Turkey dinners, desserts for days, decorating the house, planning for parties, and power-shopping until the wee hours of the mornings — yes, it’s that time of the year. And just as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve come at the same time each year, without fail every holiday season, the very people you’re supposed to be cherishing are the ones who seem to bring you the most stress.
Unfortunately, the picture-perfect family dinner we see on television is not something that always translates to our personal situations. With crazy relational dynamics that can test one’s patience and sanity, there’s a bit of dysfunction in every family — and it’s often heightened during the holidays.
While on the surface certain family members may appear to be the enemy, they are people to whom God has connected you for a reason, and they’re often the first opportunity we have to learn to “love your neighbor.” As the old saying goes, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” With that in mind, here are five tips to help you navigate family drama during this most joyful season.
1. Learn how and when to say no. You can’t satisfy everyone in your family, and the quicker you realize that the better you and your family will be. Set boundaries for yourself and your personal relationships. With pressure to shop for gifts, attend holiday parties and family gatherings, as well as your usual everyday demands of work and family, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. You have to remember that you’re just one person, you can’t do everything. You may not be able to go to every party that you’re invited to and you may even have to make adjustments to plans for traveling to see different relatives. Set priorities and stick to them.
2. Accept your family’s differences. We all have that aunt or uncle who drinks a little too much and lets their mouths get them into trouble. Or there’s the cousin who always comes late with the main dish — so the family is waiting for hours to eat. Whatever your family scenario, remember that we all have our own idiosyncrasies that can be irritating — and honestly we all probably have a bit of crazy deep down inside. It doesn’t mean you condone or agree with certain behaviors, but you just don’t let it hang you up. Don’t sweat the small stuff that you can’t change.
3. Keep it simple. Whether it’s with gift-giving, hosting a family gathering, or cooking a dish for a family potluck — make it easy on yourself. While you may want to stick to traditions, it’s okay to make adjustments. Instead of cooking, maybe you can buy a prepared dish. You may want to do it all on your own as your mother did back in the day, but know that it’s okay to ask for help. Get other family members involved with planning and preparing holiday meals or gatherings. When it comes to gifts, stick to a budget. Be real about your financial situation; if you can’t afford to buy everyone — or anyone — a gift, it’s okay. Your presence really is enough.
4. Keep conversations light. Avoid hot-button issues during the holidays. Keep conversations light and focus on the good. Trying to flesh out unresolved conflicts at the dinner table is probably not a good idea — especially because of the spirit of the season. Try to find things that you have in common with your loved ones and bring those elements into your conversations. Often tension and angst arise from misunderstandings and miscommunication. Find common ground, which will help in the end to build stronger bonds that last beyond the Christmas dinner at Granny’s.
5. Take time out for yourself. Focusing on everyone else, it’s easy to forget about yourself. If it’s no more than 15 minutes or an hour, take some time for you. Do something you want to do. Seeing a movie, reading a book, journaling, exercising — whatever you need to do to tend to your mind, body, and soul do it. Even Jesus needed some time alone.
The Real Reason for the Season
When it’s all said and done, remember what the holidays are really all about. Taking time to be thankful for the blessings in your life, celebrating the birth of Christ and looking ahead to the New Year, it’s a time to reflect and put things in a proper perspective.
After all, Jesus had supper with Judas (who betrayed Him) and Peter (who would later deny Him). If He can forgive and show love, shouldn’t we follow His lead and extend grace to those special relatives who annually work our last nerve?
So how do you survive the stress that the holidays can put on family relationships? Share your thoughts and tips for coping below.
Gratitude may be more beneficial than we commonly suppose. One recent study asked subjects to write a note of thanks to someone and then estimate how surprised and happy the recipient would feel – an impact that they consistently underestimated. Another study assessed the health benefits of writing thank you notes. The researchers found that writing as few as three weekly thank you notes over the course of three weeks improved life satisfaction, increased happy feelings and reduced symptoms of depression.
While this research into gratitude is relatively new, the principles involved are anything but. Students of mine in a political philosophy course at Indiana University are reading Daniel Defoe’s 300-year-old “Robinson Crusoe,” often regarded as the first novel published in English. Marooned alone on an unknown island with no apparent prospect of rescue or escape, Crusoe has much to lament. But instead of giving in to despair, he makes a list of things for which he is grateful, including the fact that he is the shipwreck’s sole survivor and has been able to salvage many useful items from the wreckage.
