My birthday is November 28th. This date has influenced my view of family celebrations. As you may realize, November 28th occurs in close proximity to Thanksgiving, and at the apex of the pre-holiday shopping season of Chanukah and Christmas. My birthday was greatly affected by this temporal location.
First of all, my parents tended to minimize my birthdays. Like most Holocaust refugees, their concern was to rebuild their lives, not engage in superfluous revelry. By today’s standards even important events, such as my Bat Mitzvah, were minimized.
In addition, there was one more complicating factor: My parents owned and operated a retail toy store. Therefore, during the hectic holiday season my parents were not home preparing a party for my birthday. Instead, they were busy selling toys. Indeed, throughout my childhood, my parents worked very hard to make ends meet. They endured long hours and experienced many stressful days in the store. Birthday merriment was a luxury for which they had neither time nor energy.
In place of a birthday party, my parents substituted the festivities of Chanukah. The extent of our celebration, however, depended on the sun and the moon or, more precisely, the solar and lunar months for that calendar year. If Chanukah fell out that year after the shopping season was over then we had a wonderfully relaxing holiday. If, on the other hand, Chanukah came before December 25th, we had a quick candle-lighting ceremony and then rushed back to the store. The store became my nemesis for an annual two-month period. I thus had my own unique reason to experience the “winter blues. ”
A child’s birthday is an occasion, like the Hallmark-invented times of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, that can compensate for lack of expressed emotion on other days of the year. Since we did not celebrate a day that was my annual milestone, my family missed an opportunity to express closeness and appreciation. Moreover, because I did not have the yearly celebration that my peers enjoyed, I gained a determination that has stayed with me throughout my life: I would highlight every one of my family’s important days regardless of their significance to the outside world.
Similarly, many people utilize Chanukah or Christmas to strengthen family bonds, and assemble together with extended family for at least one party. The purpose of the gathering is the celebration itself, both for its spiritual meaning and its importance to the family. As the generations sit around the table, enjoying the delicious food, they can revel in their unity as a family regardless of what happens the rest of the year.
On the other hand, when getting together with extended family, it is easy to allow past hurts or feelings of neglect to interfere with one’s present enjoyment. Therefore, I’ve created a list of rules that will help make your holiday celebration a truly joyous one.
Rules of Engagement
Rule #1 for all family meetings is to “leave the past in the past. ” As we grow older, and the black and white outlook of childhood becomes blurred to shades of grey, we are potentially more capable of tolerating behaviors that we previously found to be unbearable. Time and distance are invaluable healers. Moreover, we begin to recognize that our mortality looms closer every year. That recognition will often impel us to be happy with whatever time we have left together with our families. Instead of focusing on what the others didn’t or can’t give to us, we can learn to give to ourselves and to share the resultant happiness with them.
Rule #2 follows from #1. Do not carry a “hidden agenda. ” Family events are the worst occasions to resolve unfinished business with your relatives. First of all, they are public gatherings. Discussions of an emotional nature should take place only in private. Secondly, before you say anything, examine your own attitude toward your relatives. Are you still holding onto the notion of the ideal or perfect family? It’s time to relinquish that desire and allow yourself to love your relatives, regardless of who they are or how they live their lives.
Rule #3. Try to prevent yourself from slipping into old patterns of behavior. This time, when your brother teases you, laugh along with him. Endeavor to respond in new ways to old triggers. Stay alert for opportunities to express a side of yourself that your relatives haven’t seen. Do not do so, however, in order to seek their approval but rather because you are being completely true to yourself.
Rule #4. Look for the positive and communicate the positive. Although it may be difficult at first, concentrate on whatever’s going right and ignore or play down the problems. For example, make an effort to give compliments to as many people as you can, especially the host and hostess.
Tangentially, if you have young children, strive to keep them busy and well-fed. That accomplishment alone would be immensely helpful to your extended family. Above all, don’t get involved in someone else’s crisis. Remember, your nieces and nephews are not your children and you do not need to discipline them. If the stress becomes overwhelming, take a break from the tumult and find refuge in another room.
Rule #5: Interpret criticism as advice from a person who cares about you. Successful people learn from everyone around them and construe another person’s remark as a helpful observation about their behavior. They try to view negative feedback as an opportunity to learn something about themselves. Furthermore, when they hear comments such as “Your tie (blouse) doesn’t match your shirt (skirt)” or questions like “Have you gained weight since I last saw you?” confident people will respond without acrimony. They will not allow their good day to be ruined by another person’s hurtful remark. Alternatively, they assume that the speaker has good intentions but bad judgment, or that they themselves might have misinterpreted the statement. It is sometimes good to be hard of hearing.
Rule #6: Last but not least, prepare. We all realize the importance of preparing the food, but it is equally important to prepare one’s emotions. Therefore, visualize the scene of your family get-together, examine your feelings and prepare your thoughts and your actions. It would be helpful to discuss your strategy with an objective person who is not a member of your family. Friends, clergymen, coaches and therapists are all potential sources of support. They can bring clarity to a situation that is often clouded by your own history and subjective opinion.
By following the above suggestions you will be able to turn your holiday celebrations into opportunities for growth and renewal of family ties. In doing so, you will reap the benefits of family support in future years and create a wellspring of memories for your children.
Dr. Mona Spiegel entered Barnard College with the intention of becoming a writer. She found, however, that she was more interested in helping people live their lives than writing about them. She continued on at Columbia University, where she earned two Masters degrees and a Doctorate in Psychology.
Dr. Mona settled and still lives in Rockland County, NY. She worked for many years as a diagnostician and therapist, originally in schools and then in full-time private practice. As Mona’s children grew up and left home she once again returned to her original goal; namely, to help people not only resolve their problems but also reach their highest potential. She thus founded MyFamilyCoach to provide professional coaching to women who want assistance and guidance but do not need therapy.
Mona publishes MyFamilyCoach, a free E-newsletter. She speaks to women’s groups all over the country, introducing them to the benefits of coaching. Mona is a member of the International Coach Federation and the American Psychological Association. Visit her at http://www.myfamilycoach.com .