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Holiday Season Survival

The holidays mean lots of food, family, and, sometimes drama. We’ll talk holiday season survival.

Pre-dinner (jgoldmania/Flickr)

Pre-dinner (jgoldmania/Flickr)

Ah, the holidays! Greeting cards and crackling fires. Favorite meals, cozy evenings, old traditions, family coming from near and far. And wait, is that Aunt Polly yelling in the kitchen? Because of something Dad said? Is Richard drinking? Did Monica have to bring up that old story again? Did she have to bring her ex? Is Mom crying?

We love the holidays. They can and do bring cheer and love and precious time together. But we all know they can get crazy, too.

This hour, On Point: love and joy and heaven help us. Surviving and thriving in the family dramas of the holidays.

-Tom Ashbrook


Sue Shellenbarger, creator and senior writer for the Wall Street Journal’s “Work and Family” column.

Ann Smith, marriage and family therapist and Executive Director of the Breakthrough Program at Caron Treatment Centers. She also blogs regularly for Psychology Today. Her blog is called Healthy Connections.

From Tom’s Reading List

Wall Street Journal “Often, however, people who are poised in some situations become tense or argumentative in others. (Hint: Those times usually involve family.) And oddly, the same quibbles often emerge year after year. Based on feedback from experts and readers, here are some common sticky situations and tips on handling them.”

Washington Post “There’s a conversation taking place on the Web forum DC Urban Moms and Dads over an interfaith family’s decision to raise their child Jewish and also baptize their baby in the Christian tradition. The father asked other parents if they knew of a priest who might perform the baptism.”

Health.com “It’s a myth that suicide is more common around the holidays (springtime is actually the peak). But holiday cheer isn’t a given either.”

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  • AC

    my secrets are games and wine – give them something to do (other than fight) and keep them pleasantly buzzed!!!

    • Modavations


  • Anonymous

    My secret is to stay home with my significant other, a good bottle of wine, and the dog. All of us in front of the fire place.

    • Neenytyo

      I’m glad you mentioned the fireplace. Us too, will have a nice fire in the fireplace and just like in the pictures you see, animals really do love to lie by the fire. 2 dogs, four cats and a lop earred. Me, my animals and my kids. peace.

  • Neenytyo

    Keep it all small. A small Christmas time will be soothing and nice. Small is good. A small home, a small life, small gifts…do you get it? Forget the huge, over the top, big big big American way of overdoing, over stressing and competing.

  • Aimee

    Eagerly awaiting this show, I struggle with the holidays every year, I come from a large Catholic family and I’m always reminded more than ever of my Black sheep status at Christmas, it can be very lonely…

    • Terry Tree Tree

      With the past decade of news about the Catholic church?  Hold your head up, HIGH, Lady!

      • Aimee

        Ha, thanks Terry!

        • Sam, Buffalo, NY

          This thread reminds me … IT COULD ALWAYS BE WORSE! :)


          It’s good to have options and being able to say NO. To set boundaries and CHOOSE not to participate or engage, walk away, leave, or simply do not come/ give gifts.

          Happy holidays ALL!!

        • Terry Tree Tree

          You’re welcome!  Happy Holidays, Lady!

  • Anonymous

    Without young children, we found that having a ‘Modern Family’ Express Christmas before or after the holidays. We fly to or from a vacation spot on Christmas Day. We find it quite relaxing and rewarding to see Christmas celebrations in other parts of the country or world: there is no stress and lots of fun… what is December 25th anyway? A day on the calender chosen by the last religious leader who decided to move Christmas. The Christmas spirit is with us whenever we celibrate it and it is more of a season than just one day… heck it should be all year round!!!

    • Terry Tree Tree

      ‘The Davinci Code’, has one explaination of what 25 Dec., is.


    Best way to survive is to keep it about family and try to resist at least a little bit of the commercialism.  It is a great time to hold your family close.

  • Jasoturner


    • TFRX

      Drinks advice from the man who’d rather have steamed cauliflower instead of roasted broccoli next to his ribeye?

      Seriously, though: Homemade eggnog with just enough soothing elixir added.

