Like a lot of Houstonians who work in the Medical Center, my wife is on a rotation when it comes to holiday shifts. Last year she worked Christmas Eve and Day, this year it’s Thanksgiving and the day after. Then there’s me, a journalist. I work from home most days, but the news never stops, even on Jesus’ birthday. Can’t really hark to what the herald angels sing if there’s no one doing the harking, right?
This can be hard on families, especially for children who expect the holidays to look like they do on television. The idea that the holidays are sacred times for us to all gather and adhere to tradition is beaten into our heads by a ton of pop media, and it adds to the stress when that is simply not possible due to circumstances. Emergencies simply do not stop because grandma wants to see everyone.
So, this year I thought I’d share the few things I’ve learned that can make holidays easier when duty calls.
5. Planning and Honesty are Everything
This seems obvious, but it’s often not. The best thing you can do is be as up front and honest with everyone involved. Let your family know as far in advance as possible how your schedules might interfere with festivities. When it comes to traditions, we tend to operate on assumptions that other people don’t know we have. The longer those assumptions run unchecked, the more it upsets people when they are destroyed.
Planning can help. Your absence can feel like a betrayal or an act of hostility. Those feelings can be assuaged by including the people who will miss you in as much of your process as possible. This can be everything from a coffee date meet-up for gift exchanges to making sure a beloved dish gets made either by delivery or recipe-exchange proxy to simply scheduling a phone call at the most convenient time. Togetherness isn’t just proximity; it’s reciprocation. You can be “there” with tactical uses of your time and accessibility.
4. Tech and Cards
We’re living in a golden age of technology. Skype and Facetime alone make contact a snap and you should use it to your advantage. If scheduling specific times is a problem, video text or apps like Glide can vastly increase your ability to connect with folks. I’m not saying you should prop up a tablet in an empty place at the table, but you could.
Beyond that, cards can go a long way to easing hurts caused by absences. Most of get very little real mail from actual humans these days, and the novelty alone is worth it. My family used to love to display the cards in the dining room specifically because it was like little pieces of the people who couldn’t attend. When you’re planning to not join folks for the holidays, put some effort into your Christmas cards. They’ll hold onto those a lot longer as cherished items than you might think.
3. Start New Traditions
The thing to remember about the “proper” way to do a holiday is that it’s all made the heck up. You don’t have to be a slave to precedent just because it exists.
One of the things my family has started doing for holidays when my wife is at work is simply driving her there and picking her up so we see her more on that day. A lot of little things can be shoehorned into something like that. Participate in work potlucks or find a favorite podcast, audio book or holiday album for the car ride. Maybe pick a favorite place you go right before or after the holidays (we usually make that the Texas Renaissance Festival). If you’re wrangling things by yourself with family in the house, have little activities like specific card games or movies that belong to just you.
The more you diversify what your holiday means to your family the easier it is for a good time to hold when individual pieces don’t go as planned.
2. Manage your Expectations
Your serenity will always be inversely proportionate to your expectations. The more you try to make something the best holiday ever the greater the chance that you will “ruin” it. I put that in quotation marks because sometimes accidents and obstacles seem much bigger than they are, kind of like how zits feel enormous on your face but appear tiny in the mirror.
Always assume that things will go wrong. Have back up plans, which is one of the reasons that I mentioned planning up top. Give yourself contingencies for mundane mishaps and don’t assign anything as a deal-breaker. Be especially forgiving of children who won’t hug relatives or otherwise perform as you would wish them too. Try to…
1. Give People Space
Holidays are stressful. There are significant logistic and financial resources that go into them. Sometimes they feel more like a military operation than a relaxing time with loved ones.
Give space. When your working loved one comes home from their stressful job that requires holiday hours, don’t try and shove a four-hour Thanksgiving into their brains before they’ve had a chance to come down from the day. Don’t starve other people so everyone can eat together. Don’t hold kids in stasis, tired and bored, trying to make the stars align for a late dinner.
Keep things casual and low-key. The goal is to feel the love of your family, not impress bloody Instagram with how much your life looks perfect. Flawed quality time is always better than a static precious moment captured on film. Take it easy, work around things and don’t try to live up to an ideal. Live your life, not some glossy magazine interpretation of it.