Merry go round a Christmas table

How to find a way to have a successful holiday? Prepare for challenging family gatherings? Distance yourself from loved ones? Or perhaps reshape your approach to joint celebration?

A trembling voice, sweaty palms, aching stomach, a faster heartbeat. This is how the body signals intense stress. Because you know that in a few hours, you will sit at the table with family members you haven’t seen in months, or even a year, closer or more distant. In your mind, you pray that this time Aunt Mary or Uncle Zdzisiek won’t ask intrusive questions or make sarcastic remarks. Yet, you have a whole list in your head: where is your loved one, whom you saw just two months ago in your joint Facebook photo; when is the wedding, and if you’re already married, when the child, because the biological clock is ticking; how much do you earn and when is the raise, when is the promotion, a new apartment, and that car seems like a company one, so you can’t afford your own; why divorce right away; don’t raise your voice at Aunt Mary; don’t slouch; maybe you gained weight, or you look frail, maybe you’ll eat a few more dumplings; why didn’t you try the carp, your mom worked so hard… have you recently seen Agatka, the neighbors’ daughter, she is so beautiful; Your cheesecake is a bit dry, I prefer it moist; Don’t be angry, anger is harmful to beauty… Not to mention discussions about religious, political, or worldview beliefs…

I’ll comfort you – it’s not just happening to you. The internet is bursting with guides on how to safely survive the celebration with family and which topics are better left untouched at the table. Many people experience the so-called pre-holiday stress, and holidays spent with family rank 42nd on the Holmes and Rahe scale of the most stressful life events (scoring 12 out of 100). Why does a time associated with warmth, joy, and closeness sometimes turn into a verbal and emotional battle in the ring? Can it be changed? Can the twinkling world we see in TV ads since the beginning of December emerge within our four walls, or is it better to dismiss this scenario altogether?

Expectations versus reality

The plan is usually simple. For a few holiday days, we would like to leave behind important matters and worries. However, instead of the desired moment of rest, relaxation, and joy, someone keeps reminding us of failed relationships, unresolved issues, unmet expectations, lack of skills, or plans for the future. Psychologist Agata Stucka emphasizes: „Holidays, in a nutshell, tell us about starting a new chapter, about rebirth, and yet instead of aiming for brightness, we must face dark topics from the shadow area. For me, it’s even more moving because – unfortunately, I have this impression – it’s somehow ingrained in our culture”. And so, at the table, we hear stereotypical challenging questions, referring to the traditional model of a happy family with a bunch of offspring. Nobody is interested in our opinion, especially if it deviates from the expected pattern. “We take on the role of a child, which, after all, has no voice. Again, we’re wearing short shorts, and no one at the table takes us seriously” – adds Agata Stucka. „In my opinion, what’s mainly lacking here is communication” – says psychologist Marta Kamińska. „We often have some idea of how we will spend the holidays. However, let’s remember that no one else knows it except us. And if our vision had been revealed and supplemented earlier, maybe we could have found a compromise”.

Judging versus conversation

The problem lies in the fact that often we don’t communicate at all, for example, because we assume that something is as obvious to others as it is to ourselves. Moreover, we must honestly admit that judging others also comes easily to us. „Our minds are constructed in such a way that we find it easier to process a reality that is categorized and pigeonholed” – confirms Marta Kamińska. She adds: „To some extent, this is a normal process. Although often there is something deeper to it – we can’t talk about our emotions. Often, a discussion about who will make dumplings is just a facade, behind which more important content is hidden. Someone, for example, waits for the day of preparing the filling and dough to later hear compliments about them, and by doing so, feel appreciated, one might even say «internally nourished». Or it’s simply a task that evokes pleasant memories for them, without which they can’t imagine the December time. A specific, clear message could help with understanding, and consequently – evoke greater openness on the other side. According to the NVC model, all expressed emotions are information  about our unmet needs. This means that, for example, in a seemingly malicious question like «Have you finally found someone?» there may be a significant element of someone’s concern. Let’s try to see it. It can also help us understand the other person’s intentions”.

