People who rarely see each other, except at holiday gatherings once or twice a year, come together. People who have a history.
Long journeys, exhaustive preparations, and everyone has expectations. Food has been prepared, usually according to family traditions. And then they all sit down to eat.
Dinner usually lasts a long time. Their shared space is confined to space around a dining table, sitting directly opposite each other. Add a few glasses of wine.…
What could possibly go wrong?
Holiday dinners cause a lot of stress. Why? Take your pick of the good, the bad and the ugly.
Holiday dinners carry great expectations. Every year, heartwarming holiday movies show us what we should expect, and what is expected of us.
We want to be at our best. We want others to see us at our best. Tradition and media tell us that holiday harmony is not just expected, it is mandatory. As a result, these expectations put a lot of pressure on everyone.
And that pressure creates fear. What if we fail?
Holiday dinners bring the family together. Family members often make heroic efforts to attend, crossing vast distances at great expense and under stressful conditions. Furthermore, the holiday dinner host spends a lot of time, effort and money to prepare that dinner and create a holiday atmosphere. A potentially volatile mix!
Holiday food preparation is often difficult and time-consuming. Moreover, holiday cooks usually have many ambitions, culinary and familial. After all, this dinner happens just once a year!
Family traditions are part of our identity. Holiday dinners are the microcosm of our family traditions. It all comes together here, we all come together here. Traditions are precious and evoke strong emotions, and we want to pass them on to the next generation!
Holiday dinners involve kids of all ages and are a great opportunity to interact. And again, place a lot of expectations on everyone, including rebellious teenagers and small children who may not have the stamina for a holiday dinner.
Spending time together
What is a family? Holiday dinners both pose and answer this question. Spending meaningful, intense time together defines the family. Family culture, family dynamics, family identity; we all want to be part of a ‘good’ family. Even if we are savvy enough to realize that the media portrait is an unreachable ideal. In fact, family dinners often start with the immense pressure of good intentions!
Spending too much time together (with nothing to do)
Spending intense, emotional family time together is a major source of stress. Under the hood, family dynamics are often about power and others trying to shove others into old roles that no longer fit. Therefore, sitting around a table for hours, staring at each other, is the perfect setting for those instincts to rise. Conversely, it is also a perfect setting for old grievances to come up, as there’s nothing else to do but consume and talk.
Any dinner party holds an almost infinite potential for problems. Starting with the food itself. As a result, holiday food must perform at least as well as we do.
Edible traditions matter. Certainly, they are compared to an idealized past. Consequently, food preferences and food intolerances must be remembered and catered to.
How far do you go, both as host and guest, to avoid conflict? How quickly do you take offense?
Old, unresolved conflicts
Stress, proximity and expectations may bring old conflicts to the surface. Conflicts that may not be resolved, perhaps for good reasons. However, they are not likely to get resolved over holiday dinner.
Extended family members connect biologically through genetics and pair bonding. That doesn’t mean they are all compatible. And, truthfully, people are not necessarily intending to cause each other stress. They are simply not compatible enough to spend that much time together.
Holiday dinners often come with alcohol. Why not, it’s a special dinner, right? However, alcohol lowers inhibitions, not a good idea for an occasion that calls for the diplomacy of the highest order.
Bad Intentions and Behavioral Problems
Some people actively express bad intentions. Others have serious, untreated behavioral problems. Either way, they may impose themselves on their families at holiday dinners.
Racist and Sexist Attacks
Some people cross the line entirely. Racist and sexist attacks are not acceptable. Thus, the conflict here is often unavoidable and must be addressed.
Forced harmony often hides a sad truth too. Many families have very ugly histories. Some survivors of childhood trauma feel forced to attend a holiday dinner with their former tormentors. This can trigger trauma symptoms and even a crisis. And this goes far beyond stressful.
Holiday dinners are all about family. But families are not media pin-ups. They are real. They consist of real people. The good the bad and the ugly. Take good care of yourselves and each other as best as you know how and learn how to set appropriate boundaries also so that you can enjoy your holiday time.