays." As relatives gather, we expect these celebrations to be full of perfect familial love and harmony. Alas, ties may be tightest at this season, but so are tensions. Why do things go so wrong—and how can we make them right?
It was the beef Wellington that pitched Frank Pittman into the dark whirl most Americans—and now others around the world—celebrate as modern Christmas. One of the country's leading family psychiatrists, an author and an enthusiastic chef, he went, by his own admission, to a great deal of trouble to construct the elaborate dish for the main holiday feast. "I thought it was fabulous," he recalls. But all six children in attendance quickly stripped off the flaky crust, "took one taste of it, got up and lined up at the sink to wash the pate off the beef." He was insulted. His feelings were hurt. He made fun of the children's tastes. But he never cooked anything fancy for Christmas again.
For Pittman, the dinner disaster brought something of an epiphany: increasingly, we package our expectations of family love into the holidays. We want the occasions to be "perfect" and we want all our dreams—of connection, harmony, joy and bliss—to come true. We willingly go to a great deal of trouble for the season's slew of holidays—Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and, of course, Christmas—precisely because our expectations are so heavily tinseled.
In fact, we count on the holidays to compensate for the rest of the year. "I wanted to make up to the family for not having been a good enough father and uncle all year," the Atlanta-based Pittman confides. The disastrous dinner made him vow then and there to do that in different ways. He now puts a lot less energy into Christmas and much more into the rest of the year. "It's worked out a lot better," he reports.
Holidays weren't always a fantasy of family closeness and wish fulfillment. They used to be more of a community holiday. Thanksgiving began as a civic marking of nature's munificence. At Christmas, communities were thronged with people singing in the streets. Perhaps in keeping with the pagan origins of solstice celebrations, there were grand parties for adults. Christmas festivities were so secularly indulgent that the offended Puritans forbade them.
But over the past century, Christmas and the other special celebrations have moved indoors and become more private family-centered events, emphasizing internal rituals and traditions. "Home for the holidays" has now become the seasonal rallying cry.
What family experts like Pittman now know is that family ties may be tightest at these times, but so are family tensions. Holidays activate everyone's longings for visibility, for recognition, for admiration, for love. At the same time, they stir old fears—of not being nurtured, of being humiliated in the eyes of others, and especially for brothers and sisters, of not being appreciated. The piling up of emotional vulnerability provides a critical mass for reaction. It's almost inevitable that the wrappings will come off family feelings.
Thanksgiving is America's one true nonsectarian family holiday. We pause on this occasion to give ritualistic thanks for the bounties of our lives and country, and, that done, hurt ourselves into the extended orgy of consumption that is increasingly America's gift to the rest of the world.
The Macy's parade, the turkey, the endless football games—William Doherty, Ph.D., psychologist and professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, calls Thanksgiving the slowest afternoon of the year, attributable only in small part to the lethargy induced by overeating—have long been the official kickoff to the annual Christmas frenzy. Thanksgiving is the day on which Christmas decorations sprout in public spaces and Christmas windows debut at major department stores. Increasingly, though, the selling season is being pushed back. Today, the unofficial starting signal for Christmas buying is Halloween.
Still, the day after Thanksgiving remains the single most intense shopping day of the year. Based on the store traffic on this one day alone, retailers routinely issue predictions on just how good the Christmas season will be for them.
Just as the commercial machinery each year whips into gear, so does our emotional machinery. Thanksgiving sets in motion the longing for family ties that were knotted, or supposed to be knotted, in childhood. It unleashes a wave of anticipation that carries celebrants spiritedly through the making, baking and shopping of the next month.
Yet while the season spins us into a whirl of feverish activity, it also shifts us into a psychological passivity. The rest of the year, explains psychiatrist Pittman, we can hope there's something we can do that will make a difference in our lives and family relationships. "But at Christmas time, it's supposed to be brought to us. It's supposed to come as a gift, rather than something we're working for."
Family holidays always ignite nostalgia about experiences in our family of origin. And just as reliably, they stir up all manner of leftover family business. Even before a holiday gets off the ground, bruised feelings and strained relations abound. Just the simple tact of whose house the celebration is to take place in is a statement of family alliances and conflicts, of who has "pull" in the family, who is most central to the group. Which family members will travel the hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in horrible weather at considerable expense to be with the others?