      • Jasoturner

        That’s a false choice!  I like broccoli.  I like roasted cauliflower too.  You defame me, sir!

        As for scotch, how about a nice round of Ardbeg amongst friends?

        • Terry Tree Tree

          Thanks, Jason.  I was afraid I was in hot water yesterday saying broccoli, when I checked and you had said steak and cauliflower!

          • TFRX

            Hot water?

            Mmmm….blanched broccoli. (I’m not kidding. Good stuff.)

          • Terry Tree Tree

            I definitely agree to each of them!!

  • Slipstream

    Hey OP, are you having technical problems?  When I try to listen to Monday’s or Tuesday’s I get an error message.

  • Terry Tree Tree

    WOW!  More people concerned about Holliday stress, than our returning veterans?  That says a LOT!

    • Sam, Buffalo, NY

      Hi Terry,
      Happy Holidays to you and your family and Happy New Year! :)

      • Terry Tree Tree

        Thanks, Sam.  Happy Holidays to you and yours, too!  Grandchildren make it better for me!

    • AC

      if it’s any consolation – i’m thinking about it furiously, but don’t have a good solution…..(i’m stuck in my ‘too many people, period’ rut & that variable is just stifling any ideas i have….)

  • Anonymous

    Remember Santa is the reason for the season!

  • http://twitter.com/tati_per Tatiana P

    Tom, please ask your guests what to do if you’re a “polite atheist” trapped in a very religious family and you simply cannot get away. How to avoid getting into pointless arguments but not be disrespected for 2 days straight?

    • Anonymous

      Tell them, “It could be worse, I could be a vegan.”

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Pick a religion that they all despise, and tell them that you are considering it, due to all the hypocricy you see.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Get informed on the differences of their denominations, and ask questions about the most contentious ones.  Stand back and ENJOY your holliday! 
          Read ‘The Davinci Code’ for some starter points.   Plus, it has the best explaination for the way many cultures treat women!
          If nothing else, remember that there are people that love you, for being.  You  may do something we don’t like, or even hate, but we love you.

  • Lori

    Our family holidays are always crazy and there is no meaningful conversation. Just criticism of other people and recounting all that is unpleasant in the world. 

    Before Thanksgiving I sent my relatives an email called New Rules for Family Gatherings. All of them apply to offenses that happen annually.1. No flossing at the table. While we applaud your commitment to dentalhygiene please discreetly excuse yourself and use the bathroom.2. No nose blowing, spitting, or farting at the table. I will seat youclose to the bathroom if this is an issue.3. No use of cloth napkins for any purpose other than covering your lap.We have ample paper goods to mop up your bodily fluids or discardedfood.4. No discussion of incontinence, menstrual cycles/menopause, digestivedisorders — acute or chronic — during meal time.5. No double-dipping or using hands to serve yourself from a commonplate. We have serving utensils and would be happy to show you howto use them.6. No discussion about death, dying or illnesses of random people whom we don’t know and will likely never meet (because they are dying and youbarely know them too).7. No comparisons of medication dosages, medical tests, or psychiatricdiagnoses at the table. Please save those for one-on-one conversationsif necessary. 

    • TFRX

      Just an email?

      You could sell a lot of signs with that, perhaps as part of a holiday centerpiece.

  • Erin

    The worst part is scheduling all of the different family functions.  As I and my family have gotten older, the addition of spouses and significant others increases the number of actual dates you have to plan.  I don’t have it the worst though.  This year, my boyfriend’s sister is married and has her first child and the fights between she and her husband, she and her in-laws, she and her parents, her parents and his parents over who gets the baby on Christmas day have really taken over everyone’s fun.

    • Sam, Buffalo, NY

      One word … BOUNDARIES!

      Good luck. :)

  • Sam, Buffalo, NY

    I think Raymond there is missing the point.

    I think the point of the holidays is spending time with loved ones and enjoying each other’s company, not gift exchange.

    I believe in giving gifts throughout the year, not just during the holidays.

    I refuse to feel pressured to BUY BUY BUY!!!
    We haven’t done gifts for adults in our family in years, just kids.

    But mom ALWAYS disrespects our choice and gets us lots of little trinkets that are useless and get re-gifted or donated.

