Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Change Traditions and Lower Your Holiday Dinner Stress

Dear Readers,

Psychology Today blogger Susan Newman, Ph.D., invited me to be a guest blogger. Below is the unabridged article that will soon be posted in Psychology Today. Perhaps there is a suggestion or two that can help lower your holiday pressure!

Change Traditions and Lower Your Holiday Dinner Stress

Traditions are customs and practices that get handed down, often unquestioned, from one generation to the next. Maintaining traditions is often stressful, especially during the holidays, and especially for those responsible for hosting the traditional holiday dinners. Through the years and with the help of my readers sharing their suggestions, I have compiled a list of several ways the keepers of the holiday dinner traditions can get some pressure off themselves.

Stop trying to accommodate everyone’s dietary requirements and preferences.

In this day and age, the guests sitting around the holiday dinner typically come with a wide variety of dietary preferences, restrictions and labels, including, vegetarians, vegans, celiacs, lactose-intolerant, and those with numerous food allergies. Rather than trying to accommodate everyone’s dietary needs, an alternative solution is to let everyone know in advance the items on the main menu. Then people can decide if they want to bring any additional dishes to be shared or special dishes for themselves.

Some hosts put a card in front of each dish listing the ingredients; they also ask those contributing a dish to the dinner to do the same. In those cases where exposure to certain foods could entail a trip to the emergency room for someone, the host can make sure everyone has this information in advance.

Decree there will be no electronic devices.

It is both rude and annoying when family members work their keyboards at holiday dinners, but there is often a reluctance to do anything about it. One of my braver readers said she informed her family that the holiday dinner in her home was to be digital-free: no i-anythings would be allowed. Further, she asked her grandchildren to bring board games and other non-digital activities they can do together. When asked if she was worried about her family being upset with her decree, she said, “My family may not like it, but they can all send me an e-mail or text after the holidays to complain. My house, my rules.”

Put the grandchildren to work.

Kids running helter-skelter around the home where the family will gather can raise both noise and frustrations levels at the holiday dinner. One enterprising grandmother of four grandchildren under the age of ten said that the previous year, she had solved this problem by setting up a table for them on which she had light cardboard cut into place-mat size, crayons, magic markers, and stickers. Instead of running around, the grandchildren worked on making place mats for everyone. Apparently the kids enjoyed being with each and working together because they asked to do it again at the next holiday dinner.

Stop bringing elderly parents from assisted living.

Having older family members who live in assisted facilities attend holiday dinners, especially if they are physically and/or mentally limited, can be difficult for both the older and younger members of a family. Many grown children wanting to bring a parent from assisted living to their home face the challenges of transporting them, only to arrive and find the elderly family members are ready to leave a noisy family gathering after being there a few minutes.

The daughter of a mother in assisted living explains changes she has made to address just this situation: “This year on the day of our holiday dinner, I will visit with my mother early in the morning and my sister will visit her later in the day. The staff where she lives assures me that my new plan is better because my mother always returns from a big family gathering agitated and confused. I feel guilty about this, but I realize having her with the whole family is more about my needs than hers.”

Assign everyone a task.

Anyone who has been responsible for a holiday dinner knows there are numerous tasks that go into its success (and this partial list doesn’t include the planning, shopping, and food preparation!): set the table, get the beverage table ready, distribute the hors d’oeuvres, plate the main entre and all the trimmings, serve the food, clear the dirty dishes, set out the desserts, wrap the leftovers, clean the kitchen, empty the trash, etc. etc. In many families there is one person with primary responsibility for doing most of the tasks.

One grandmother broke with this tradition. A couple of weeks before the holiday she let everyone know by e-mail their assignment, including the grandchildren. Everyone knew each other’s assignment, so there was some trading of tasks. She said it worked well and they will do it again.

Change how time-consuming, traditional dishes are prepared.

A common phrase is “Our holiday dinner would not be complete without (fill in the blank), e.g., making mince meat from scratch, making pasta by hand.” The problem is that some dishes can require untold amounts of time to prepare, if traditions are strictly followed.

For example, one grandmother explains how she uses a short-cut to prepare mashed potatoes: “My mother and our Italian aunts (all now deceased) would have a fit over this break with tradition, but it saves so much time and it is actually more nutritious. I now use red potatoes; I cut them into smaller pieces and leave the skins on . . . Gone are the days of all that ridiculous peeling. When you’re talking 15 plus pounds, that’s no small potatoes!”  (The preparer of the dish can decide whether to fess up that corners have been cut!)

Start a totally new way to have the family holiday dinner.

Another grandmother completely changed her family’s holiday dinner. She felt she was caught in a scheduling nightmare of grandchildren’s naps, football games, and various other activities. She just didn’t want to host anymore.

She explains: “This year my husband and I are going to a restaurant around noon for our holiday dinner and anyone can join us who wants to. Then, I am having an ‘open house’ through the early evening. Everyone can come and go according to their other commitments. I will provide snacks, fixings for sandwiches, and desserts. My family understands why I am doing this and they are willing to give it a try. I already feel so relieved!”

Ah, relief! Yes, doing things differently can bring a sense of relief as well as result in creating new traditions that better reflect family members’ evolving and changing needs, especially for those overseeing the holiday dinners. Food for thought!

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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