When two or more relatives live in reasonable proximity, the staging competition can be even more protracted and more finely grained: Whose home will the main feast take place in? In whose home will gifts be opened?
Thanksgiving, at least, is over and done with in a single afternoon. Christmas, on the other hand, is typically a marathon of events that can last for several days. Family members often maintain their harmony during the rest of the year by carefully keeping their distance from one another, but at Christmas, the enmeshment is complete. Such convocations follow an inexorable rule: the longer relatives stay together, the greater the chance the harmony will break down.
The emotional stakes are higher at Christmas as well. Thanksgiving is more a national holiday in which the prevailing ritual is pretty much identical from one house to the next: gobbling down turkey. With its more family-particular traditions, Christmas runs deeper in the psyche, is more tied to childhood memories.
It is the rare family in which siblings have not carried long-simmering resentments into adulthood, such as a belief that another sibling was really Mom's or Dad's favorite. As family members pull into the driveway, they slide into old familiar roles as if they'd never left home, gotten married and started their own dynasties.
In this atmosphere, nothing is natural; every act, every gesture and word is emotionally charged. Arriving and saying hello, only to find that your big sister or brother is—or isn't—there before you, can set off feelings of being slighted.
As the family sits down to dinner, the stories that are told don't just stand or fall on their own merit. They resonate with who has the voice that's heard, and who spoke last time. Just whose version of that Hawaii vacation 20 years ago dominates the conversation—once again?
Issues that have spent the year (or the decade) in hibernation are apt to surface: Who was the Cinderella? Who was always the good kid? There's usually a hardworking sister who helps set up and clean up. This "Cinderella" will be doing the dishes with Mom in the kitchen, becoming ever more resentful, just like she used to, while her sister, the family "Princess," is out snowmobiling—"and damn her, she's done that all her life." Today, the sibling stew often is spiced with a bit of gender twist. "The boys never had to do anything anyway."
The person who suffers most, though, may be the holiday coordinator. Every family has one. Usually it's a woman assigned—sometimes she volunteers—to take on the emotional and physical responsibility for the holiday. She is, says Doherty, the holiday CEO, with one outstanding difference: she doesn't actually command anyone else.
But like any CEO, she wants to maximize profits. She wants the holiday taking place on her watch to come off perfectly. She wants everyone to be happy. She wants everyone to be merry all the time. She wants no one to be irritable.
She is doomed to feel like a failure. What's more, she will be completely burned out even before the holiday celebration begins. For her, it becomes an endurance trial, and she is overwhelmed with relief—and guilt—when everyone finally goes home.
It's her job, she believes, to actualize the cultural belief that the family is one big harmonious group. As a result, she will spend a great deal of holiday time trying to squash eruptions of irritability and outright conflict. But the cast of holiday players is too large to control. Her only option is to launch into overdrive and try to tightly control the revelers. When, despite her best efforts to contain conflict, Uncle Max and Uncle Eddie finally light into each other's politics, she can be found on the back steps, sobbing into the frosty air.
Every family has its own culture of Christmas, its own set of highly structured traditions. Most of them carry the force of commandment. Even the subtlest difference in a ritual's practice, says Doherty, can make anyone in attendance who was not born into the family, not socialized into doing it that way, feel like it's not really Christmas—and give rise to a morose subgroup of celebrants. When is the tree decorated? When are the presents opened—on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day? And just how are they opened? Does everyone rip in at once? Or are presents doled out one by one? And, oh yes, do we serve turkey or ham? Or is it goose? Or Turducken?
The problem is, marriage always consists of the merger of two cultures. "Principles of tree decoration represent just one element in the emotional landscape of Christmas," says Doherty. He himself hails from a line of tinsel "throwers," he confesses. Not that he ever would have identified himself as belonging to any particular Christmas culture. But then he got married; he had climbed a ladder to begin decorating that first Christmas tree when his wife walked in the room and recoiled in horror. "What are you doing?" she gasped as he flung fistsful of the stuff at the tree. Thereupon he discovered that she came from a family of tinsel "placers," who fastidiously draped each strand over its appointed branch. He notes that his is now a tinsel-free family.
Doherty also knows one pair of newlyweds who took diametrically opposed approaches to gift unwrapping. The grooms family dove in and attacked their presents simultaneously; gifts were briefly exposed, then quickly disappeared beneath a flurry of colored paper and ribbons. In contrast, the bride's family exchanged and opened gifts at a stately pace, one at a time, with all family members raptly watching each unveiling. "I feel like I've married into a pack of savages," the new wife told her husband upon witnessing her in-laws' bird-of-prey method; he countered that an onlooker at her family rite could faint from boredom by the time everyone was finished opening gifts.
