Please help me have a (relatively) stress-free Christmas
November 30, 2014 7:13 AM   Subscribe

Looking for advice on how to have a peaceful couple of days with family members with whom I have unresolved issues.

After not spending Christmas with my family for a couple of years, I have decided to do so, largely because of my 92 year-old grandmother and my mother (both of whom already said she would like me to be there), as well as some other members of the family I actually like.

My mother and a few other relatives have moved from a big city to the same small countryside town I live in recently and that's something a few family members are not happy with as they see it as a negative move - regardless of the fact they (the people who moved) are happy.

There is also an uncle of mine and his daughter who only ever visit for Xmas and seem obviously forced to be there and I find that insulting. Then there is an uncle who effectively stole money from my mum in a failed "investment" in a plot of land and later my husband and I had to help her with that by giving that cash back to her as she needed it.

So, there. I have a lot of hangups with some family members and I am pretty happy to never talk to some of them - I am not looking for help in resolving these issues really, and if I was to debate them, there's no way I would want it to happen over a Xmas lunch.

That said, I am looking for help in terms of having a relatively friction-free Xmas and my husband (who doesn't think very highly of some of my relatives either) is on board with that. However I am a little worried he might go nuts at some stage if "poked" by someone.

Since I live nearby, I was thinking of only having a meal there and not hanging out there too much, in addition to having some of my cousins stay at my place (since they are younger and more prone to playing games, etc which the older folk are not really keen on).

I know a lot of people have to deal with family members they are not particularly fond of but this year I am specifically doing that for my gran, my mum and a few cousins. What can I do to make sure I don't upset the people I actually love? Any ideas? Thanks so much!
posted by heartofglass to Human Relations (15 answers total)
"However I am a little worried he might go nuts at some stage if "poked" by someone."

Why? Should the person doing the "poking" feel ok with "poking" around? Why should your husband be the one to take it and not defend himself? Of course, I'm taking "poking" to mean someone attacking him for the move you guys made or something like that? in other words trying to cause trouble.

Here's the thing- The burden of a stress free x-mas is not entirely on you and your husband because you and your husband are not going to be the only ones there. It's unfair to force your husband (or yourself) to take up the full burden of it. Especially since anyone at the table who purposely "pokes" is doing it with the full assumption that you will allow them to continue doing so. So what you can do is try to respond in a way that will likely diffuse the situation like smiling and saying "We are sooo happy to be where we are now. Thank you for asking." and quickly changing the subject. But some types of family members will see right through that and quickly "poke" again and again. So, are you going to try to make your husband smile and take the suffering? How is that a stress free x-mas?

You try to change the subject as politely as possible. If this does not work, you very suddenly and POLITELY excuse yourselves from the table and go have x-mas dinner at a nice restaurant with your husband. :) You've already spent 2 years not celebrating with these people so if they REALLY want you there, they will try to have a nice x-mas too. If they don't really want you there. In other words, they just want someone to pick on like the good ol' days or they have other motivations (like maybe they like making others feel sorry for them that you won't visit, etc) You can just leave and have yourselves a stress free x-mas. If you do the relatives will get the picture that being respectful is a pre-requisite to having you around. After you leave they will also be more likely to be direct and ask whoever is "poking" to never do it again. Leaving if things get disrespectful also means whether or not you have a stress-free x-mas will really be entirely in your control and not dependent on anyone else.
posted by rancher at 7:31 AM on November 30, 2014

Pokers gonna poke. Love the ones you love while you still can.

posted by harrietthespy at 7:51 AM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Make sure Uncle and his daughter are staying in a hotel, not in your mother's or grandmother's homes --- or in the home of anyone else they'd drive crazy, like you for instance. Having separate corners to go to will definitely reduce the tension. Your cousins sound safe, so go ahead and invite them to your house if you want; just be careful they don't let the crazies tag along.

