6 Tips for Making It Through Christmas Family Gatherings

From the Texas Dept. of Transportation’s “Tipsy, buzzed, or Blitzen” campaign

Spending time with family at the holidays can be very difficult, even impossible, for some of us. In my recent post, “Home for the holidays when a parent is an alcoholic or addict,” I shared some of my experience dealing with visiting family at the holidays, as what they sometimes call (ironically) a double winner — I’m a sober alcoholic myself and I am the child of an alcoholic parent — and the issues and challenges that can come up. As I said then, if the situation at home isn’t safe, you don’t have to go. But if it’s more on the level of annoying, there are things you can do to help make the best of it. If you are heading into an uncomfortable family situation this week, here are 6 simple tips to help you make it through. I learned them through hard-fought experience. I hope they’re helpful:

  1. If conversation tends to turn argumentative or strident, steer towards uplifting topics you can agree on, and away from things you know you always end up fighting over. Which is more important, proving a point or having a happy family event? (See also my article on dealing with political and religious differences at family gatherings.)

  2. If your best effort to keep conversation light isn’t working, step away from that conversation and rejoin a larger group. Or perhaps throw yourself into love and service, helping with the food and asking how others are doing.

  3. If you feel your level of agitation or unsafeness rising significantly, take a break. Go for a walk; go outside for a smoke if you smoke; run an errand to pick up something needed later; take a nap. The point is to break the momentum.

  4. If a relative (or anyone for that matter) is being difficult (after you’ve changed the subject or found an excuse to get away) take a minute to look past what was annoying or angering you, to that of God in them. Easier said than done, but that’s the goal. Just a minute’s prayer or reflection on what’s good about them, and remembering that none of us is perfect.

  5. When you are visiting from out of town, if at all practical stay nearby in a hotel and come over each day for activities, then leave at the end of the day, or whenever you feel the need. Staying in the home of the family you’re visiting, on top of each other 24/7, can lead to feeling trapped and fuses can get a lot shorter.

  6. Ultimately, remember that even if you feel like you don’t want to be there, you chose to be there because you value family, so try to make it the best experience possible, for yourself and for everyone. Making sure they know you’re annoyed isn’t helping anyone.

Please share your own tips below in comments, and come back here and share your experience during the holidays if you want.

Have a safe and happy Christmas, everyone!

(Thanks to reader GarlicClove for pointing out that this post, which was originally geared toward family situations involving alcohol is just as applicable to any family gathering. I’ve adjusted the wording to reflect that.)

You can see all my Advent-themed pieces together at patheos.com/blogs/philfoxrose/tag/advent/. Please share this link, or just one to my blog, with anyone you think might be interested. Thanks!

About Phil Fox Rose

Phil Fox Rose is a writer, editor and content lead based in New York. He is coordinator of Contemplative Outreach of New York, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Raised atheist by ex-Mormons, Phil has journeyed through Quakerism, deep ecology, Buddhism and Catholicism. Now he's a congregant, worship leader, cook and chair of the leadership team at St. Lydia's, an awesome dinner church in Brooklyn, NY, and spends as much time in nature as possible. Phil has been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil by RSS feed, email, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

  • Kristen inDallas

    Dangit… was hoping this would include some tips for getting through the holidays with a recovering alcoholic too. Ie – for helping to make it easier for someone to get through their first sober Christmas, given all the stress that creeps up around the holidays (even when noone’s drinking). If you have any thoughts….

    • http://www.philfoxrose.com Phil Fox Rose

      Kristin, I’m so sorry I don’t have a piece specifically on making it through the holidays in recovery. I’ve thought about writing it before. Yes, the holidays can be a real challenge for someone newly sober or struggling — all the additional emotional stress around family and social situations, often combined with a lot more drinking than usual around you. There’s a saying in recovery, “people, places and things,” suggesting that those new in recovery should avoid triggering environments. At the holidays sometimes those environments are unavoidable, or may seem so. I say “seem so” because sometimes people feel socially obligated to put themselves in situations that are dangerous for them — an office party, a family event — but they should consider saying no if it might be a threat to their sobriety.

      The best thing you can do is honor their struggling if that’s what’s happening. (But not ask them all the time which can feel patronizing.) And specifically, if they express any concern or reluctance about going someplace or doing something, not to brush it aside because it doesn’t seem like that big a deal to you.

      This post and Home for the holidays when a parent is an alcoholic or addict are written from the perspective of a recovered alcoholic going to family events, so something might be useful anyway. I’d point especially to #3 above:

      3. If you feel your level of agitation or unsafeness rising significantly, take a break. Go for a walk; go outside for a smoke if you smoke; run an errand to pick up something needed later; take a nap. The point is to break the momentum.

      I’ve written a few other posts here about recovery already, especially Spiritual Recovery, and will continue to do so. In particular, I’d suggest that someone in recovery going into stressful or foreign situations make sure to maintain as much of their usual support system and routine as possible. I did this piece, 6 Tools to Maintain Your Spiritual Condition suggesting a set of basic supports, like meetings, prayer and meditation. For recovery specifically, I’d add and emphasize the importance of a sponsor and support network, especially someone who can be their “lifeline” call — the call they can make and get an answer if they really think they’re about to pick up a drink. I wish you and your (friend/partner/family member?) a stress-free and sober Christmas. Feel free to follow up if I’ve not answered something specific you were wondering about.


  • GarlicClove

    Honestly, I think this is good advice for dealing with any family on the holidays. I am diffidently going to put this into practice this week. reminding myself to “see that of God” in someone is difficult, but beautiful advice and I am going to try to use it in all situations from here on out.

    • http://www.philfoxrose.com Phil Fox Rose

      You know, you’re absolutely right GarlicClove. After reading your comment, I took a step back from the piece and, yes, all of it is good advice for “difficult” family whether it has anything to do with alcohol or not. I’m sorry I didn’t see that earlier and reach more people with the advice. I’ll change the wording now, but it’s a little late. Thanks!

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