    The thought counts, but I wish she would just give me the $20 she spend getting all those things.

  • Beckybarron

    I use the “literary lens.” So I try to see the difficult people in the family with some distance knowing that they could be literary characters; without peculiar, even extreme aspects to people, there would be no literature.

  • Anonymous

    Several of my family members duck outside for a little reefer, imagining that the rest have no idea.  It makes my wily uncle Modavations’ radical screeds a little easier to stomach; helps with the nausea.

  • Sam, Buffalo, NY

    This is the first year I am NOT spending the holidays with the family.

    I am having a lot of unexpected car expenses and traveling with a toddler for 8 hours is just too much to deal with right now.

    We will be spending holidays with friends and giving gifts just to select few people.

    I feel bad for not being able to see them, but it’s not like they are willing to travel 8 hours here to see us. SO …

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Sometimes good things happen!   ENJOY the toddler, and the holliday!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1816544 Dan Trindade

    My family definitely leans towards embracing both the good and the bad. Dinner table conversations range from geopolitics to fart jokes to jabs at my father’s weight and receding hair line. One way or the other in a midst all the wine, yelling, jokes, and discussions of world events, we all take the time to enjoy each others company and are all better for it.

  • Patrick

    This year, I’m going to make a special effort to engage two of my younger cousins (18 and 20 year-old girls) in conversation.  They’re usually engrossed in their phones, probably texting about how lame the rest of us are…

  • Modavations

    Every Christmas the Mexican government hires me to do a rigid,in depth analysis of “sand quality” ,on the beaches  of San Blas,Nayarit.San Blas is the original surfer,hippy town(3 hrs.north of Puerto Vallarta).Picture Gauguin’s  Tahiti.San Blas is surrounded by a Mangrove lagoon, filled with Pink Flamingoes. Audabon runs” Bird Watcher” junkets.The Mexican Govt.does not consider my frequent and varied debaucheries to be a contractual breach,so if any one you are down that way,I’ll buy you a shot.Merry Christmas,Happy Hanukkah,Happy Kwanza and Happy Holidays to all(even Hundie).

    • Jasoturner

      And here I thought they were ignoring their sand quality crisis…

      How shall I find you my friend?  I think a dram of Highland Park would hit the spot…

  • Sam, Buffalo, NY

    At single father:

    There are a lot of mothers who will not be spending Christmas with their children either.

    If you and your ex are able to work out the schedule where you split the time and able to see the kids, even for a few hours.

    But you have to be cordial and reasonable and willing to negotiate.

    Why is this therapist saying … “YOU HAVE TO FIGHT?” How about, you have to negotiate and understand and support? Why does it always have to include the word FIGHT?

  • Marcos

    Wow.  What a miserable holiday it was going to be this year.  I’m a single father [with no help from the mother] of a 14-year old boy and all the problems that goes with that.  My son had already pushed every button in the last two months, that Christmas was “cancelled”; no tree, no music, no movies, no gifts [except the figurative lump of coal].  I needed a break, just 24 hours to go up North and hike a few mountains in TheWhites.  Unfortunately, his mother doesn’t care whether or not he visits her for the holiday & he doesn’t want to go, anyway.  So, I’m just going to pack up the jeep and tell my son that we’re going to be hiking in the mountains, whether he likes it or not, and where we end up…who knows?

    • Sam, Buffalo, NY

      Sounds like an AWESOME holiday to me!
      Getting away from all the craziness and spending time with someone who you love and who matters the most.

      A lot of people would LOVE to spend this much quality time together. And I bet that your son would remember this holiday as one of the best he ever had. If you make it so. Stay positive, encouraging, supportive. Bring lots of games and books and good attitude.

      Best of luck and stay warm!

      • Marcos

        Yeah.  He’ll be listening to Brandi Carlile on the way to the mountains, snow-shoeing for a couple of days and, all the while, out of cell-phone range.  Yeah, this will be memorable.  But I’ll be keeping it positive.  Thanks.

        • Sam, Buffalo, NY

          I think if you give him a big dose of empathy, he might be able to lighten up a bit.

