Family Celebrations

A Personal Story

By: Mona R. Spiegel, Ph.D.

My birthday is November 28th. This date has influenced my view of family celebrations. As you may realize, November 28th occurs in close proximity to Thanksgiving, and at the apex of the pre-holiday shopping season of Chanukah and Christmas. My birthday was greatly affected by this temporal location.

First of all, my parents tended to minimize my birthdays. Like most Holocaust refugees, their concern was to rebuild their lives, not engage in superfluous revelry. By today’s standards even important events, such as my Bas Mitzvah, were minimized.

In addition, there was one more complicating factor: My parents owned and operated a retail toy store. Therefore, during the hectic holiday season my parents were not home preparing a party for my birthday. Instead, they were busy selling toys. Indeed, throughout my childhood, my parents worked very hard to make ends meet. They endured long hours and experienced many stressful days in the store. Birthday merriment was a luxury for which they had neither time nor energy.

In place of a birthday party, my parents substituted the festivities of Chanukah. The extent of our celebration, however, depended on the sun and the moon or, more precisely, the solar and lunar months for that calendar year. If Chanukah fell out that year after the shopping season was over then we had a wonderfully relaxing holiday. If, on the other hand, Chanukah came before December 25th, we had a quick candle-lighting ceremony and then rushed back to the store. The store became my nemesis for an annual two-month period. I thus had my own unique reason to experience the “winter blues.”

A child’s birthday is an occasion, like the Hallmark-invented times of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, that can compensate for lack of expressed emotion on other days of the year. Since we did not celebrate a day that was my annual milestone, my family missed an opportunity to express closeness and appreciation. Moreover, because I did not have the yearly celebration that my peers enjoyed, I gained a determination that has stayed with me throughout my life: I would highlight every one of my family’s important days regardless of their significance to the outside world.

Similarly, many people utilize Chanukah or Christmas to strengthen family bonds, and assemble together with extended family for at least one party. The purpose of the gathering is the celebration itself, both for its spiritual meaning and its importance to the family. As the generations sit around the table, enjoying the delicious food, they can revel in their unity as a family regardless of what happens the rest of the year.

On the other hand, when getting together with extended family, it is easy to allow past hurts or feelings of neglect to interfere with one’s present enjoyment. Therefore, I’ve created a list of rules that will help make your holiday celebration a truly joyous one.

Rules of Engagement

Rule #1 for all family meetings is to “leave the past in the past.” As we grow older, and the black and white outlook of childhood becomes blurred to shades of grey, we are potentially more capable of tolerating behaviors that we previously found to be unbearable. Time and distance are invaluable healers. Moreover, we begin to recognize that our mortality looms closer every year. That recognition will often impel us tobe happy with whatever time we have left together with our families. Instead of focusing on what the others didn’t or can’t give to us, we can learn to give to ourselves and to share the resultant happiness with them.

Rule #2 follows from #1. Do not carry a “hidden agenda.” Family events are the worst occasions to resolve unfinished business with your relatives. First of all, they are public gatherings. Discussions of an emotional nature should take place only in private. Secondly, before you say anything, examine your own attitude toward your relatives. Are you still holding onto the notion of the ideal or perfect family? It’s time to relinquish that desire and allow yourself to love your relatives, regardless of who they are or how they live their lives.

Rule #3. Try to prevent yourself from slipping into old patterns of behavior. This time, when your brother teases you, laugh along with him. Endeavor to respond in new ways to old triggers. Stay alert for opportunities to express a side of yourself that your relatives haven’t seen. Do not do so, however, in order to seek their approval but rather because you are being completely true to yourself.

Rule #4. Look for the positive and communicate the positive. Although it may be difficult at first, concentrate on whatever’s going right and ignore or play down the problems. For example, make an effort to give compliments to as many people as you can, especially the host and hostess.

Tangentially, if you have young children, strive to keep them busy and well-fed. That accomplishment alone would be immensely helpful to your extended family. Above all, don’t get involved in someone else’s crisis. Remember, your nieces and nephews are not your children and you do not need to discipline them. If the stress becomes overwhelming, take a break from the tumult and find refuge in another room.

