We tackle the stuff that makes us go ballistic (like, What the heck is wrong with a gift card?) and offer expert ways to avoid all the bickering and distress.
Every year it happens: My husband, kids and I are standing on the same cobblestone street, in front of the same romantic Christmas tree stand, being waited on by the same porcelain-skinned, dreamy-eyed girl from Vermont wearing homemade red mittens, when—wham!—it comes time to decide between the 12-foot Fraser and...the short, cheap, ugly, pointless tree.
Perhaps I am not being clear enough about my side of the argument. I grew up in Alaska. Trees are supposed to be 11 feet or taller. They are supposed to take over your living room. You are supposed to worry—and enjoy the suspense of worrying—if the tippy-top will hit the ceiling and slump sideways into a deep, unsightly bend. The perfume of pine needles is supposed to penetrate your sinuses—and brain—so deeply that your nose runs before you fall asleep and your dreams are tinted green. This is the point of the holiday.
I could present you with my husband's side—we live on the fourth floor, we have no elevator, and (his coup de grâce) the only ceiling in our place high enough to accommodate a 12-foot tree is our kitchen—but why? I am clearly in the right. He is in the wrong. And this is why strangers shy away from us as we bicker in public—and an innocent young salesgirl from Vermont exhausts herself, dragging out tree after tree that we cannot agree on.
Having done an informal survey of nearby families, I have discovered that we are not alone and, also, that we all seem to have the same fight over and over and over. Our deepest yearning is for closeness during the holidays, says David Treadway, PhD, author of Intimacy, Change, and Other Therapeutic Mysteries: Stories of Clinicians and Clients. "But most families have underlying tensions ... creating a sharp, ruinous clash between what we yearn for and what is." We asked him and a few other experts to identify the most common arguments and how to keep the peace—if not on earth—then at the dinner table.
Stuffing In Versus Stuffing Out
The classic dinner dilemma: Are you going to cook the stuffing inside the bird so that it turns out moist and rich and infused with turkey juices...and risk getting food poisoning? Or are you going to cook it in a sensible, sanitary pot on the stove or oven and risk it being so dry and crumbly that not even a gravy tsunami will help?
"One of the trends I've been observing is that everybody has gotten much more picky about food," says Frances Goldscheider, PhD, professor of family science at the University of Maryland, College Park. People now eat vegetarian, lactose- and gluten-free. "Our culture thinks you should eat exactly the way you want to and have every possible choice." During the holidays, however, the point is being together. Her advice: "Eat what's served and don't eat what you don't like."
Menorah Versus Poinsettia Versus Shrine to Lord Ganesha
Last year, some married friends of mine, one Jewish and one Christian, got into a huge smackdown over a poinsettia a guest had brought to their latke party. He wanted to display it. She did not. While they carried on—loudly—I got nervous and uncomfortable and ate all the dreidel cookies.
Back in the days of limited tolerance, this was the traditional interfaith family blowout: Hanukkah dukes it out with Christmas. Now we all know better. There are a lot more religions and a lot more people in the world—like Hindus, who celebrate Pancha Ganapati in December, which requires a living room shrine. Add to that atheists. There are members of my family who do not cotton to my crèche on the mantel.
Teri Apter, PhD, author of What Do You Want from Me? Learning to Get Along with In-Laws suggests trying this line of questioning: Do you not want to put up the poinsettia because you didn't grow up with this particular kind of religious decoration? Or do you not want to put it up because it's upsetting to you and a matter of principle? In the latter case, you may have to find a more radical way to accommodate everybody, such as celebrating one religious event in your house and the other at a restaurant or an in-law's house. In the former, you might be able to find a compromise in the home, such as no Christmas decorations during the Hanukkah festivities. Or Christmas decorations in the study and Hanukkah decorations in the living room. The key is creating your own family customs that everybody feels comfortable with—even if they deviate from the so-called norm.