Defoe’s masterpiece, which is often ranked as one of the world’s greatest novels, provides a portrait of gratitude in action that is as timely and relevant today as it has ever been. It is also one with which contemporary psychology and medicine are just beginning to catch up. Simply put, for most of us, it is far more helpful to focus on the things in life for which we can express gratitude than those that incline us toward resentment and lamentation.
The benefits of gratitude
When we focus on the things we regret, such as failed relationships, family disputes, and setbacks in career and finance, we tend to become more regretful. Conversely, when we focus on the things we are grateful for, a greater sense of happiness tends to pervade our lives. And while no one would argue for cultivating a false sense of blessedness, there is mounting evidence that counting our blessings is one of the best habits we can develop to promote mental and physical health.
Gratitude has long enjoyed a privileged position in many of the world’s faith traditions. For example, the Biblical Book of Psalms counsels gratitude that is both enduring and complete, saying, “I will give thanks to you forever” and “with my whole heart.” Martin Luther writes of gratitude as the heart of the Gospel, portraying it as not merely an attitude but a virtue to be put into practice. The Quran recommends gratitude, saying “Whoever gives thanks benefits his own soul.”
Recent scientific studies support these ancient teachings. Individuals who regularly engage in gratitude exercises, such as counting their blessings or expressing gratitude to others, exhibit increased satisfaction with relationships and fewer symptoms of physical illness. And the benefits are not only psychological and physical. They may also be moral – those who practice gratitude also view their lives less materialistically and suffer from less envy.
Why gratitude is good for you
There are multiple explanations for such benefits of gratefulness. One is the fact that expressing gratitude encourages others to continue being generous, thus promoting a virtuous cycle of goodness in relationships. Similarly, grateful people may be more likely to reciprocate with acts of kindness of their own. Broadly speaking, a community in which people feel grateful to one another is likely to be a more pleasant place to live than one characterized by mutual suspicion and resentment.
The beneficial effects of gratitude may extend even further. For example, when many people feel good about what someone else has done for them, they experience a sense of being lifted up, with a corresponding enhancement of their regard for humanity. Some are inspired to attempt to become better people themselves, doing more to help bring out the best in others and bringing more goodness into the world around them.
Gratitude also tends to strengthen a sense of connection with others. When people want to do good things that inspire gratitude, the level of dedication in relationships tends to grow and relationships seem to last longer. And when people feel more connected, they are more likely to choose to spend their time with one another and demonstrate their feelings of affection in daily acts.
Of course, acts of kindness can also foster discomfort. For example, if people feel they are not worthy of kindness or suspect that some ulterior motive lies behind it, the benefits of gratitude will not be realized. Likewise, receiving a kindness can give rise to a sense of indebtedness, leaving beneficiaries feeling that they must now pay back whatever good they have received. Gratitude can flourish only if people are secure enough in themselves and sufficiently trusting to allow it to do so.
Another obstacle to gratitude is often called a sense of entitlement. Instead of experiencing a benefaction as a good turn, people sometimes regard it as a mere payment of what they are owed, for which no one deserves any moral credit. While seeing that justice is done is important, supplanting all opportunities for genuine feelings and expressions of generosity can also produce a more impersonal and fragmented community.
There are a number of practical steps anyone can take to promote a sense of gratitude. One is simply spending time on a regular basis thinking about someone who has made a difference, or perhaps writing a thank you note or expressing such gratitude in person. Others are found in ancient religious disciplines, such as meditating on benefactions received from another person or actually praying for the health and happiness of a benefactor.
In addition to benefactions received, it is also possible to focus on opportunities to do good oneself, whether those acted on in the past or hoped for in the future. Some people are most grateful not for what others have done for them but for chances they enjoyed to help others. To envision gratitude at its best, imagine a person hoping and perhaps even praying for an opportunity to make a difference in someone else’s life.
In regularly reflecting on the things in his life he is grateful for, Defoe’s Crusoe believes that he becomes a far better person than he would have been had he remained in the society from which he originally set out on his voyage:
“I gave humble and hearty thanks that God had been pleased to discover to me, even that it was possible I might be more happy in this solitary condition, than I should have been a liberty of society, and all the pleasures of the world… It was now that I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life I now led was, with all its miserable circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable life I led all the past part of my days.”