Other than that, well, try your best not to react to their poking: remember that they push your buttons for the jollies it gives them when you react ("look at how touchy heartofglass is, and all I'm doing is trying to hold a polite conversation!"), so if you fail to react as they expect, you're winning. A several-seconds-long blank stare plus silently walking away is fine, and will drive them nuts.
posted by easily confused at 8:02 AM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know what the logistics are where you are but perhaps you might engineer it to maximise your exposure to those who you want to see, while minimising those you don't.

My idea would be to see if you could arrange to spend time with Granny on Christmas Eve or get together with your cousins for a walk on Boxing Day, or if lunch with everyone is obligatory for example and just dropping in for dinner on Christmas Day and going on somewhere else?

My own family are a bit of a stressball for me at the best of times, while combined with all the expectations of Christmas it makes the whole situation pretty much unbearable for me. So instead of being around at Xmas I arrange to visit in the run up, where I can get all the positives; feel good about seeing them, feel the festive spirit and get excited about the season, but entirely on my own terms and for a single afternoon rather than having to sit through a multi-day bank holiday of enforced jollity and participation.
posted by Middlemarch at 8:03 AM on November 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sit close to your grandmother and speak gently with her about one small thing that happened in the past, some shared memory to prompt her to open up to you. Have a series of things you might bring up, but don't even try to use them all, just think of them as a connection to her and a way to cause her to speak about her memories and feelings. Bring a photograph to ask her about or some other object that might interest her and energize her. If you are engaged with her, it will tone down the intrusions of those people you don't like. That is, think of the positive interaction that is drawing you there. Prepare for that. Let that fill the space. Expect that to protect you from the negativity of the people you'd prefer to avoid. Don't let their negativity fill the family space that you deserve to occupy, and don't focus on preparing to interact with them. If you can find other better things to do, you might find the resources to ignore them, which is usually the best way to deter negative people from aggravating you.
posted by Alizaria at 8:09 AM on November 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

There is also an uncle of mine and his daughter who only ever visit for Xmas and seem obviously forced to be there and I find that insulting.

But you needn't be insulted. If they feel obligated to be there, that is their deal and not really your concern. You can't make everyone feel happy. Your job is to be gracious and welcoming and polite. If they are there, a part of them probably wants to be there, so try to make the best of it.

However I am a little worried he might go nuts at some stage if "poked" by someone.

Your husband doesn't have to feel poked if he doesn't want to. Change the subject, keep it merry, try to see the best in everyone (even the put out uncle, because I think your'e feeling a little put out, too) and enjoy Christmas. It's best not to preoccupy yourself with other people's problems or try to determine on how they feel. You'll drive yourself crazy.

As of now, you and your husband aren't being persecuted. Your mom may have been screwed on a business deal, but you weren't. It's nice of you to give/loan your mom money but try not to make this your drama. Your mom is an adult who made a decision. Stay out of it the best you can.

Best practice this Christmas is to mind your own business, give up on trying to change people's feelings and attitudes, and have fun. Good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 8:34 AM on November 30, 2014 [7 favorites]

Oh, whew, you have an easy fix! No child molesters or mean drunks, yay! Forgive and let go. They don't care that you are still mad at them, why should you? Your holiday will be so much more fun if you stop thinking about their mistakes and start thinking about the fun things that you can do with them. If you can't forgive, then, yes, limit your contact with them.
posted by myselfasme at 9:01 AM on November 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

I regularly end up at holiday events with family where it's tough for a lot of reasons. Here are some of my strategies:

1. Limit the time. Some Christmases in the past I went so far as to volunteer with Meals on Wheels delivery/caroling so as to have an official outside activity. Bonus was that after you deliver meals to shut-in seniors with no family, your family starts to look really good regardless.

2. Build in some activities or breathers. I always go for a walk, and bring appropriate weather gear to be sure that I can. If you have a dog or young kids, even better. Depending on whether people hang out in the kitchen, bringing something that involves some preparation work helps.