Me and my needs

It’s good to start change from oneself. Before a family gathering, it’s worth considering what we want to talk about and what not necessarily. What topics feel open in our perception, and we are ready to share them with others. „Of course, regardless of our level of preparation, there may be some tension in response to awkward questions” – notes sexologist and couples therapist Ela Trandziuk. What can we do in such a situation? „If we don’t practice the skill of saying «no», which, in my opinion, is the most beautiful word in the world – because it allows us to guard our boundaries – we will lose out on this. The simple rule here is: if I don’t want to do something, but I say «YES» to someone, I am simultaneously saying «NO» to myself, in a way abandoning myself. Therefore, a clear message is essential: «I hear that this is important to you, but I organize my life according to my principles»”. However, remember that presenting the matter this way can have serious consequences because facing the truth can be painful. There’s a scenario where a significant relationship for us may not have a chance to develop due to a lack of appropriate resources on one side or the other. But importantly, there is also a chance for the start of a genuine conversation, beginning anew to build something important, but now on healthy principles. According to Marta Kamińska, the needs of different people never conflict with each other. „On the level of needs related to the holiday season, we are equal. However, we may have different visions or strategies for their realization. Let’s look for solutions on this level”.

Politeness versus setting personal boundaries

In situations of disagreement, it’s crucial to guard our boundaries. „Regardless of how Aunt, Grandma, or Grandpa might react, we have the right to say that we do not wish for certain kinds of comments” – continues Marta Kamińska. „Again, I’ll refer to the NVC model, which very clearly indicates that we are not responsible for someone else’s emotions, words, and actions. However, we do have an impact on how this situation affects us and what we will do about it. We have no guarantee that we will change others, but that should not be our goal either. Two options are possible: either someone will react according to our expectations or take offense at our assertiveness. But in no case is it information about us”. We should not accept things that touch us, hurt us, or make us feel guilty. Ultimately, we will pay for it ourselves. However, it cannot be denied that for generations that functioned according to principles such as “be polite, behave, don’t stand out, don’t talk back,” attempting to set boundaries and being assertive can be a very challenging experience. Ela Trandziuk adds: „For me, the paramount value is to feel good about oneself. Moreover, I believe that the ways of reacting in defense of one’s boundaries, entirely natural for a healthy, mature, adult person, should not be defined in terms of ‘politeness.’ It’s ongoing training, as a result of which we can gain a sense of importance in contact with another person”. Agata Stucka, on the other hand, argues: „In my opinion, controversial topics may arise at the table as a substitute, also to avoid entering into issues of closeness and understanding. It’s hard for us to be authentic, to open up in the company of people we don’t trust much. Meanwhile, instead of seeking an escape from family gatherings at the holiday table, it’s worth, in my opinion, establishing clear rules to take care of our mental comfort. Maybe, let’s think together beforehand about how we would like to spend this time together? This is also a good moment to set our boundaries”.

Holidays – what does it mean to me?

„I don’t think that discussing setting boundaries is the most important thing in the context of holidays. I don’t believe that’s the point” – emphasizes psychologist and coach Dariusz Michalec. „After all, holidays are like life – with a whole range of shades and colors. Perhaps I’ll sound somewhat controversial now, but for me, there’s nothing wrong with the desire or willingness to sacrifice oneself for others. These few December days have a very communal character. In the past, an empty plate left on the Christmas Eve table had a practical dimension – it signified the readiness to invite someone unexpected to our small community. Why? Because we didn’t want anyone to be alone during this time”. Of course, Christmas, by definition, has a religious character, and in the face of a spiritual crisis, we now escape into consumerism: a mountain of gifts under the tree, dishes ordered from a favorite restaurant, without Aunt who complains, without Uncle who brings up political topics. According to Agata Stucka, the beginning of the work we should do is to determine our intentions or purpose. „Why do we go to a Christmas meeting with family? If it’s to fight, we’ll fight. If we go to convince someone that they voted wrong in the last elections, we’ll argue with political arguments. If we want to show how fantastic our life is going, we’ll brag and boast. However, I assume we want to spend this time differently, so I would encourage starting with ourselves. It’s a cliché, but real change begins within us, and I believe that over time, it can influence the whole family”.