Steven J. Wolin, M.D., a Washington, D.C., psychiatrist who has studied ritual practices in healthy and dysfunctional families, points out that the deeply resonant nature of holiday events puts a special responsibility on spouses to negotiate an agreement on the format and style their celebration will follow.
Wolin contends that we yearn for ritual "as if there is a deep structure for it in the brain, like Chomsky's view of language." It certainly holds enormous emotional power over us. In a now-classic study on the impact of alcohol abuse on family life, Wolin found that ritual is highly protective. It contributes both stability and a sense of identity to families. Indeed, among families that were able to maintain the role of ritual in their lives despite the disorganizing impact of parental alcohol abuse, there was significantly less transmission of alcoholism to the next generation.
In the course of the family interviews he conducted, one woman told him, "my brother-in-law maintains that people should not be allowed to get married until they've discussed Christmas." One wise brother-in-law. Just whose ritual style will prevail? One or both partners is bound to feel bad, even unloved, when their current family does the celebration "the wrong way." And if the in-laws should be invited for all or part of the holiday celebration—often a way to maintain contact with grown children—they're bound to feel like aliens from outer space.
While some rituals are vital to the life of the healthy family and help stimulate a sense of connectedness, the precise way Christmas celebrations are carried out can be upsetting, or frankly divisive, even within the immediate family. There are those family members who want everything performed exactly as it's been done since they were little—the same table settings, the same foods, the same mode of dress, the same seating arrangements, the same order of activities. Other family members are more comfortable with change, especially as dictated by current needs. "Those who force continuity," Wolin finds, "are usually disappointed."
As one father lamented to him: "When the kids were very young, I bought a Santa Claus outfit and the whole bit... but now Christmas is not the same. The kids come home, and they go through it, but it's not fun. The best thing about Christmas is the day after, as far as I'm concerned. It's something you're obligated to do that you finally get through."
Rituals are powerful because they automatically connect us with the past, but a slavish adherence to them is stultifying. In fact, Wolin found that they backfire when families don't adapt them from one phase of development to the next—say, the children becoming adults in their own right. Then the customs become hollow, participants only play-act their roles—and the emptiness of the gestures encourages the younger generation to flee holiday celebrations in their own lives.
Besides, says Wolin, "we act badly when our expectation for meaningful ritual is disappointed. We feel unfulfilled and tell our fellow ritual-goers that they have it wrong." Of course, he adds, "many individuals, especially men, are either running away from the rituals of their past or they haven't a clue that all this matters. They simply put up no objection to their ritual-keeping wives—until they are asked to do something, to join in."
Because young children thrive on familiarity, cohesiveness and continuity, families generally develop a new respect for rituals when children arrive in their lives. But as those same children enter adolescence, and begin questioning everything familial, it may well be time to add some novel events, perhaps seek the children's input, or otherwise demonstrate flexibility in the execution of ritual celebrations.
Christmas and the dreams come-true fantasies it launches have become so essential to the American economy that exhortations to get into the yuletide "spirit" now saturate the entire cultural environment from Thanksgiving on. This is not solely the creation of toy manufacturers splicing their hard-sell between Saturday morning cartoons; the most elite institutions collaborate in the blitz. America's leading dance company, the New York City Ballet, for example, suspends its diverse repertoire to present only one Christmas-oriented confection, over and over, from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day: The Nutcracker,. In the United States, at least, there is no way to escape Christmas, as secular as it may have become.
In families in which one spouse is Christian and the other is not, society's headlong rush to celebrate Christmas winds up being a continual source of friction. Spouses can get caught up in a tug of war over whose holiday takes precedence, Christmas or Hanukkah, for example. Often a couple will settle for some unsatisfying mishmash of both.
Usually, though, says Doherty, families settle into one of two patterns. In one, the non-Christian spouse, almost always the husband/father, yields to the Christian mate on Christmas—but serves as an in-house critic of the excesses of the season. Aloof from the demands of the holiday; even irritated by them, this person is, in Doherty's words, "a Christmas Abstainer."
