What Were the Cleaver’s Smoking? A Holiday Guide for Real Families.

If you come from the Norman Rockwell family, this post is not for you.

If, come next week, you and your people will gather “over the river and through the woods” and, in general, your family’s holiday memories look more like Hallmark moments than future fodder for Judge Judy, you might want to skip this message and get a head start on those AMAZING fruit cakes.

This piece is for the other folks. This piece is for those of you who have messy, sloppy, complicated relationships with the people you love. This post is for people who are anxious about the weeks ahead, because you just KNOW what’s coming.

Yep, in spite of everything you’ve tried, you KNOW that there just ain’t no way you’re going to get through this holiday season unscathed.

Damned if you do.

Damned if you don’t.

Whatever option you pick, you’re feeling fairly certain that you’re not going to get through the season without getting zinged, snarked on, screamed at, the cold shoulder, the silent treatment, dismissed, ignored, or rejected.

Perhaps the coming weeks feel more like  the Holiday Gauntlet than Holiday Season. (click to tweet)

If you’re in one of those families – you know, the ones from the “other” side of the tracks – here’s the first thing I want to share with you:

There are no tracks.


All of those people who fell off in the first paragraph and are happily chopping away even now at their dried dates, are either in blessed denial OR they’ve found a way to make peace with the complicated social experiment called “family.”

So, the FIRST thing to remember not to forget to remember about families and holidays is:

Everyone has challenges with the people they love.  Try not to be too hard on yourself for not figuring all this holiday stuff out yet.  Remember this —

The reason your family can push your buttons is because they installed them. (click to tweet)

Further, if your family is also dealing with very real challenges like alcoholism, drug addiction, divorce, estrangement, affairs, financial difficulties, and festering resentments that linger on year, after year, after year – if you’re from THAT family – my heart goes out to you.

Because, if you’re dealing with any of that, the holidays can be extremely painful.  When you have to relate in an ongoing way with people who refuse to get well, the passing of the years as marked by recurring holiday seasons can feel like just another year when, yet again, you are not having the holidays you still hope will happen.

You have regret for the future.  Regret for the present.  And this is a really painful state.

Maybe you “get it.”  Maybe you know this:  Hurt people hurt people. (click to tweet)

But even if you understand intellectually why the people you love can’t love you back, it can still be difficult to determine what is the “right” way to be in relationship with people who continually hurt you.

The Holiday Season can be extraordinarily difficult for people in those situations. Good Housekeeping just doesn’t cover this stuff!

Can you imagine, for example, picking up a copy of the holiday issue of your favorite magazine and finding an article like this, “10 Tips for Dealing with the Drunks at Christmas Supper?”

Wouldn’t it be great if you opened your Holiday Hymnal and Reverend So and So led the congregation in that quintessential holiday hymn, “Fake It . . . Till You Make It?”

Someone say, “Amen.”

Can we find a way to live within the truth of our family stories, find a way to protect ourselves from the slings and arrows that are sure to be flying, AND  find a way to bring forgiveness, joy, peace, and grace to ourselves and the people we love?

Is that too tall an order?

Maybe we should write that article ourselves!  Why not?

Let’s celebrate our first holiday season together by gathering our collective wisdom and creating a collection of tips for women who deal with difficulty during the Holiday Season.

I’ll start with a few suggestions and then I hope you’ll join in and leave your own in the Wisdom Circle comment section below.

Remember, though, this is a Healing Place.

What we want here are tips for our sisters about how to take responsibility for our own happiness and delight without blaming, maiming, or shaming others – even, nope ESPECIALLY, when we think they “deserve” it.

So, here are a couple of ideas to get you going:

1. You Are Not Alone – Whatever your family story, you can be sure there’s someone right down the street dealing with something similar.

2. To Thine Own Self Be True – This one’s really tricky, because most of us have a really deeply held conviction that love is a responsibility. So we do the right thing, even when others don’t. But maybe we shouldn’t.  Thoughts?

3. Drop All Expectations – However you decide to navigate the Holiday Season this year, drop all expectations of yourself and others. If you don’t expect the Rockwellian family meal, you won’t be disappointed when Uncle John gets drunk again and falls into the Christmas Tree. And you won’t be disappointed when there is a fistfight on the front lawn before the fresh nutmeg is even grated on the Holiday Nog.

4. Check Your Own Behavior – In what way do you contribute to the family drama? Not at all? Really? Do you talk about other family members who are not present? Do you go around sharing your sad tale of woe to other family members in hopes they’ll see things your way? Do you hash and rehash old wounds, even in the privacy of your own mind?