The difference between „I have to” and „I want to”

And what if we leave everything difficult behind closed doors? Marta Kamińska notes, „There’s immense pressure to talk, as if we have to wait in suspense for dangerous topics. Couldn’t we just eat, praise Aunt Krysia’s delicious dumplings, or Grandma’s poppy seed cake? Maybe it’s worth making holidays about being together, even in silence. It’s obvious that people with different views and values ​​should talk to each other, and discuss – but maybe not necessarily during Christmas Eve dinner? If we think about what is really important to us, let’s try replacing the word «I have to» with «I want to, because». I want to participate in this meeting because I want to have a relationship with my family. It’s a small linguistic trick, but when I say it differently, suddenly I see that I am choosing and for some reason, I want exactly that”. „What if we just sit, be silent, and if someone usually stays silent, speak up?” – continues Dariusz Michalec. „What if, instead of an expensive watch, we offer ourselves a kind gesture, treat ourselves with respect, and offer others our attention and interest? What if we get involved in preparations earlier? Do the shopping, decorate the Christmas tree, cut out gingerbread cookies. I have the impression that some people want to escape from this, and the most neglected function of the holidays is participation”. Agata Stucka confirms this: „Let’s think about whether we care more about being right or about the relationship, and let’s try to build a willingness to listen, curiosity, understanding of another perspective, while staying connected with each other. A simple sense of humor can also be helpful. It’s worth finding ways to positively approach a family meeting, doing things before the holidays that serve us. Then it will be easier for us to think of a few hours spent together as a time of fun, react to difficult questions with a smile, dismiss them with a joke, thus defusing the atmosphere”.

„No” to joint celebrating?

But what if we don’t have the strength or desire for change? What if we expect something completely different from the holidays than our family members? „If someone chooses to spend the holidays alone, and it’s a form of escape for them, I think they must have a good reason” – emphasizes Marta Kamińska. „Perhaps being with loved ones really doesn’t serve that person. I strongly believe that saying «NO» to one need means saying «YES» to another. If I say «NO» to going to family holidays, I can immediately look at what need I am saying «YES» to. There’s a chance that then it will be easier for us to hear «NO» from others as well”. „Perhaps at that moment, the fear or fear of coming to the family is so great that a solo trip would be healthier for that person” – confirms Agata Stucka. „In this way, someone is taking care of their boundaries, their safety, their needs. Sometimes we run away because we are not ready for confrontation. There are family situations where canceling a Christmas visit would be a better choice”. However, it’s worth looking at ourselves. Ela Trandziuk adds: „I believe that everyone has a free choice, and without these difficult experiences, we can’t see ourselves in different scenarios. The question remains of what we will do with this new experience. After all, solitary holidays can be very difficult for us, associated with a sense of isolation, and loneliness, so it’s worth taking care of a sense of closeness, having a nice conversation, and giving each other a chance for mutual attention. Because closeness creates co-experiencing, simply sharing common moments”. „If we don’t organize our internal world and important relationships with others beforehand, the holidays will not be successful. Because holidays are like a magnifying glass where small things take on greater importance” – underlines Dariusz Michalec.

