10 Ways to Survive a Family Holiday Gathering

George Burns said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family . . . in another city.”

Family Argument

We love the music, the lights and the decorations.  We even handle the crowds at the mall and the traffic we fight to get there.  But on the day the family gathers, we stress about the event and our emotions can be wrung out for days afterwards.

How can we actually enjoy the celebration?

1. Give up expectations for the day.  If we “believe” everything will run smoothly, we’ll set ourselves up for disappointment.  It’s better to have expectancy – which means we have no idea what’s going to happen, but we approach the day as an adventure.  That doesn’t mean it’ll be perfect, but we’ll be ready for the surprises.

2. Don’t try to fix people today.  Crazy people have been that way for a long time.  If they try to hijack the holiday, it can escalate into an ugly scene.  Our tendency is to say, “What’s wrong with you?” and critique their approach to life and how it impacts others.  That’s a conversation for another time, not during the event.  It’s better to pull them aside and deal with their immediate behavior, not their character.

Family Argument3. Set boundaries.  It’s healthy to decide ahead of time what boundaries we need to enjoy the day.  If we work best in the kitchen alone, we don’t want to wait until we’re frustrated at the crowd that gathers.  It’s better to tell everyone, “I’m going to spend the next 45 minutes getting things ready in the kitchen while you guys hang out together.   Then I’ll ask for volunteers to help me set the table.”  We don’t have to be a dictator, and it won’t be perfect.  But it gives us some structure for sanity.

4. We need space.  The day starts early and runs late, and is filled with nonstop commotion.  That’s like driving at high speed without a break.  It’s important to take small breaks to maintain our energy – like a few minutes alone in our room, or a short walk alone or with just one other person.  If people ask where you’re going, be honest – “I’m just getting a little space – I’ll be back in 10.”

5. Focus on individuals.  It’s easy to see a crowd of people and miss the joy of relationships.  Whether we’re the host or just attending, we need a few undistracted conversations with the people we care most about.

6. Respond rather than react.  When someone becomes negative, we need to pause and choose how we’re going to respond instead of reacting impulsively.  The healthy way of handling snarky comments is to take a few seconds and think, “OK – I know what I feel like saying – is that really the best way to handle this?”  Then choose the best way of handling it.

7. Remember the reason for gathering.  It’s easy to see the gathering as an obligatory tradition instead of a chance to refresh relationships.  These are the people we do life with.  They’re family, which means they’re going to be there long-term (even the grumpy ones).  It’s worth the effort to invest in them.

8. Ask for help.  If we’re hosting the event, it’s easy to get irritated when everyone disappears to watch football while you’re left cleaning up the mess.  It’s OK to say, “I need 4 people for 10 minutes . . . and you get dessert before everyone else.  Who’s up for it?”

9. Thank each person for being there.  We often overlook that with family members.  But it’s important to make eye contact and say, “Hey, thanks for being here.  It means a lot to have you come.”

10. We can’t be upset if we don’t like the gifts we receive.  After all – it’s not our birthday that’s being celebrated . . .


So, celebrate well tomorrow . . . enjoy the gift of family!


  • Diane

    I think you wrote this for ME! Truth well taken : ))

  • Phil Dickey

    Thanks for the reminders…and Merry Christmas to you and Diane!