“Home for the holidays” is a phrase freighted with associations,good and bad; memories, real and imagined; and cultural nostalgia for Norman Rockwell’s glistening turkeys and Hallmark’s snowy, glowing feel-good specials. It’s also a season when existing emotional tensions in the family and issues that have been simmering between or among the generations often come to a boil.
Reduced to its essence, holiday disharmony is an expression of the all too human need to be both independent and autonomous – to be securely “held” yet free to be our authentic self. It’s what happens when we hold on to family roles we’ve long outgrown- the drama queen, the victim, the baby, the martyr – or get stuck in dysfunctional family dynamics – guilting, demanding, or withdrawing. The oldest habits are the hardest to break, so it’s no surprise that holiday family reunions are fraught with conflict, even with the best of intentions. “It’s gotten so that I can almost hear the arguments and the fighting and feel the house shake when they slam the door on the way out,” says the mother of three adult siblings who seem unable to politely disagree about anything, from what happened when they were children to how they parent their own. “I’d like to go to an island with no telephones from the middle of November to the end of December, says another client.” “I hate going home for the holidays, I always have to pretend to be someone I’m not,” a graduate student adviser reports. “I can’t stand the way my son-in-law talks to my daughter – I have to bite my tongue to keep from pouring the gravy on his head,” a client tells me.
At a time when polarities are more common than consensus, differences in beliefs, values, or politics are less likely to be amicably settled or acknowledged than argued to the extreme, and holidays, especially when fueled by alcohol, often reflect the culture, tone and context of the environment. A blue state liberal and a red state conservative may coexist in the same family, but not always happily at the holiday table.
It’s not surprising that family alienation is felt more keenly during the holidays than at other times, including birthdays and anniversaries. There are over two dozen Facebook groups for parents of estranged adult children, and even those who report having come to terms with the situation and moved on with their lives post repeatedly about their anticipated grief, ambiguous hopes, and prayers for reconciliation at Christmas, even before the first leaves fall.
Some family members use the occasion to bring up difficult subjects, antagonize each other, demand or acknowledge uncomfortable truths, or reveal family secrets. And others simply bite their tongues, refuse to take the bait, and quietly resolve to never come home for the holidays again.
It may be time for all but happy families bound by tradition, love and mutual respect to accept the gap between the idealized family celebration we’d like the holidays to be and the reality of everyone getting there, being there, and leaving there without stress, tension, or emotional damage that can fray the ties that bind after the leftovers are finished and the tinsel vacuumed away. Time to ask our grown kids to do something else with us, at some other time, if it’s all the same to them. To tell our parents that we want to establish our own holiday rituals, but we’d like to celebrate with them another time, maybe even in another place. To look at our spouse or our close friends, and say, let’s take a trip , or even, let’s take the grandkids and leave their parents home. To say, What can I bring? to somebody else’s party, and have a wonderful time ourselves.