          Try to see things from his point of view.
          Teenage years are a very hard time. Everyone in his “circle” is probably spending holidays a certain way and kids WANT to confirm and not stand out and look “weird”.

          I think sharing control with him, giving him a chance to express his wishes and desires, listening to him, empathizing, but sticking to your boundaries and decisions, would make this trip better?

          I don’t know. We’re about 12 years away from that, but I can see being in a similar position. So, I wish you guys a good trip.

          It sucks about his mom, but what matters is that he has at least 1 good parent. Like Terry – single dad. And it’s more than some kids have.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      If you let him choose where you hike, and some other parts, you can make it a wonderful holliday for both of you.
         I, too raised my children without help from their mother, just problems.  We managed, and they’re doing fine.

  • Crouse2009

    My divorced parents, my stepmother and her mother are all joining my family at our house this year.  What in past years would have been a terrifying proposal has become the BEST idea ever.  If we can’t come together at Christmas, when can we?

  • Anonymous

    Before you confront your parent or spouse or child because they are irritating you, look them in the eyes and imagine what your day would be like without them.  I am a widow and have also lost both parents.  Appreciate what you have.  If you absolutely must draw a boundry for good reason, try to do it with compassion and love.  Otherwise, enjoy the good and ignore the bad.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      My condolences, and may you have many happy days, and hollidays!

      • Anonymous

        Thank you for the kind words.  Wish you the same.

  • Paul

    My heart goes out to Jack, single dad who will not see his kids this holiday. 
    You are not alone my friend, I am in the same boat

  • Bill

    My former wife continues to be invited to celebrate holidays with my parents, while my same-sex partner and I are not welcome to participate. There are many gay individuals and same-sex couples who are similarly excluded from family gatherings  …   Perhaps Christian love is not something that needs to be practiced during the Christmas season.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      You mean ‘as you treat others, so you treat me’.?

  • BHA in Vermont

    Last caller (Erin?)
    It is sad their families are so screwed up that they don’t want to visit them. I am glad I am not in that situation.

  • Nancy

    Family does not have to be blood family. We gather with friends, our family of choice, not the dysfunctional mess that ‘real family’ represents.
    We see our family of choice and get so much more from that because they choose us and we them. Some families just can’t make those bonds the nurturing experience they were meant to be.

  • Sjg627

    because of a family dispute my sister told me i would never spend a holiday with her family again
    best gift ever!!!!1

    • Terry Tree Tree

      I’m glad that worked out for the best for you!   Time, and events may change your mind, and your sister’s.  Stay flexible.

  • Mshinzawa

    I used to like holidays when I was in Japan, but since I moved to USA, American holidays are much much stressful and I don’t enjoy it anymore. Dealing with in-laws from different culture and pressure of acting as if I enjoy holiday with them and all those materializm of buying useless gifts drives me very stress! Is this only me?

  • Jessica Kiser

    The holidays have mote value than in previous years since my father died. Ironically nothing about our christmas’s since his death in 07 have been traditional or at all alike. However, the value of what these holidays mean have shown us that it doesn’t really matter how you have the holidays or where you have then except that you are with those you love. Losing this ability to be together is harder than any lost tradition or silly argument.