5. Let Go of Your Story – Oh, this is a Good One. If we can let go – truly, truly LET GO – of our right to be seen as being wronged, if we can do that, then I’m guessing we are well on our way to true freedom. What happened happened and that is that. The past doesn’t have to be prologue.  YOU get to create what happens next.

6. Love and Joy Come to Others – When all else fails, service work is the panacea for just about everything. When you help others, you get perspective on your own life. When you help others, you get that beautiful conviction that you matter, that you have something to offer, that it IS important that you are alive. You do matter, by the way. We should just put that right out there. Don’t forget.

At the heart of the holidays is the spirit of grace, mercy, self-less love. It’s easy to bring these things to people who don’t challenge us. But the others? Well those people bring us the gift of our own limits, and the opportunity to stretch past our “same old same old” way of dealing with difficulties.

Okay, now it’s your turn.  What are your best tips for dealing with difficult relationships over the holidays?

Love,  Jen

Photo: flickr, liberalmind2012


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31 Responses to What Were the Cleaver’s Smoking? A Holiday Guide for Real Families.

  1. SherriS. says:

    This year I’m breaking all traditions with my extended family. I’ve invited my twin sons, grandson and DIL to our place for a late Thanksgiving (without the turkey dinner). Makes it easier for me. This will be the last holiday gathering for a while since son 2 has joined the army taking g-son and DIL away.

    I have such a wackjob ext family that I won’t be spending Christmas with them either. Funny I never saw how wacky they all were until I recently moved away.
    Avoidance is my answer this holiday season.

  2. Colleen says:

    Thanks for bringing this up, Jen! I know that this is an area that is closely closeted for many and can be a very painful time. Everytime we turn on the radio or TV we are told that we should be happy and excited – cooking, decorating, shopping, family – oh joy! And for those of us who more closely resemble Ebenenzer Scrooge, we also have to deal with guilt and explain why it is that Christmas isn’t the happiest time of the year for us.

    The one thing I will offer is that you should be true to yourself and your own traditions. There are 365 days in a year that you can make time to see family. If stressing yourself out jumping through someone else’s hoops, creating massive debt because of pressure to buy presents, cooking for days or spending time with people just because you share a last name does not sound like your idea of a holiday, just say no.

    • Jennifer says:

      I also love the idea of holidays as a “movable feast.” And you can make your own memories all year long. We don’t have to build this thing up into such a big thing though, as you say, it’s difficult not to “catch” the societal sugar high of the whole thing.


  3. Angie says:

    I am in control of me, not you. I am not a victim anymore. I send back hurtful words with love for they are your words, not mine. I allow Spirit to help know when to go, when to stop, when to speak, what to say. I hold my value internally and the value of you internally with equal importance. This moment is just one moment. This too shall pass.

  4. Florence says:

    We mentioned before to stock up on self love. Send Kindness into your heart (and lungs). Over and over, so it will act as a sort of polka dot armor.
    Do something different . Take a risk! The universe rewards action.
    Humor – yours, not some commedian’s will get you through. Play this game of searching for humor in your relatives. If you get quiet, you’ll find it. Or discretely record statements such as, “My eggnog is a freakin’ sacrament.”

  5. Pam says:

    “Perhaps the coming weeks feel more like the Holiday Gauntlet than Holiday Season. ” Yep. It already started two weeks ago, and I made the mistake of buying into it. When my dil texted, “when are you doing Thanksgiving? We won’t have the kids until Friday, so I’m thinking late Friday or Saturday,” I KNEW mischieve was afoot. Turns out her mom wanted to serve Thanksgiving dinner at 2:00, which is pretty much the preferred time. I always did. UNTIL 8 years ago, when my first child had a significant other. I opted to do an early dinner, lunch, so he could go with his fiance, now wife to her sister’s. It’s worked all these years. Still, I gave a Friday TG some thought. My husband and I even made other plans. Then the dil decided that we should do it at the regular noon time on Friday. Her mom is ticked. My husband is ticked. The other dil, who was looking forward to the full day with her family is ticked. My husband’s kids are aggravated with the wishy washy. Ugh. Yep. Gauntlet is a good word to describe all this.

  6. Jean says:

    As I find myself totally emerged in the fire pit called hot flashes…..(many, many each day) I find it is best to claim time alone and just be with what is. Eating less crap and keeping visits with others short.