3. Load up my iPhone with light favourite snippets of writing and head for the bathroom for a breather from time to time.

4. Depending on your family culture, bring a video to watch. Just don't make it one where other people's critique hits your buttons - a favourite but not a favourite. This doesn't work on my side of the family where screen time is verbotten during family time.

5. Focus on your experience, not others'. I don't mean don't be gracious and thoughtful -- of course you can be. But you do not control whether your husband goes off the rails (that's stressful) or your gran has a good time or your mother is still mad about money. That is not up to you. You are up to you.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:40 AM on November 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

My approach to this sort of thing is to have gradually increasing circles of responsibility. So you and your husband are TEAM US and you should both work together to make sure the two of you are happy and doing okay and work together to make that happen. Be there for each other so if your husband is getting "poked" by a crappy relative, your job is to swoop in and deflect, etc. Also, if you are worried that your husband will "go nuts" about something, it's also worth talking that over with him beforehand. Since you're both on TEAM US, it's really partly his job to try to moderate his own responses and you shouldn't have to have this concern on top of everything else.

Then move out one level and try to offer a comforting place for your cousins (that sounds like a great idea) and supporting your local relatives who you like. Offer to give rides, back them up when they say they're happy to be here, gently deflect negative-type of energy if peope start getting that way. Deputize yourself to be partly in charge of morale. These fights are largely not your fights, you can just help them not turn into everyone else's. Help the whole crew "shift gears" from time to time like going for walks or helping in the kitchen or playing with the dog or whatever it is. It's easier for people to not get entrenched in crabby discussions if everyone gets up and goes somewhere else. Limit alcohol and/or being around people who are not limiting alcohol. Help your mom and grandma with whatever they need help with, grab some private time with them and check in to make sure they are going okay.

Then move out one level and see if you can do anything about the intractables who seem to bring the gloom. Maybe you can help your uncle's daughter get something positive out of the event so she doesn't grow up into a female version of your uncle. Kids are often trapped at these things and it can be a kindness to help these events not be awful for them. This is not your job, certainly, but sometimes the way to keep yourself from getting wrapped up in other people's drama and bad moods is to just jump in there and try to make the event what you want.

And once it's not a good time for you and/or your husband anymore? Just leave. Go home to "check on a thing" or for whatever reason you want. Being grown up is great because you can pop in and out and presumably you have your own lives and you can go live them. I hope it goes okay. Go team you guys!
posted by jessamyn at 10:18 AM on November 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

However I am a little worried he might go nuts at some stage if "poked" by someone.

Don't let this part be a big deal. If someone explicitly tries to pick a fight you can say, "This is supposed to be a fun day; let's not argue." If they are being passive aggressive, you can change the subject or walk away or say, "Why would you ask me that?" (or whatever fits). But if your husband blows up at one of these people, well then he does. Don't worry about it. Some people won't rest until they've got your goat and sure, it's better if you can rise above it, but whatever gets you through the day.

Most of all, I would strongly suggest forgetting about the history you have with these people and just try to have as decent a day as you can. The financial aggro is really, well, aggravating. My aunts have spent literally decades going on about how someone got screwed over in someone's will or sold property in an inside deal or something, and it has soured a lot of people's relations with each other. In your case this is not ancient history, but something that has caused you financial hardship in the recent past. However, I would suggest maybe examining the way you are framing this to yourself.

Then there is an uncle who effectively stole money from my mum in a failed "investment" in a plot of land and later my husband and I had to help her with that by giving that cash back to her as she needed it.

Did he actually steal from your mother or did she willingly enter into an investment? If you think he deliberately stole money from her, you can ask for it (or some of it) back, or you can let it go. If you think it was just a dumb investment and you all got burned, you probably need to let this go. Either way it will be better if you can put this in the past.
posted by BibiRose at 10:26 AM on November 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

+1 to both jessamyn and warriorqueen's advice. I've had good success in recent years by scheduling things that I want to do with the people I want to do it with, and then blandly ignoring the shit of everyone else. Schedule time to go for a walk with your SO and the people you like after a meal. Plan out sitting with your grandma on a couch and looking at photo albums. It's the best excuse ("I'd love to go skeet shooting with you guys, really, but I promised grandma. Sorryhavefunbye!"), and if you fill your calendar up with good, you don't have do to the other shit.