Reflecting on generosity and gratitude, the great basketball coach John Wooden once offered two counsels to his players and students. First, he said, “It is impossible to have a perfect day unless you have done something for someone who will never be able to repay you.” In saying this, Wooden sought to promote purely generous acts, as opposed to those performed with an expectation of recompense. Second, he said, “Give thanks for your blessings every day.”
Some faith traditions incorporate such practices into the rhythm of daily life. For example, adherents of some religions offer prayers of thanksgiving every morning before rising and every night before lying down to sleep. Others offer thanks throughout the day, such as before meals. Other less frequent special events, such as births, deaths and marriages, may also be heralded by such prayers.
When Defoe depicted Robinson Crusoe making thanksgiving a daily part of his island life, he was anticipating findings in social science and medicine that would not appear for hundreds of years. Yet he was also reflecting the wisdom of religious and philosophical traditions that extend back thousands of years. Gratitude is one of the healthiest and most nourishing of all states of mind, and those who adopt it as a habit are enriching not only their own lives but also the lives of those around them.
“…herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the [Twenty-First] Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, gentle reader; for the problem of the [Twenty-First] Century isthe problem of the color line.”
Thanksgiving has arrived and that can only mean one thing. African Americans across the nation are about to enjoy some delectable soul food. A colleague from seminary asked me a seemingly simple question one day: What is the soul? To really understand my struggle with this query you have to appreciate my background. While attending a majority white seminary, it’s safe to say that I had a bit more melanin than some others. My flesh tone was a hue that resembled many from our historical past who were considered African Americans or Negroes.
He asked a question that evoked thoughts of pride as I pondered my godly heritage. Soul (at least from my perspective) was inextricably interwoven in my DNA. Soul music from the Harlem Renaissance resounded within as I began to recount the great jazz artists of the time (ranging from Cab Calloway to Duke Ellington). I thought of the great James Brown, who is deemed the “Godfather of Soul.” If anybody knew soul, it was my people. And soul in the African American community wasn’t just limited to melodic harmony and sound. Soul had a significant role in food preparation. Soul food, as we know it in this country, originated in the African American community. This delectable culinary genre included a wide range of items including, but not limited to, collard greens, ham hocks, pig’s feet, pork neck bone, fat back, and chitterlings a.k.a. pig intestines. (If that last sentence didn’t make you hungry, please check your pulse.)
During an oppressive era beginning in the late 17th century, slaves were afforded the “opportunity” to have the leftover pig parts from their masters’ tables. This normally included the parts the slave masters felt were unfit for human consumption. The slaves took them, carefully cleaned them, salted them up to make them flavorful, and served them to their families. As a result, soul food became a staple in the African American slave community.
So an inquiry about my soul transposed the generally perceived idea of soul in society (and the Christian community generally). It involved retained customs and traditions that accompanied thousands on an infamous Trans-Atlantic journey hundreds of years ago. When my colleague asked that question about my soul, many images, tastes, and sounds came to mind.
“One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” —W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk
Despite those elicited proud images of soul defined in my own experience, I can appreciate DuBois’ “twoness.” I live it out every day. There is a soul dualism that perpetuates itself. I am both an American and a Negro. For many, this is a comfortable idea. However, in reality this duality presents two warring ideals that have a profound impact on the way I live my life. Even in a seminary, where a majority of the books read were by white, middle-aged men, this duality impacted my experience. I’m quite sure this twoness had some role in issues presented in the “Jena Six” and Trayvon Martin stories. Both painted portraits of cities that still have some “color line” issues. When a group of black boys respond violently to a “noose” incident in a schoolyard, how could one not surmise that color line issues are still prevalent in society? When distrust of a local Central Florida Police Department mobilizes thousands of African American, how could we question the existence of the color line?
As I sat on the seminary campus and reflected, I realized that it was this twoness that led me there. I figured out that it wasn’t enough to say that I casually associate with people outside of my own ethnic group. Instead, I wanted to be able to experience community, fellowship, and dialogue with people who did not share my ethnic background. As I walked from class one week, I stopped to have a conversation with one of my classmates. We spoke about diversity and its real meaning for our seminary (and the Church generally). We both explained frustrations with tossing around diversity labels without authenticity. During our conversation, I had to apologize for assuming that he understood what I was talking about when I mentioned the acronym HBCU (Historically Black College and University) or when I spoke freely about tendencies in black church leadership.