  • Tina

    Thank you, Tom and the one guest for speaking up for the values that may get tossed by Caller Erin’s decision to just stay home.  I wish to speak about parallels to Erin’s situation rather than to her, because, obviously, we only heard a small piece from her, AND she was extremely articulate, so much so that one is tempted to feel that she can be “known” from this small situation (the radio show).  However, I found her contented, articulate decision to just stay home so potentially hurtful to all those other family members who may have suffered greatly to help her find that Center over the years of her life, yet who themselves may have been living under great distress.  What I heard (that is ALL I can attest to, I cannot attest to hearing or knowing Erin and her POV accurately) was the over-compensating narcissism one sometimes hears from kids of divorce, or from latchkey kids whose parents may both have to have worked.  I’m glad that Tom and the guest thought that a braver, more realistic, more all- encompassing view could get everyone together at a dinner table this month — and it is THERE and THEN that maybe some of the past could possibly be overcome.  The “just stay home” thing can have SO much youthful judgment of parents drawn out, unmodulated, into adulthood, when, the parents probably did the best they could, and when many therapists took the side of the child client, so much so, that narcissism arose, rather than a full overview of the situation of all the participants in the original family drama.  (i.e., I’ve detected therapist-driven narcissism in the kids of divorce and those same kids seem stuck in feeling superior to their parents and stuck in blaming their parents for wrecking their lives along with his/hers, with very little understanding of the true story of the parents’ situation, in part because the therapist barely ever intimated that that context might have any merit!  I KNOW these are bad therapists, but somehow, they are out there, and they are the ones KNOWN for being so “supportive” of kids of divorce, so it is not until years or decades later that various parents, just talking, suddenly realize the effect of one of these therapists on their lives — from different families!)  Sorry, I’m racing out, so this is not written as well as I’d have liked.  Happy Holidays everyone — altho, perhaps it is that word “happy” that screws things up.  How about “It is the Holidays, so Grow as much as you can and try not to Judge Lest You Be Judged.  And, always Give and Forgive in ways that are helpful to you and to all others.”?  Too wordy, I KNOW, so suggestions are welcome!  

  • Nutricj

    december 26th: two bottles of wine, one red, one white…several cheesy holiday movies about “wonderful” family love recorded on tivo, or perry como singing in the background….kids giggling playing with toys- DO NOT answer door or phone = recovery from giant extended family insanity/judgement/meany ness ;-) 

  • CArmstrong

    My holidays were thrashed by divorce.  Always arguing over where I would be as a kid.  I hate this time of year.  Once I got the chance, I left home and haven’t been back for it in 20yrs now.  Why do I need to pay good money to show up for drunk relatives and fights (my side) or pure disappointment and arguments (my husband’s side).  We make our excuses and put up with the whining (since there is no way to make his mother happy) and enjoy our time together away from people who make us miserable!  As Christians, this whole thing isn’t about one day on the calendar anyways.  

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Glad you are coming to understanding!  ENJOY the hollidays!

  • Sam, Buffalo, NY

    A friend of mine takes his family to deliver meals on Christmas Day, right before they open their gifts.

    Makes the kids a lot more appreciative of what they get/have after seeing what others live like.

    • Nutricj

      we do that the day before xmas and the day after my kids select two of their presents  each for us to bring to foster children the day after xmas. it REALLY works. when my kids open their gifts they ponder aloud about which items other kids might like most.

      • Sam, Buffalo, NY

        That is VERY cool. I wish more people would do that and not just once per year.

        Once my child grows up a little bit more, I want to start taking him volunteering with me and instill values of generosity and appreciation.

        Having lived in near-poverty when I was little, coming from dysfunctional family myself, I KNOW what its like to not have “things” and experience crappy family gatherings.

        So, big kudos to you Nutricj! and others who think of less fortunate this holiday season.

        • Nutricj

          thank you so very much Sam!! i get such slack from my family about the gift giving (my husband and i pick two gifts each as well and bring to shelters- usually clothes, blankets, coats, etc). because they get really crazed that we might give something they give us away. i have a couple of aunts that now say they will not give us gifts if we are just “going to get rid of them.” so i SOOOOO hear you bout the family stuff. my kids have come with me to soup kitchens and homeless shelters in the past- even having them stir soup, they love helping. i actually was homeless in my late teens due to divorce and i have never forgotten dumpster diving for food. i live a pretty cushy life these days and i too wish everyone would give some service- big or small. isn’t it interesting that study after study proves that those of the lowest means are the biggest givers?? it’s like an army of people who get how bad things can get…happiest of holidays to you! cj

          • Terry Tree Tree

            Yes.  The GREEDY rich, will not even give the jobs, that were promised for their tax cuts!
               I guess they are spending all their money researching how to get a camel through the eye of a needle!

          • Nutricj

            i get uncontrollably nutsy when comments like, “they should all get a job,” start flying over dinner. UGH

          • Terry Tree Tree

            Keep in mind the narrow-minded ignorance of the speakers!   Many make broadside statements, that actually mean nothing in real context!

  • Nutricj

    service to our communities is the most healing thing in the world after the big extended family attacks wear us down.