You know who's really really good at having family functions with people they absolutely hate? Rich WASPy folks. You know how they do it? By baldly changing the topic to boring unoffensive shit all the time. I witnessed it at a Christmas party a few years ago, and the realization rocked my world- these folks are talking about the new banners hanging in the church not because they care, but because they know that no one cares. They're white-knuckling it until they can get out of there, because they all hate each other. It's a crazy fun power-move when you do it:


Shitty Uncle: "Did you hear that Obama's gonna grant amnesty to Ebola Muslim Mexican Terrorists?"
Me: "No, I didn't. Have you ever tried cornbread stuffing in a turkey? I just had some recently, it was delicious!"
SU: "I...wait, what?"
Me: "Cornbread instead of white bread in the stuffing. It was great texture and flavor, I really recommend it"
SU: "But, but...obama...terrorist..."
Me: "Ok uncle ted, talk to you later" *exit stage left* *gets more booze*
posted by DGStieber at 10:48 AM on November 30, 2014 [10 favorites]

Spend your time talking to the people you want to, avoid the people you don't (by excusing yourself politely) and have an exit plan and/or a specified amount of time that you will stay at a place. For example, plan to have your own car and leave after x hours no matter what. Or if you are staying at the place where people will be coming for dinner, plan to take a break into your room at x hour. This is helpful as sometimes we get worn down by people without realizing it and snap when a time out or early exit would have helped.
posted by Toddles at 11:32 AM on November 30, 2014

There are wonderful suggestions here in this thread. I don't know what kind of people you have in your family, but with a few of mine a lot of them simply would not work. Some people want very much to start a fight and they will keep at it until that's exactly what's going on. Even if you don't respond, if they keep at it there is still a fight going on. The only difference is that it's just one person yelling while the other person tries to change the subject for 30 minutes. If this is what your family is like then the only way you can avoid a disruptive time and have fun is to leave at that point. But I can see how they would absolutely work with some of my other relatives and I'm going to steal some of them for myself. :)
posted by rancher at 1:10 PM on November 30, 2014

Another option is to play Crazy Relatives Bingo --- you can just play in your head, or you can make up bingo cards for you and your husband and maybe a couple of those reasonable cousins. Make up bingo cards where each square is a comment or action: you win a square when Crazy Uncle or his daughter say a specific comment ("he made a racist comment: I win square B2!") or do something objectionable ("she's on her fourth glass of vodka: I win square N3!"). Compare cards later to see who won the game.
posted by easily confused at 6:56 PM on December 1, 2014

One little tip that's been helpful for me and my partner: have a clearly defined exit strategy that you both know and are committed to.

Before a gathering, my partner and I sit in the car for 5 minutes (we can always explain this away if anyone asks - "just returning a quick call!") and decide a handful of things:

1- the amount of time we are spending at the gathering. 2 hours goes by much more quickly when you know it's only 2 hours.

2- how we're going to manage the room. Jessamyn, warriorqueen, and DGSteiber have great suggestions there.

3- our "exit move." This sounds stupid, but we have a physical gesture we agree on that means, "I'm over my limit with these people; it's time to bounce." It used to be right hand scratching left ear, but I screwed that up once, so now it's glasses tipped up on top of your head. When one of us shows the exit move, the other IMMEDIATELY makes an excuse and bails us both out of the gathering.

It gets difficult when we're staying where we're gathering, but we've used "hey, we were gonna call your mom tonight" or "what time were we going to catch up with {old friend}?"

Good luck.
posted by elmer benson at 7:46 PM on December 2, 2014

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