Rule #5: Interpret criticism as advice from a person who cares about you. Successful people learn from everyone around them and construe another person’s remark as a helpful observation about their behavior. They try to view negative feedback as an opportunity to learn something about themselves. Furthermore, when they hear comments such as “Your tie (blouse) doesn’t match your shirt (skirt)” or questions like “Have you gained weight since I last saw you?” confident people will respond without acrimony. They will not allow their good day to be ruined by another person’s hurtful remark. Alternatively, they assume that the speaker has good intentions but bad judgment, or that they themselves might have misinterpreted the statement. It is sometimes good to be hard of hearing.

Rule #6: Last but not least, prepare. We all realize the importance of preparing the food, but it is equally important to prepare one’s emotions. Therefore, visualize the scene of your family get-together, examine your feelings and prepare your thoughts and your actions. It would be helpful to discuss your strategy with an objective person who is not a member of your family. Friends, clergymen, coaches and therapists are all potential sources of support. They can bring clarity to a situation that is often clouded by your own history and subjective opinion.

By following the above suggestions you will be able to turn your holiday celebrations into opportunities for growth and renewal of family ties. In doing so, you will reap the benefits of family support in future years and create a wellspring of memories for your children.

By: Mona R. Spiegel, Ph.D.
“My Family Coach”
Helping Women and Their Families
http://www.myfamilycoach.com
845-425-4842

Comments

  1. Great reminders (especially about the children)! I find it very useful to sit somewhere quiet the morning of the family gathering (or stay in my cosy bed for a bit longer) and visualize each person (this can take a while – I have a big family) surrounded by the love I and other family members have for them, and responding in loving ways to each of us. Then just before I get out of the car, or the door opens, I try to do a brief flick through that mental catalogue of loved ones again – it helps me to stay focused on the reasons family is a blessing, and to find the positive things to communicate as the day/evening passes.

    I hope you all have a loving and peaceful holiday with family and friends in whatever combinations and configurations work for you!
    Louise

  2. Thank You!! I needed this reminder more than ever. I really do thank you and I am confident that my family will have a great holiday. My oldest daughter’s bday is 11-27 thank you for reminding to make her day special with the extended family just like I do with the others. And not to lump it in with Thanksgiving! Kim

  3. I needed this today of all days! My youngest childs bday is Dec. 15 and I was really stressing from all the wildness of Christmas & Bday. It is so important to make their day JUST their day even if it is Christmas. The family rules are great too! I liked the part of recognizing our immortality and enjoying our families while we can!! What great advice!

  4. Oh and I forgot not only in my oldest on Nov. 27th, my youngest turns one on Dec. 16th and I have a son who will turn 3 on Jan. 5th…..It is so hard to make each one their own. But I do my best! And I am open for any suggestions too.

  5. Thank you for sharing good advice. My husband, myself and my son all have December birthdays. I have found that shopping early for Christmas (I start in August) and wrapping by late November really takes the pressure off. My son enjoyed 3 celebrations this year of his birthday and had a ball. I’m not stressed out because I’m ahead of the game with the Christmas stuff!
    I will take your advice on the family rules for sure!

  6. Kevin, my youngest was born on Dec. 21st. He hates his birthday being so close to Christmas. Thanks for reminding me to make his day special. He is the youngest of four, I love him very much, but I’m guilty of blending his birthday in with Christmas.
    Thanks also for the advise on the family!!!

  7. My birthday actually is on the 25th. My mum always made sure that it was treated seperately from the rest of Christmas, my birthday presesnts were done first, and she insisted that all my aunts and uncles gave me a seperate gift, or else she’d lump their kids presesnts in to one! When I was a kid, I enjoyed having my birthday at Christmas – al the good telly was on, the decorations were up, and people for the most part were excited. Now of course, its no big deal, but we still do my presents first! I have a friend who’s partner’s birthday is on the 24th, and she gives him an ‘unbirthday’, like in Alice in Wonderland, on the 24th of June – maybe those with kids birthdays close to Christmas could do something like this, when all the pressure is off.