Ultimately our conversation reassured me that there are others who wrestle with duality of the soul (whether a white Christian trying to genuinely understand other cultures or a minority Christian doing the same). I have learned that some people want to be able to function in that “twoness” to better understand others outside of their culture. Isn’t the body of Christ called to this kind of unity and understanding? Will we stand by idly as the color line widens? If the Church isn’t called to unite how can we expect it from a fallen world?
So as I lay into some Soul Food this holiday season, I remain grateful. I am grateful for the African American story. I am appreciative that my life is being grafted into a story of struggle and triumph. But the soul “twoness” is ever present. Reminding me that our story as a people is tied into God’s greater story of redemption. And for that I am thankful. Now pass me those collard greens.
For the past 15 years my family tradition is to travel from Washington, D.C., along with both grandparents, to sunny Florida to celebrate Thanksgiving with cousins. This year we decided to skip the travel and will have fall and winter celebrations at home.
We are not canceling the holidays, but to keep ourselves and others safe, we are keeping plans small and flexible and remembering that the health of those we love is most important as we enter the season of gratitude.
Before you gather
First, it is important that everyone who will be attending any holiday celebration is on the same page about how to take precautions before getting together. The idea is to lower infection risk in the weeks leading up to the holidays and then test to confirm.
In conjunction with quarantining, testing is the second strategy.
Research has consistently shown that people are most contagious a day or two before they show symptoms, so everyone plans to get tested with an RT-PCR test within 72 hours of Thanksgiving, while still being able to get results in hand before we gather.
No matter how careful you and your family are, there is some risk that someone will be infected. With that in mind, the goal is to reduce the conditions that lead to viral spread. The biggest risks are indoor spaces with poor ventilation, large groups and close contact. So we are planning the opposite: a short outdoor Thanksgiving with a small group and plenty of space between everyone.
To reduce the risk of infection from flying and to keep the gathering small, the only people coming to Thanksgiving at my family’s home in D.C. are my mother, my aunt and my uncle – all of whom live within driving distance. This is in addition to myself, my husband and our kids. When deciding how many people will come to the holidays, keep it small and consider the amount of space you have to maintain social distancing.
If the weather cooperates, we plan to be outside for trivia games and the turkey meal. Rather than eat around one table, we will have individual tables and place settings spaced far apart and space heaters around. I’ve got a mini care package planned for each guest so that everyone will have their own blanket, hand sanitizer, utensils and a festive mask. My mother won’t be helping out in the kitchen this year and, unfortunately, that goes for cleanup too. We won’t take a group picture but I will be sure to capture some of the special moments.
If the weather doesn’t cooperate, Plan B is to be inside in the large family room with as many windows open as possible and with everyone spaced as far apart as possible. Being outside is safer, but if you must be indoors, improve ventilation by opening doors and windows. Consider turning on exhaust fans and using an air purifier.
Everyone who lives in the household will be in one section while my mom will have her own individual area, as will my aunt and uncle. Even though we won’t hold hands before sharing the meal, we will still recite that we are “thankful for family, friends and food.”
Whether outside or inside, everyone will wear masks when they aren’t eating, maintain 6 feet of distance and use the hand sanitizer that I will place throughout the house.
It is also important to be mindful of alcohol consumption, as a pandemic is not the time for lowered inhibitions and bad judgment.
After the event
I hope everyone enjoys the meal and quality time spent with one another in this melancholy year, but the work is not done once the dishes are clean and everyone is home safely.
Everyone is planning to get another COVID–19 test one week after the meal. Additionally, Thanksgiving is our family’s trial run for Christmas, so a few days after, I plan to call everyone and discuss what worked well and what didn’t. If all goes well, I hope to repeat this quarantine, test and gather process for Christmas.
The ending of 2020 deserves to be celebrated, given this difficult year. This Thanksgiving will be different from those of other years, and my kids understand they need to manage their expectations. But we still plan to uphold our tradition of writing all that we are thankful for and reading our messages aloud to one another. We will still share love, some laughs and a good meal while everyone does their part to protect one another.