Another common pattern is for the non-Christian spouse to initially either ban Christmas or set very strict limits on its observance, then spend years negotiating and reluctantly compromising with the spouse and children. One father, for example, finally yielded on presents for the children but said he would never allow a tree. Some symbols are just too loaded; gifts, on the other hand, are more tied to the commercial secular reach of the holiday.
"I suspect that a key issue is which religion the mother belongs to," Doherty speculates, "because the woman is likely to be the ritualist in the family. I don't think many fathers would pull off Christmas with all its trappings if their non-Christian wives were not into it."
Ultimately, the holiday season doesn't just highlight and intensify religious and cultural differences that may lie dormant or find some easy accommodation the rest of the year. It comes to represent whose tradition and family of origin are valued and validated in the new family that two people have set up.
The arrival of children often brings the smoothed-over issue to the surface. Each spouse has an awakened sense of their own heritage and a desire to pass it on. And the feelings can fester until the issue is resolved.
By definition, family holidays are intergenerational events, often uniting at least three (and sometimes four or more) tiers of relatives. "Married couples who have no children will drive a thousand miles through sleet and rain to be with relatives they don't really like—just to be in a two-generational family," Doherty reports. Even when adults are at each other's throats, everyone competes to make holidays, especially Christmas, happy for them.
Yet ponder the irony. Christmas is an extended celebration built around children, and that we spend weeks preparing for. "But for children, Christmas is over in an hour," Pittman points out. Whatever the loot they get, children pay a high price for the holiday's core frustration. With everyone anxious to do everything right, tension soars through the season. And as is always the case, children with their built-in radar pick up on the adult turmoil and do what healthy children everywhere do—they act up.
Such goings-on make their parents look incompetent. It's points against them in the great holiday sibling sweepstakes: Whose kids are best-behaved? Whose are looking best? Achieving more? And parents are furious with the children for showing them up. Of course, this makes the children get more tense and so they act up even more.
If the holiday imperative to act merry and to feel connected to one and all is daunting for original intact families, it is a superhuman task for divorced and remarried families. With their evocations of the past, the holidays always awaken visions of family wholeness—and this is always a reminder that someone in someone's family is missing in action.
Typically, each family fraction struggles—and often competes against the other—to meet the multigenerational requirements of ritual observance. The result, Pittman contends, is that divorced parents always wind up "chopping up the children for the holidays with the Christmas chain saw."
Children are often members of two households, and while they deeply wish to make the adults in their lives happy, they know they must disappoint someone, because they can't be two places at once; Santa Claus notwithstanding, the laws of physics operate straight through Christmas. The resulting distress can lead to sullenness, acting out or turns at both.
No surprise, then, that children of divorce often come to dread the holidays. They hate the hassling and competition for them that the approach of the holidays sets off in their parents. They hate the feelings of loss. And they hate knowing that, no matter how they are sliced for the holidays, they are always hurting a loved one. So resist the temptation to hiss at Lisa or Johnny, "Can't you just show some holiday spirit?"
Remarriage can make adults euphoric. But their children don't necessarily experience it that way; it's just another means of feeling left out, certainly for the several years that it takes stepfamily relationships to build. Then along come Thanksgiving and the rest of the holidays, intensifying everyone's desire to belong, and the need cannot possibly be adequately met.
If intact couples run up against a culture clash at Christmas, stepfamilies face a prolonged siege. "A stepfamily has not a family tree but a family forest," says psychologist Emily Visher, Ph.D., who with her husband, psychiatrist John Visher, Ph.D., has pioneered the study of stepfamilies and discovered the unique developmental course they follow. For children in new stepfamilies, everyday life is a war of cultures—Mom's, Mom's new husband's, children's, and Dad's new girlfriend's. Every little thing, from the kinds of cookies in the house to the way French toast is made to where the toilet paper is stored, is different from in their previous family.
No matter whose house the holidays take place in, the sense of dislocation and insecurity can be severe. Then double it, because one of the functions of holiday rituals is to communicate belongingness—and new stepfamilies have not yet developed their own rituals. Then, just when a kid is scoping out the new cousins, it's time to pack the bags for the changeover to Dad's new in-laws and a whole new set of not-quite relatives to be met.
The first couple of years of stepfamily celebrations are particularly hard, say the Vishers. "It gets better as the high emotions calm down." They should know. They've mastered 30 years of stepfamily life themselves. "Flexibility is the key. Everyone in the house should get together and put forth their ideas on how to celebrate the holidays. Everyone's input counts equally, including that of the kids. The adults can then select the rituals which are feasible."