  8. For those of you with birthdays near Christmas and other celebrations, I would like to open your mind to the possibility of celebrating them at a DIFFERENT time of year. There is no reason why you have to celebrate your birthday ON your birthday.

    For example, my two boys are born in August which is in the middle of the school summer holidays so none of their friends are around. Sometimes it is easier to celebrate it in September (after the back to school rush, of course) or before school lets out in June.

    I also have friends with kids born in cold, rainy or otherwise weather limited months. They would love to have an outdoor, BBQ style park party. Well then do it! Just pick the month you will be celebrating.

    We still acknowlege the actual day of the birthday with a slightly nicer than usual family dinner or by adding cake or some other treat to the meal, but the pressure of the party can be worked around your life.

    Remember, celebrations were made for people, NOT people for celebrations!!

    God bless,

    Monika

  9. My son’s birthday is Dec. 17. Like my other children he will awake to balloons and a Happy Birthday sign in the kitchen. The gifts are near the table to build anticipation throughout the day. Unlike his sibs, only his family will celebrate. His Kid party is held at the end of the school year before everybody takes off for the summer. We call it his half birthday.

  10. I HAVE NOT BEEN IN TOUCH WITH MY FAMILY FOR SEVERAL YEARS DUE TO MANY UNFORTUNATE EVENTS. MY MOM DIED 7 YEARS AGO BUT BEFORE HER DEATH SHE WAS ILL FOR MANY YEARS AND NOT ONE OF SILBLINGS HELPED WITH MY MOTHER IN ANY WAY FORM OR FASHION LEAVING BIRTHDAYS, HOLIDAYS ETC SOLELY ON ME. IF MY FAMILY CONSISTING OF MY HUSBAND DAUGHTER AND MYSELF DID NOT GO TO MY MOMS NO ONE WOULD BE THERE IT MADE THE SITUATION STRESSFUL FOR ME BECAUSE I NEVER HAD A CHOICE I FELT THAT I HAD TO BE THERE. I HAD TO DO SO MUCH WITHOUT HELP AND I FELT THAT IT WASN’T FAIR. MY MOM STARTED TO SOLELY DEPEND UPON ME AND SHE WOULD START CALLING UPON AWAKENING DEMANDING THAT I WOULD COME. I WAS WORKING 2 JOBS HAD A SMALL CHILD AND MY MARRIAGE WAS NOT GOOD SO I WAS DEPENDING ON MYSELF NOT ONLY FOR FUNDING BUT EMOTIONALLY AS WELL. WHEN MY MOM BECAME VERY ILL IN 1999.ONCE AGAIN THEY LEFT EVERYTHING FOR ME TO FIGURE OUT. VISITING HER IN THE HOSPITAL,TAKING CARE OF HER HOME HER BILLS AND FINALLY HER FURNERAL. AFTERWARDS THEY STARTED TAKING ME TO COURT THINKING THAT MY MOM HAD LEFT ME MONEY AND THEY WANTED THEIR PORTION. THE JUDGE EVEN ASKED THEM, WHAT DO YOU EXPECT FROM THIS WOMAN? THE ENTIRE SITUATION MAKES ME SO ANGRY I CAN NOT EXPRESS IT IN WORDS. I ENDED UP PAYING ALOT OF MY MOM’S BILLS OUT OF POCKET WHICH PUT ME BEHIND ON ALOT OF MY OWN YET THEY HAD THE NERVE TO DO THIS TO ME. I BELEIVE IN GOD AND I KNOW THAT WITHOUT HIM I WOULDN’T HAVE MAKE IT TH0UGH ANY OF THIS STRESS,BUT I CAN’T SEEM TO LEARN TO TRUST AND EMBRACE MY BROTHER AND SISTER AGAIN I HAVE TRIED TO FORGIVE THEM AND I FEEL THAT I HAVE BUT I AM AFRAID TO TRUST THEM BECAUSE I FEEL IF THEY COULD HAVE TREATED MY MOM AS THEY DID AS WELL AS HOW TERRIBLE THEY TREATED ME HOW CAN I EVER TRUST THEM? MY MARRIAGE IS NO LONGER AND I HAVE NO ONE TO TALK TO CONCERNING MY GRIEF,MY DAUGHTER IS VERY HURT BY ALL OF THE ILL TREATMENT AND I GUESS I AM ANGRY BECAUSE I WAS ALWAYS THERE FOR OTHERS AND I WISH THAT SOMEONE WOULD BE HERE FOR ME. ANGRY AND AFRAID

