Family Holiday Gatherings: Why Do We Have Them?
Most of you, I am sure, know the scene: As December marches on we prepare ourselves to gather with family members to celebrate the holidays. You may prepare for it with dread, with joyful anticipation, or with a mixture of the two, but we do it every year and rarely ask the question, “Why”? I was confronted with this question recently by my 21 year old nephew, and I have become quite intrigued by my quest to find an answer.
My nephew was raised in Norway but returned to the US when my sister became terminally ill and died when he was 16. Estranged from his Norwegian father, my family has considered him to be “ours” since that time. He is a very bright and pleasant to have around, and while he is quite engaging one on one, put him in a large social gathering and he turns inward and becomes socially shy and awkward.
We were talking about the upcoming family gathering on Christmas day, and I was doing my best to give him some pointers that I hoped would make the day less uncomfortable for him. Even though he has joined the extended family for Christmas the last three years, outside of me and my family, he rarely sees the other people who will attend the celebration. After I had named off the 18 people who will be there, described the connections and relationships between them all, and made some suggestions regarding how to manage the event for himself and who he might most easily talk to, he turned to me and dropped this bomb: “Well, if it takes so much work, everyone has to ‘gear up’ for the day, and everyone is happier when it’s over, why do people do it every year?”
After stunning me into silence, then sending me into internal reflection to find my answer, I became more and more intrigued by the question. It is true that while I look forward to the family gathering on Christmas day, I also have to prepare myself mentally for the event. Who do I want to avoid a prolonged conversation with? Who is likely to create conflict with its resultant pouting and hurt feelings? Who do I want to make sure I have some time with? Do I need to watch out for anybody’s emotional ambush? Are there immediate family members I need to protect? It is a lot of work and although generally enjoyable, it rarely lives up to the hopes, expectations, and promises that all the symbols of the season arouse deep within me. I have learned over the years that I am far from alone in this holiday ‘disappointment’.
I was so intrigued by my nephew’s question that I discussed it with my wife and my business partner. After some deep reflection and discussion we came up with our answers, but not before we all agreed that it is not the carefree joyful day the PR department would have us believe.
I am not a cynic. I found great value in the process of asking the question of myself and others. I know why, outside of the religious meaning of the day, that I look forward to all the effort and, yes, hassle that the annual holiday gathering is. But rather than handing you my discovery, I want to give you the same challenge to look inside and find your own meaning. I promise that I will give you my answer, but first, I would love it if you would share yours here with us. I don’t care if it is deeply religious or stunningly secular, fabulously frivolous or emotionally powerful. I am just interested in what meaning others find in an event about which we seldom think but in which we all participate annually.
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About Dr. Gary M. Jordan, Ph.D.
Gary Jordan, Ph.D., has over 27 years of experience in clinical psychology, behavioral assessment, individual development, and coaching. He earned his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology – Berkeley. He is co-creator of Perceptual Style Theory, a revolutionary psychological assessment system that teaches people how to unleash their deepest potentials for success. He’s a partner at Vega Behavioral Consulting, Ltd., a consulting firm that specializes in helping people discover their true skills and talents. For more information, visit https://www.YourTalentAdvantage.com.
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