    The two best times to keep your mouth shut are when you’re swimming and when you’re angry.
    – Unknown

  7. Chrissy says:

    I gave up sending Christmas cards years ago. For me it was “one more thing to do” and I really did not enjoy doing it. Sign, stuff, address, lick, stamp, repeat. So what I do now is I buy a box of Christmas cards, usually from the year before as they are on sale. At the holidays, I sit with a cup of tea and I pick out 10-12 little elves (friends or family or whomever (I once sent a card to my septic guy because I love the poop man) who I will send out a card to and make sure I have all the addresses ready to go. Then throughout the year I send out randomly a Christmas card and a personal note. Think what a smile someone gets when they open a Christmas card in June!!!

    • Jennifer says:

      This is such a terrific idea!! I don’t know your poop man, but he seems very “card-worthy.”

    • Chrissy,

      I love sending out cards with a greeting I create in poetic form that chronicles the year’s events. Sometimes it has a family photo, but it depends on who is around when I get ready to do it.

      My list has gotten shorter and so has my poem, but I realize that I keep doing it because I enjoy it.

      I love your idea of sending the cards throughout the year to whomever, as Jennifer says, is card-worthy. What a wonderful surprise treat to receive at a least-expected time.

  8. Holly says:

    My Mom has always been the one who cooked the Thanksgiving Dinner but over the last few years we have had to come to the realization that it is just too hard for her to do. It has been very difficult for her to accept this but she has. Now My Sister and I each cook the Side Dishes, My Brother buys the pies and my Mom cooks the Turkey. We no longer use the “fancy China” and we make sure my Mom relaxes with her grown Grandchildren while we do the dishes and clean up. Coming to this realization has been as hard on me as it has been on my Mom. We always think our Parents will “live forever” and my Mom is such a beautiful loving person that it’s tough to see her slowing down. I am thankful today for my “Imperfect” Family.

    • Jennifer says:

      I love that you have found a solution based on the actual truth of the ways thing are rather than as you would have them be. I love that your whole family pitches in to be part of the solution. I love and honor that you have found a way to honor your mother and teach that to your children.

      Thank you so much for your suggestion. Jen

  9. Patty D says:

    Drop expectations. Watch “Christmas Story” and “It’s A Wonderful Life”. Savor the flavors. Lose the preconceived notions – keep the sense of humor.

  10. Dee says:

    Don’t be afraid to create your own traditions. My husband and I watch the gorgeous and funny “Hogfather” fantasy movie during the Yule season. It’s a tradition for just us, just because it makes us happy.

  11. Carol Hess says:

    Jen, this is a truthteller of a post if ever there was one. Thank you for giving us permission to tell the truth about our own holidays — Norman Rockwell they ain’t!

    I’ve got 2 suggestions to add to the holiday survival guide.
    1. Find a way to help someone else.
    2. Spend alone time in nature or with your favorite pet.

    I find both these activities give me a much-needed perspective adjustment during the craziness we call the holidays.

  12. Laura G says:

    Bravo! I can’t thank you enough for writing this most recent post. The holidays seem to bring out all the family dysfunction into the open. But I have learned with my family – it’s not just the holidays… for me is any time my siblings suggest we get together. I fear I suffer from a disease that many of us suffer from – I call it FAMILY AMNESIA. For some very strange reason, we forget how awful that last get together was. We soothe ourselves and say “It wasn’t that bad.” Meanwhile our new family is saying to us – “Have you lost your mind? Have you forgotten how awful the last get together was?” What’s with this amnesia? I think we casually forget on the surface because we really want the family, sibling, (fill in the blank) that we didn’t get. There comes a time when the scales will fall off your eyes and you will see – really see what you are dealing with and hopefully you will cured of this amnesia. It wasn’t until I was in my 40’s that I could stop acting like an 8 year old around my alcoholic mother and tell her, “Enough, no more in my home.” It was an ugly thanksgiving eve… and for about 2 hours there was doom in my home, and then they left, and amazingly we had a lovely Thanksgiving without her. In fact – all Thanksgivings going forward were lovely without her and even more amazing, she held no bad feelings – she didn’t even remember the event ever happening. I guess what I am trying to say is, when you decide to cure yourself of amnesia, you can do it and will be the amazing woman you are – standing up for yourself and your family and moving from trauma to joy. Here’s to you!

    • Sandra says:

      The scales fell off my eyes revealing ugly, scary things so I diass0ociated myself from all of it and gathered up what was left of my fighting spirit and moved to another city. It seemed to follow me to my next location so after asking myself some more questions my resolve to be happy was strengthened once again and I am moving again and I just mknow that I will find my own little haven one way or another.

  13. Hi Jennifer,

    I have hopped all over the place re: holidays over the years after I realized that I didn’t have to do whatever is “traditional.”