  11. This is a reply to Linda. Just because you and your siblings were born into the same family does not make you obligated to share your life with them. You have every right to not trust them. I watch people fight to keep negative family relationships together only to be emotionally battered. Many years ago my brother sided with my ex-husband to get custody of my children. I don’t hate him…I pitty him. You need stop the anger and grief as it is only hurting you and your Daughter. Write them a letter or confront them to clear your heart but pitty them and their selfish behavior. The next step is to build a new adopted family that you trust and that will bring you joy. On occassion my Brother and I are at the same events and I feel nothing. It’s like he is a stranger and I feel no obligation to him.
    Ever since I stopped inviting nasty family to my home for special occassions and started to fill my home with people who enjoyed and cared about
    each other…I have learned what true Family is all about. You can’t change the past or people so accept them and make your own choice to surround you and your Daughter with good people.
    You are not their victim and they will never hurt or let you down again…because you won’t allow it. Make this the Happiest Holidays ever for you and your Daughter. I am here to tell you that I only wish I had had the courage to do this sooner. Life is Good!

  12. Dear Linda: I understand your pain and anger. I too have a problem with my family. I am 38 years old, lost my dad at age 4 and my mom at age 27–I being the youngest was the total caregiver for my mom and have no regrets at all for doing it. I had a lot of what you expressed happen to be as well. My older sister came to my place of work, yelled at me and told me she thought I was mentally depressed not two months after mom died. I went to the Hospice office and asked to speak to someone because if I was really depressed I felt I needed to get help but I didn’t think I was that depressed. The counselor at Hospice told me two things I will never forget…#1=Yes you are depressed, you are supposed to be, your are experiencing grief and loss but you are not in need of medication; and #2=You can make better family than you are born into. I took those words and allowed myself to let go of the family that gave me pain. I have built a family of friends who support me and my children. It is soooo much better to be around people who truly do care about you because they like and love you—not because they have to because you are family. I won’t lie to you in that I still desire a “healed family” at times especially around certain times of the years; but the reality is this: Why do I expect things to magically be better because of the holidays, or mom’s birthday or whatever date that triggers the desire for family. I still love my family…I just don’t like them or the way I feel when I am around them and I don’t want that for my children. I hope this brings you some peace. I hope that you realize there is nothing wrong with you and that you are not alone. I hope that you go on and live for you. For myself, I also know that if my mom saw me wasting precious time and feeling miserable for things I cannot change,,she would kick my B __ TT!! Take care and God Bless you and your family–all of them:)

  13. I was born on Dec 15th and I just celebrated my 37th Birthday this year. Growing up, people use to always ask me “don’t you hate your Birthday being so close to Christmas?” I could never understand why they would think that and after reading this I now understand why they did and it also made me realize how wonderful my parents and family were to go the extra mile to make my Birthdays so special and they still do to this day. Now that I look back as an adult I can see how that might have put a financial strain on them cause we were by no means wealthy at all,but I always had great parties and I always got what I wanted for my Birthday and Christmas and I still do to this day. Thanks Mom and Dad for making my Birthdays and Christmas’ wonderful!!! As for my siblings and a few nutty relatives we have our differences but we never hold grudges and always put the past in the past and our get togethers are always awesome. I love my family and I know my children will grow up to keep up the loving tradition. Teppi