An iPad for Every Cousin Versus the the Holiday Card IBought for $2
Maxing out your credit cards every December can be a joyous event, especially when you see the expression on your son's face as he tears off the wrapping on the Lego Star Wars Clone Turbo Tank set with pop-up handle, dual cockpits, moveable guns and a command station. It can also lead to a lot of bickering with your spouse because—hello!—$107.95 is a lot of money to spend on a 5-year-old child.
Other more down and dirty versions of this discussion revolve around the office, friends and extended family, such as, How much should we spend on cousin Jamie's live-in girlfriend, and, Why do we have to buy her a gift, anyway? Or, Do we still have to do a $25 Secret Santa for all the grandkids, even when some of them are in their 40s? Or, Isn't $50 a lot to spend on Debra from Accounting, especially on a scented candle?
Ultimately, it all boils down to this: Whom the heck do we give to and how much do we spend? Which can be further distilled into this: Are they going to think I'm generous or a big fat cheapskate? Linda Metcalf, PhD, president of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, suggests that you think about your holiday budget as if it were your vacation or a monthly food bill. Start with what seems reasonable to you—and not what others may think of you—and then go shopping.
Through the Woods to Grandmother's House We Go Versus Through the Other Woods to the Other Grandmother's House We Go
Which family do we visit? It's an argument encapsulated by the all-too-revealing words of my neighbor Kristen: "I'm fair about a lot of things, but I want to see my family every year. I don't care what my husband wants. It's horrible, but I just can't help it." A bitter corollary to this fight is the one that goes on in my house: Do we visit our family or just save the two grand on airfare and stay home?
One way to deal with the decisions of where and when to travel is to have a meeting that includes your children and discuss your options, says Linda Metcalf. Nobody—not even the youngest of us—want to get dragged around the country without agreeing to it. If you're absolutely set on going to one place and can't honestly compromise, try to find some small way to incorporate the desires of everybody else, like letting your husband pick the time you leave (no early morning flights!) or agreeing to give your son the window seat. These small acts "soften up the rest of the family and make them feel listened to and important." You might also consider out-of-the-box solutions to the annual problem of whose family you'll see this year, like visiting one set of relatives during the holidays and the other for a January weekend or a Christmas-in-July celebration when airfares are much lower. What the Heck Is Wrong with a Gift Card?
My colleague comes from a small, New England family. She and her parents and cousins give each other books and inexpensive homemade presents. Their feeling is that money is cold and impersonal. Disguising it as a gift card? It's still money. Her husband, on the other hand, comes from a big Irish family. The O'Delightfuls give one another checks—especially to the kids—because money is for college funds and bicycles and big dreams that you can help somebody achieve. Plus, checks require no shopping. Each year, the couple works this difference out on the eight-hour drive up to Maine, pulling over a few times to get out and scream in the fresh, cold air before getting back in the car to give each other the silent treatment.
This fight, says David Treadway, is really about how we express our connection. "For some, the act of getting a gift is how love is shown." For others, a gift is simply a social rite. There are all kinds of ways to compromise: Switch off who purchases the gifts each year, let each person purchase for their own extended family, or let an outside authority (like Grandma) decide what the rules are.
But wait, what about the fight at the tree stand? Surely, I am correct about this one. Surely, even a relationships expert must concur that the bigger the tree, the better the holiday.
To that, Treadway responds with a long, elaborate pause. "The danger in any of these situations," he finally says, "is when people think they have discovered the right way to celebrate." There is no one right way. What's creating your rigid attitude, your absolute insistence, he says, usually comes from the past: what you didn't get as kid and longed for, or what you did get and happily want to redo and redo. The truth is, we are all now grown-ups, and our arguments have grown-up, upsetting repercussions. We have to find some kind of solution...such as buying my 12-foot tree, dragging it home and then letting my husband sit silently on the sofa with a huge whisky-spiked eggnog, not saying, "I told you so," while I cut three feet off the bottom of the trunk so it fits in the living room.