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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

6 Ways to Avoid Family Christmas Chaos

6 Ways to Avoid Family Christmas Chaos

It’s December and we’ve all got one thing on our mind—well, maybe two: Winter is right around the corner and Christmas won’t be far behind. 

For many, the Christmas holiday brings with it not only the hope that is inherent in the holiday but significant stress. While we all believe we should be filled with hope, joy and glad tidings, this is often not the case. 

The holidays, for all their merriment and tradition, are incredibly stressful for many. All of a sudden expectations change. Families interact more frequently and tensions and losses are remembered. 

For me, this will be my first Christmas since losing my older sister to cancer nearly a year ago. I lost my mother, father and mother-in-law in the past several years. Perhaps like me, the holiday brings painful memories along with the joys of gathering together with family.

When it comes to gathering with family, some of you have unique stresses. Many have been raised to put their extended family first, even above their own well-being. Many struggle to find the right pace and balance for their life during what can be a very joyful season. But, how do we deal with people who make us feel “crazy,” and what can we do to protect ourselves? 

First, keep things in perspective. While the holiday melodies suggest perfect peace and harmony with all the family sitting on the hearth alongside Fido and Mittens, you may not be on the best terms with some of your family. This much closeness may reawaken resentments and remind you of unfinished business. 

Acknowledge your situation, exactly as it is, instead of believing that everyone else has a perfect family except you. We are inclined to believe that the Joneses next door all love one another immensely and have never had a cross word in their lives. Truth is, most families are pretty typical—they have their share of problems. The Hallmark cards of perfection are just that—picture perfect—not realistic. Keep that in mind as you make plans for the holidays. 

Second, set healthy boundaries. If you have family tension, and even if you don’t, be careful not to overindulge in family over the holidays. Just like too much turkey at Thanksgiving can make you feel bloated, too much family can do the same thing. Sometimes a little goes a long way. Make conscious choices about who you want to be with, and who you don’t. Plan accordingly. You are grown up now and can make choices for yourself. You can decide how much time to spend with Aunt Marge and Uncle Ted. You can decide to travel less and spend more time with your immediate family. 

Third, these gatherings are opportunities to mend fences. Perhaps there will be a time to sit down with your brother/parent and straighten out the grudge you’ve held for three years now and can hardly remember exactly what started it. Maybe you will get a chance to tell your brother, again, that you look forward to strengthening your relationship in the coming year. This is an opportunity to alter old patterns of relating to parents that have been rigidly in place for years.  Our parents can surprise us with their willingness to relate differently. 

Fourth, simplify and slow down. There is a strong tendency to add lots of things, and activities, to the holidays. As the music in the background picks up the tempo, and folks walk faster and escalators even seem to pick up speed, remember there are no medals awarded to the individual or family that goes to the most Christmas parties, has the most family get-togethers, or who hands out the most elaborate gifts. Frenetic activity over the holidays only leads to exhaustion and sometimes adds to winter blues. Often the most meaningful times are those spent with immediate family or with two or three close friends sitting quietly sharing dreams and renewing acquaintances.  

Fifth, share the load. Ask for help. Let others give you a hand for a change. Many helping hands make for a lighter load. If you decide you really do want to have the family dinner at your house, give some thought, ahead of time, to how others can help you so that you aren’t a one-man band. Again, this is no time to be a hero. Let it be known that things are changing for you—you welcome help. 

Finally, know your purpose and establish your own traditions. What is meaningful to you? Do you even know what that is? Do you want to take in the Handel’s Messiah again, or is it time to have a simple meal with friends instead? Do you want to have your extended family over, or is it time to just relax and enjoy the festivities with your immediate family? What is your idea of the perfect Christmas? Are there special religious traditions that are important to you? Be true to yourself. Consider the meaning of this holiday season to you and honor it. Don’t let the obligations of the season eliminate “Merry” from Christmas. Celebrate, but celebrate in a way that brings personal joy and happiness. 

Share your ideas about how you’re going to keep your sanity, and joy, during the coming holidays. What works for you, and what have you found doesn’t work? You may read more about my work at or contact me at  

Publication date: December 15, 2015

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Vadym Pastukh