The holiday season has started and I’m often reminded of an elderly friend of mine. Whenever someone said “Have a happy holiday!” she always replied, “No, make it one.” She was right, of course. Happy holidays don’t just happen. Holidays are what we make them.
The great thing about annual events is that each year is an opportunity for a do-over. We can slide into a rerun or we can make it be different. If something about the family traditions is no longer working (or never did), we do have some say in what happens next.
“How?” you ask. Whether you want to make some minor adjustments or do an extreme makeover, it starts with each of us. A family is an ecological system. When even one person makes a change, everyone else has to respond in some way.
Sometimes how family members react is a pleasant surprise. They are relieved that someone took the lead to make some changes. Other times – not so much. People don’t like to be made uncomfortable and change, even good change, can be jarring. Nonetheless, if we do it kindly and calmly, a positive shift in how things are done can eventually be accepted and enjoyed.
Three Rules for Making Change
1. Start with yourself.
The most important thing to remember is that we can’t make anyone else be different. All we can do is resolve that we ourselves will do something differently. There is no point in arguing, cajoling or even reasoning if people are resistant to an idea. Instead, find a way to announce a small change you are going to make and stick to it – without rancor or a superior attitude.
Lydia, a former client, did this well. Her family had a tradition of being extravagant with each other, often spending money they didn’t really have in order to show love. Last year, she announced to everyone that she simply couldn’t afford to do what had always been expected. Instead, she was going to make each member of the family a handmade something to show how much she loved and appreciated them.
One sister groused, “It’s unfair that you’re going to make me cookies when I’m giving you something expensive.” To which Lydia replied, “It’s up to you what you can afford to give me. I can give you something that takes my time. I hope you’ll like it.”
Imagine her surprise when one by one, most of the family followed suit. “It turned out to be the best Christmas yet,” she later reported to me. “Some people who really do have more money than time stuck with the over-the-top expensive presents. But most of the family put real thought into making things or bought things that didn’t break the bank. Several of the cousins thanked me for sparing them the January bills.”
2. Plan ahead.
Lydia was successful because she gave people plenty of notice. There was time for people to talk about the change and to get used to the idea. People hadn’t yet done their shopping so weren’t inconvenienced. Matt, a friend of mine, also made a difference by planning ahead.
Matt was never happy with the hectic pace of Christmas Day. Somehow he and his wife had fallen into the pattern of opening presents with the kids in the morning, then loading them up into the car for a two-hour ride to his folks’ where there was another round of gift-giving. By the end of the day, the kids were cranky and tired and he and his wife were, well, cranky and tired.
One year he told his parents (in the most loving way possible) that they just couldn’t do it all in one day anymore. No one was having the fun that everyone wanted to have. He proposed a second Christmas at the grandparents’ house on the weekend after Christmas.
It worked. Everyone was rested. The kids didn’t resent leaving their new toys to go to Grandma’s. They weren’t overwhelmed by a marathon of opening presents at two houses. Everyone had a much better time.
It took awhile for Matt’s folks to get used to the idea that Christmas doesn’t have to happen on the 25th. But when they saw that everyone was much more relaxed and happy, they came to agree that two Christmases really were better than one.
3. Be positive.
Family members are much more likely to accept change if it is presented as a positive. Resist the temptation to explain (or complain about) all the ways that the family’s traditions are wrong, dysfunctional, or burdensome. It’s important to remember that people are attached to traditions, even traditions that have outlived their usefulness,
So — don’t go at it as an argument. Instead, talk about all the ways you think a change would be a happier way to celebrate the season and each other. Simply and calmly point out the positive reasons for changing things up a bit. Perhaps the change will make it more possible to see certain people. Maybe it will reduce expenses or stress. Perhaps it will honor changes in people’s health or age or ability.
For over 40 years, Tully’s mom had cooked an elaborate ethnic meal for 12 or more people on Christmas Eve. A couple of years ago, he became aware that (being 78) she looked exhausted by the time dinner was served.
During the summer, he had a talk with her about how important it is to make sure that traditions are passed down to the next generation. He asked her to help make sure that family recipes aren’t lost by writing them down and sending them out to different family members to bring for the annual Christmas dinner. She protested that of course she could do it. She always had. Tully avoided that argument, instead stressing the positive: She could be in charge. The younger people needed to learn. It would be fun. She reluctantly agreed.
Last Christmas was the first “potluck” of family recipes. It turned out great. The food wasn’t quite the same but everyone was happy with how much more present their mom could be during the meal. Even she was willing to acknowledge that she was having more fun: But Sara needed to add more salt to her dish and Serina really had been too stingy with butter and. . . It was okay. Everyone let her critique the meal. Part of the point was to learn how to make the dishes “right.”
It’s not simple but changes can be made in family holiday traditions. Making a happy holiday means starting to do something about it yourself, advance planning, and, above all, doing it with the kindness that is the spirit of the season.
Happy Holidays, everyone!