Together doesn’t mean the same

And perhaps, before we decide to give up on celebrating together, let’s try to accept that we are not all the same? Does the true meaning of closeness involve attempting to accept that differences between us are natural? „It’s completely normal for a person to have dilemmas” – continues Dariusz Michalec. „On the one hand, we would like to meet with Aunt, but on the other hand, we know what she will say, and just thinking about it gives us goosebumps. At this moment, the question arises whether we have to resolve this dilemma at all. Community doesn’t necessarily have to mean similar views, tastes, and a similar understanding of the world. Perhaps it’s worth looking at these differences in a different way? Notice an opportunity and a chance to gain a new perspective, to learn something new? If I only drink coffee that I like, I will never know the taste of another one. If we want to make sure that we will be entertained exactly the way we like, maybe it’s better to stay at home. Celebrating also has a dimension related to building our identity, self-awareness, preferences in collision with distinctiveness”. „Remember that each of us has a toxic thread within us” – adds Ela Trandziuk. „We are governed by learned patterns. But relationships are there to also look at ourselves. Maybe something essential to me is less crucial to someone else? Or maybe I simply envy something to someone? For me, talking is not only when we are on the same page, when we feed off each other, but also when our values ​​completely exclude each other”. It’s worth remembering that getting to know each other takes time and effort. Let’s be honest with ourselves, but let’s also learn to be open to differences. Let’s learn about ourselves, and perhaps we will find the key to relationships that are important for our functioning and for maintaining mental health.

Tradition versus enjoyment

As you can see, in life, nothing comes to us on its own; we have to take care of many things and think through many issues. „If you want to have good holidays, work on them throughout the whole year” – convinces Dariusz Michalec. „Holidays are not for handling important matters. Holidays are an important matter. It’s not about convincing someone of something, repairing or breaking ties. I would advise resolving difficult issues before the holidays, and good solutions come through repetition and checking”. Let’s see if Aunt wouldn’t behave differently if she had regular contact with us, not just during the holidays. If we had responded earlier to her need to know the status of our relationship or our financial situation. Perhaps, when asking about grandchildren, Grandma wants to feel noticed? „Maybe it’s worth treating questions that are difficult for us as part of tradition, an essential part without which December meetings make no sense and need to be endured with pride?” – wonders Dariusz Michalec. „In my opinion, celebrating is a chance to do something special, but not necessarily enjoyable. I believe that pleasure can and even should be accompanied by «unpleasantness» effort, or a kind of sacrifice. Moreover, family celebrations, with friends or in solitude, will always require some kind of sacrifice. I find it interesting to ask what is happening to us that we can no longer afford it. Maybe I belong to an increasingly rare group of people who are happy to spend holidays with family. This doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s always sweet, because I’m already at a point in life where the table starts to empty. And I also look at it today as a chance to accept certain situations” – he adds. Remember that some relationships are worth nurturing before someone is missing from the communal feast. And if that’s the case, let’s remember that person. Memories also build shared experiences.

Effort that will pay off

As you can see, being together is not always easy. But no one promised it would be. In my ears, the quote from the beginning of the article still resonates: “How were the holidays, successful or family-oriented?” from the book The art of not embittering life. It might seem that for many of us, combining successful holidays with spending time with family will be a real miracle. Meanwhile, some claim that miracles happen during the holidays—but maybe it’s better not to wait for them and instead care for our most important relationships throughout the year? I have a sense that mutual understanding and the associated problems are simply part of life. If we understand this, it might be easier for us to reshape our thinking. Let’s think about why someone’s opinion leaves such a significant mark on us. Instead of scrubbing windows and floors, let’s tidy up our minds and hearts, let’s do some renovation there. Let’s try to realize that our happiness, our well-being, depends on ourselves—it’s in our hands, not in the hands of our mother, aunt, grandfather, or mother-in-law. Let’s find a balance between our expectations and the needs of others; let’s chart a common path for them. Let’s not sweep difficult matters under the rug, let’s not avoid uncomfortable topics for us or others, to give ourselves a chance for mutual understanding. This, of course, requires commitment and daily work, not just during the holidays. But the results of this work can shine in this exceptional, December time like lights on a Christmas tree. In this effort lies the reward, and perhaps even a bit of magic. I wish you and myself this with all my heart.


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