As a physician, I have helped to care for many patients and families whose lives have been turned upside down by serious illnesses and injuries. In the throes of such catastrophes, it can be difficult to find cause for anything but lament. Yet Thanksgiving presents us with an opportunity to develop one of the healthiest, most life-affirming and convivial of all habits – that of counting and rejoicing in our blessings.
Research shows that grateful people tend to be healthy and happy. They exhibit lower levels of stress and depression, cope better with adversity and sleep better. They tend to be happier and more satisfied with life. Even their partners tend to be more content with their relationships.
Perhaps when we are more focused on the good things we enjoy in life, we have more to live for and tend to take better care of ourselves and each other.
When researchers asked people to reflect on the past week and write about things that either irritated them or about which they felt grateful, those tasked with recalling good things are more optimistic, feel better about their lives, and actually visit their physicians less.
It is no surprise that receiving thanks makes people happier, but so does expressing gratitude. An experiment that asked participants to write and deliver thank-you notes found large increases in reported levels of happiness, a benefit that lasted for an entire month.
One of the greatest minds in Western history, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, argued that we become what we habitually do. By changing our habits, we can become more thankful human beings.
If we spend our days ruminating on all that has gone poorly and how dark the prospects for the future appear, we can think ourselves into misery and resentment.
But we can also mold ourselves into the kind of people who seek out, recognize and celebrate all that we have to be grateful for.
This is not to say that anyone should become a Pollyanna, ceaselessly reciting the mantra from
Votaire’s Candide, “All is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.” There are injustices to be righted and wounds to be healed, and ignoring them would represent a lapse of moral responsibility.
But reasons to make the world a better place should never blind us to the many good things it already affords. How can we be compassionate and generous if we are fixated on deficiency? This explains why the great Roman statesman Cicero called gratitude not only the greatest of virtues but the “parent” of them all.
Gratitude is deeply embedded in many religious traditions. In Judaism, the first words of the morning prayer could be translated, “I thank you.” Another saying addresses the question, “Who is rich?” with this answer: “Those who rejoice in what they have.”
Gratitude also plays an essential role in Islam. The 55th chapter of the Quran enumerates all the things human beings have to be grateful for – the sun, moon, clouds, rain, air, grass, animals, plants, rivers and oceans – and then asks, “How can a sensible person be anything but thankful to God?”
In his 1994 book, A Whole New Life, the Duke University English Professor Reynolds Price describes how his battle with a spinal cord tumor that left him partially paralyzed also taught him a great deal about what it means to really live.
After surgery, Price describes “a kind of stunned beatitude.” With time, though diminished in many ways by his tumor and its treatment, he learns to pay closer attention to the world around him and those who populate it.
Reflecting on the change in his writing, Price notes that his books differ in many ways from those he penned as a younger man. Even his handwriting, he says, “looks very little like that of the man he was at the time of his diagnosis.”
“Cranky as it is, it’s taller, more legible, and with more air and stride. And it comes down the arm of a grateful man.”
A brush with death can open our eyes. Some of us emerge with a deepened appreciation for the preciousness of each day, a clearer sense of our real priorities and a renewed commitment to celebrating life. In short, we can become more grateful, and more alive, than ever.
When it comes to practicing gratitude, one trap to avoid is locating happiness in things that make us feel better off – or simply better – than others. In my view, such thinking can foster envy and jealousy.
There are marvelous respects in which we are equally blessed – the same sun shines down upon each of us, we all begin each day with the same 24 hours, and each of us enjoys the free use of one of the most complex and powerful resources in the universe, the human brain.
Much in our culture seems aimed to cultivate an attitude of deficiency – for example, most ads aim to make us think that to find happiness we must buy something. Yet most of the best things in life – the beauty of nature, conversation and love – are free.
There are many ways to cultivate a disposition of thankfulness. One is to make a habit of giving thanks regularly – at the beginning of the day, at meals and the like, and at day’s end.
Likewise, holidays, weeks, seasons, and years can be punctuated with thanks – grateful prayer or meditation, writing thank-you notes, keeping a gratitude journal, and consciously seeking out the blessings in situations as they arise.
Gratitude can become a way of life, and by developing the simple habit of counting our blessings, we can enhance the degree to which we are truly blessed.