  • Terry Tree Tree

    Happy Holidays to ALL!

  • RChicago

    It’s not just being forced together with family members, but co-workers as well. The company I work for holds several meetings and parties during the holiday season. It’s too much “together” time with people I have no contact with the rest of the year. No wonder the New Year’s Eve tradition is to drink as much as possible! It should just become custom to hand out Xanax before every holiday gathering so people can get through it as painless as possible.

  • Daffsndays

    I was on the show today talking about how, after many years of Christmas depression, I am “liberating” myself by not celebrating Christmas at all, but organizing a beautiful, spiritual Solstice Service. Tom asked me if our minister allowed such a pagan observance, and I answered by explaining that “We are Unitarians, so a little paganism is just fine.”  The Service will be tonight at the Adirondack Unitarian Universalist Community in Saranac Lake, NY. 

    I should explain that solstice observances do indeed date from very ancient times, when our primitive ancestors were frightened by the days getting progressively shorter, fearing that the sun would disappear.  Solstice is the point when, in the northern hemisphere, the days begin to become longer.  Over thousands of years, other mid-winter holidays have built on the solstice traditions of lights, evergreens, the Yule Log, etc.  Now solstice is a time for all of us, of every spiritual observance, to rejoice in the lengthening of days, the promise of spring, and the very human experience of rebirth and rejuvenation.

    So I’m wishing everyone a joyful solstice celebration with a spirit of hope, making light out of darkness!

  • marcos

    Happy Holidays, y’all and special thanks to Terry and Sam for your responses and support.

  • Jasoturner

    I think it very important this holiday season that we all come together and wish the Patriots Best of Luck on their Christmas eve day game against Miami.

    Happy Holidays!

  • michael

    I don’t think we should enable behavior of obvious narcissistic or borderline disordered parents/ siblings etc. just because it is Christmas. Perhaps it is time to hold these brats, who have to bring drama around in order to make the holiday about them, accountable. I don’t talk to anyone who is a drama filled brat, it is my mind and I decide what goes into it, especially at Christmas. I say screw these Scrooged out Grinches and let them wallow in their selfish childish behaviour alone on Christmas, especially on Christmas. 
    P.S. Narcissistic parents will not listen to you and will only see you as they want to see you, so having a discussion is a complete waste of time. http://samvak.tripod.com/journal40.html Narcissists and the holidays. 

  • http://kenid.myopenid.com/ Kenid

    Being around people whom you know should be less stressful, and coming together with family is an opportunity for referrals.  Where is it that you can be yourself (within decent decorum)?  This coming from me who used to work in a rehab! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Harold-Vickers/100002105697742 Harold Vickers

    Aren’t we putting togther two contrasting themes.  There’s the Christian Christmas and the commercial Christmas.  This alone causes a lot of stress.  I say break out the drinks and everyone have some fun. 

    • TFRX

      Christian Christmas and commercial Christmas are good concepts. But what about the “cultural Christmas”?

      Millions of grown-ups in this country are used to Christmas culturally, having been raised with the tree and cards and gifts and visits.

      However, they have wondered why the idea of “Christianity” has been hijacked by crazed right-wingers who have no concept of “faith, hope and charity” but plenty of certitude about God’s will for the government’s actions towards gays and lesbians, women and their organs, and other people who aren’t their idea of “holy enough”.

      That’s plenty of stress-inducing right there.

      • Aimee

        You just described my entire family! Most of the reason I dread the holidays…..

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  • Slipstream

    Another great show, OP – thanks for exposing the contrasts and opposing views once again.  Ah, the Christmas holiday – a time for peaceful family gatherings, selfless giving, and joyous celebration, right?  Wrong!  A time for rancor, for slamming doors, for unearthing old grievances, for exposing personal problems, and for head-on collisions with family members!  Ha!  Seriously though, a really interesting show.  Who hasn’t experienced the kinds of things discussed here?  

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Sep 12, 2014
President Barack Obama meets with Congressional leaders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014, to discuss options for combating the Islamic State. (AP/Evan Vucci)

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President Barack Obama meets with Congressional leaders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014, to discuss options for combating the Islamic State. (AP/Evan Vucci)

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