Can we set aside one day during the holiday season for truth-telling? Some of you grew up in families where harmony prevailed during the Christmas season—where everyone helped out cheerfully and participated in holiday rituals willingly; where nobody cursed while trying to straighten out the lights and blamed whomever had put them away in such a tangle the previous year; where tempers did not predictably flare on Christmas day and ruin everything; where there was no yelling; where nobody drank too much.
Then there are the rest of us. We wanted our family to look like yours. When it didn't, we felt ashamed. We all knew how Christmas is supposed to be. It is supposed to be perfect. We couldn't pull it off and we couldn't admit it. How could we possibly not be happy? It was Christmas! So we put on our cheerful faces and pretended—with one another, to the outside world, and to ourselves.
It's hard to stop pretending, which is why I have cloaked today's truth-telling in the anonymity of first person plural. We is me, of course. I have tried to change the dysfunctional holiday dynamic in my own family, and I believe I've succeeded to an extent (though sibling quarreling is a constant). It helps that I expect less of myself than my mother did of herself. I'm not adamant about polishing the family silver right before Christmas dinner. I don't send out 400 Christmas cards, each with a personal note. I don't make incredibly labor-intensive German Christmas cookies that involve a deep-fat fryer. Compared to my mother, I do a pretty slacker holiday. So the ambient stress level stays out of the danger zone—most of the time.
I am my mother's daughter, though, and at the very last minute, I am likely to notice that the good silverware is in fact more tarnished than I'd thought. And then I have to force myself not to crossly polish the entire lot… all by myself… on Christmas Eve.
My saner self prevails, generally. I know that avoiding resentment needs to be my No. 1 goal if we are to have a reasonably cheerful family Christmas. I learned this principle from Nancy Samalin, a parenting expert I once profiled. She cautioned parents to not ignore their own needs because, she said, "You can behave a little better than you feel, but not much." It's a good thought to keep in mind when you are making holiday plans.