    One year when my youngest two were teenagers we took for Hawaii for Thanksgiving. My mother was shocked, but oh well. I was determined not to have turkey for dinner either, nor to force myself through the farce of entertaining the toxic extended family.

    Although I still decorate because I enjoy it, as the kids have gotten grown, I do not do all the over-the-top cooking I used to do, and definitely not all the gift-giving.
    Now that my husband and mom are deceased, it’s super easy to change up the plans.

    A few years ago I started going to the movies on Christmas morn. Until one of my friend’s mentioned this, I had never even considered it. In the old days I would have been up early fixing breakfast, opening presents and stressing out trying to make everything perfect. Now when I return from the movies, whoever is at my house is just rising and sometimes even have made their own breakfast. Yippee! As for the dinner, I play it by ear since my adult kids and grandkids may scatter to other places by afternoon. Last year, I had a Christmas Eve dinner for my kids and grandkids freeing my time up on Christmas Day.

    I make it a point to attend holiday plays/events/services and an annual party held by a friend.

    Thank God I discovered a few decades ago that I get to decide how I spend the holidays.

  14. Sandra says:

    Thank you so much for deciding to ask us to post on this topic. You just wiped away the last remnants of any guilt I might have had over the actions I have taken and will maintain for the future with no expectations except how I think to celebrate Christmas well.

  15. Wendie Tobin says:

    Well, I’m one of those merrymakers that you asked to mosey along, but I rarely do what I’m told.

    On December 25th, 2010, my brother and I sat in a hospital room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, holding our mother’s hand as she left this earth. If that doesn’t give you some license to have a short fuse with your family whack jobs during the holiday season, I don’t know what does. We choose differently.

    Standing on the edge, witnessing the dying process in an up close and personal way, led us down a different path. Who CARES about the family drunk, the hurtful words, the pushed buttons? Escalation can only occur when power is added. Arguments can only happen with participation from a party of two or more. The years are short, they go by fast. If the dynamic is TRULY unbearable, find new people to break bread with. Because soon enough, life ends and you’ll wonder why you wasted so much energy on a repetitive, yearly hamster wheel of ridiculousness that didn’t mean anything on your final day.

    Choose joy.

  16. Dianne says:

    A big, grateful thank you to everyone who took the time to post. I copied and pasted several comments to save for future encouragement.

    I had a prelude to Thanksgiving last night at the home of son #2. He hosted a ‘going-away’ party for son #1 who will be moving with his wife to CA the day after Thanksgiving. All 6 of our kids were at the party. There was a keg of beer and wine and when that wasn’t sufficient some of the attendees would ‘disappear’ to smoke some pot. Our youngest (almost 16) and only daughter, who is the last one at home, was appalled by almost all of her brothers and their wives actions last night. Mother, father and daughter left after 4 hours because we’d seen enough. I joined the ranks of non-drinkers after watching my mom come close to the edge of death while detoxing from her alcohol addiction at 81. Very ugly. Neither my husband or I ever drank much since we both have alcoholic parents. It was heart breaking to watch our oldest son become an alcoholic a few years ago. Counseling helped me stop searching for what I might have done wrong as a mother to cause this.

    Thankfully, my daughter let it rip this afternoon. “I am NOT like my brothers! I have such different goals. Money is less important than making a difference in other people’s lives! I want to be engaged in life not numbing myself from it!”
    She never ceases to amaze me sometimes!

    So about Thanksgiving. I LOVE to cook. I’d love to turn my passion for food into my next career. I will be cooking some of the traditional things but adding some totally awesome raw food items from Kris Karr’s newest book, Crazy Sexy Kitchen. I have a number of food sensitivities so cooking for myself makes life easier.

    I will be sending a text or email to all family members and informing them that they can bring the beer and wine of their choosing to be consumed in moderation. I will be telling them to leave their pot at home. If that offends any of them and they don’t want to attend then that will be fine by me. I also think it would be fun to have some adult style activities available to keep everyone actively interacting. Son #3 got married this July and made a lawn-sized Jenga game and bean-bag toss game that everyone had a blast doing at the rehearsal dinner. A friend of mine has repeatedly raved about a card game she plays with her whole family that has everyone standing around a large table participating at once. It’s fast-paced and hysterically funny. I’ll ask her for the details on how it’s played. Maybe engaged distraction will keep the day fun.

    We gather as a complete family only once a year – most years. This will be my last, best attempt at orchestrating something that can work. If people get drunk and nasty this year then I won’t do Thanksgiving for our family anymore unless everyone agrees to an alcohol-free day.

    So Wendie – I am choosing joy. And if my best laid plans backfire, then I’m ready to jump off the hamster wheel however painful that may be.

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