Stepfamilies may be the first to know it but actually, says Frank Pittman, "everyone has to face the fact that there is no Santa Claus. No one is going to come and give you what you're missing." And that is the ultimate disillusionment of family holidays. You've reached the end of the year and things still haven't been made right. You still don't have the perfect family. (Psst—I'm going to let you in on a little secret: no one does!)
Somewhere along the way, Pittman explains, "we got the idea that if we chopped enough fish or stuffed enough turkeys or put up enough colored lights or dragged a tree into our living room, then our problems would go away and everything would be wonderful." How did we ever work our way into this deception in the first place?
You could call this belief the stocking-stuffer version of the myth of "quality time." We've bought into the belief that we can do a year's worth of work on our entire set of relationships just in a few days—holiday time. But believing we can repair all relationships and repay all debts on these days is what ruins the rest of the year. Christmas and the rest of the special days are sad, says Pittman, because we face the reality of what we haven't done for ourselves, our lives and our loved ones over the whole year.
Better, he says, if we treat the rest of the year as if it were Christmas. And treat Christmas as if it were an ordeal. Cancel the big show. Don't bother smearing pate on the beef. Simply feed and nurture each other. Then no one will be disappointed.
My girlfriend and I were dating two brothers one winter and were invited to their family home in Thompson, Connecticut, for Christmas. My friend and I are both Jewish. Apparently, most of Thompson is not—a point not overlooked by our boyfriend's father. When he met us, he joked that his sons had won the prize for bringing the most Jews ever into Thompson—that he had never seen so many in Thompson. For the rest of the weekend, he referred to us as "Begin's Beauties," after Menachem Begin, Israeli Prime Minister at the time. Though the comments made us extremely uncomfortable, my girlfriend and I tried to be as polite as possible. The weekend didn't wreck my girlfriend's romance with the brother she'd been dating. She ultimately married him. —B.L.
Next Time, Send Them to a Hotel
It was the first year my mother, a proud new homeowner in New York, got to entertain the family for Christmas. Her sister, brother-in-law and niece flew in from Utah to stay with her for a week. It was a fiasco from the start. My aunt's husband, accustomed to the warmth (and low heating bills) of the Southwest, kept upping the thermostat to 80 Fahrenheit. He also broke one of the brand-new dining table's wooden sections while trying to move furniture around. To top it all off, after my mother "corrected" her 12-year-old niece who had tossed a rude comment to her grandmother, he delivered a 20-minutes lecture insisting that my mother had no right to criticize his child and that if she knew so much about parenting, she should write a book and get her own talk show. —R.T.
How to Really Ruin Christmas
It was a few days before Christmas and the family had gathered at my brother's home as we usually do for the week. He appeared his usual self but his wife seemed tense. Then, while she and I were standing talking on the sidewalk before the house, she suddenly blurted out that she was planning to ask my brother for a divorce—right after the holidays. I was horrified. Should I alert my brother, since he was oblivious? Should I tell the family? If I did, Christmas would be ruined for everyone, including the kids. But if I didn't, we'd be living in a fool's fantasy. In the end, I kept my mouth shut. We all gaily exchanged packages Christmas morning, including my brother and his wife. She asked him for a divorce a week later. That was the worst Christmas of my life. —M.P.
It's Summer, Let's Fight About Christmas
It was July, and the entire family—grandparents, siblings, spouses and children—were on vacation together in Italy. We were all sitting at an outdoor cafe in Rome, joking and laughing, when my sister said: "I want to talk about where we're going to have Christmas this year. We've been going up to (our brother) Harry's for years and this year I want to have it in my home. "She said that it was expensive for her, her husband and son to fly from South Carolina to Oregon each year and that her son wanted to open his gifts at home for a change. "It's my turn," she argued.
To which Harry replied that he would see what he could do, but that his logistics and expenses would be horrendous since there were five in his family, including two sons from an earlier marriage who had to spend either Christmas Eve or Day with their mother. No sooner would they arrive than they would have to depart—as had happened two years earlier when we'd all descended on my sister's place. That launched the annual argument. And when I piped up that we'd never had Christmas in my place and maybe we should all gather in my one-bedroom apartment in New York City, everyone turned on me. No one spoke to each other for hours.