Awesome Lori asks: “With the holidays upon us (yaaaaaaaaaaaaay… sarcasm. I’m still stuck in that pushback against religion thing), could you address the subject of dealing with people who are super into their religious holiday stuff and how to handle it? I know in one of your religion blog entries, you mentioned that since you made peace with your religious stuff you just haven’t had anyone approach you about it. I would love for that to be the case with me, except I have a very religious, very proselytizing family. My mom wrote me to ask what pieces I need to finish out this Nativity scene that she has been collecting “for” me for the past 10+ years. I never take it out and display it anymore, and I want to tell her to stop buying them for me but I know that would be a HUGE can of worms. On top of telling her that we won’t be making it there for Christmas this year.”
Dear Awesome Lori,
Nothing has the power to trigger us quite like our families during the holiday season. That’s when the guilt and obligation and responsibility come out full force. Those readers who didn’t grow up Christian, you know exactly what I mean, too. We all have those holiday traditions that seem to be all about love and togetherness, but somehow always end in rage-fueled drinking binges, death threats, and trips to the emergency room. And that’s really at the crux of all this: Traditions. That’s almost become a bit of a dirty word in my book (although I don’t demonize the poor little word, just what it often stands for).
Why traditions usually suck
We all have our traditions. Whether they be religious or cultural or simply how your particular family has always done it, it doesn’t matter. We all have rituals of familiarity that are associated with certain times of the year, milestones in life, and celebratory events. Traditions delegate how we get married, how we eat Thanksgiving dinner, what we do the night before Christmas or Easter (or Hanukah or Eid or whatever). They can determine what must be worn, how we must act, what foods we eat, what time we get up or go to bed, how we decorate the house, what we must say, what gifts we must give, and a whole host of other crap.
Don’t get me wrong. Traditions can be wonderful. They can garner a feeling of togetherness and activate warm and fuzzy memories of shared happiness. They can be meaningful and touching (such as passing on an heirloom from one generation to a next). But… and this is the big but, traditions are too often seen as staunch, immovable RULES that must be followed, whether or not they serve any kind of purpose anymore.
When traditions are less about joy and warmth and community, and more about obligation and guilt and responsibility (because Jesus won’t love you if you don’t put the ornaments on the tree just right), they morph from being an expression of the vibration of love and togetherness that’s already there, into an excuse to feel like you’re good enough for once, goddammit.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again (and again, and again, and again): You have no obligation to do anything. You have no responsibility to anyone or anything. You do not HAVE TO do anything. And if you’re into Jesus, he’ll love you no matter what your damn tree looks like.
Get rid of your traditions
Traditions can be wonderful. But they can also be horrendous. If you’re clinging on to traditions and rules that feel awful to you, ask yourself: “Why am I still doing this?” Why are you forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do? And what do you think will happen if you make a change?
For example, what will happen if you don’t eat Turkey for Christmas? Or try to compete with the neighbors on who can use up more electricity with their decorations this year (hint: if your house can be seen from space, you may have overdone it a bit…). What if you didn’t spend three weeks getting the house perfect so your extended family, who never lift a goddamned finger, can come and mess it all up again? What if you didn’t try to do it all yourself? What if you didn’t try to please everyone, especially considering that you can’t succeed at that anyway, because you are not the one person in the Universe who can defy the Law of Attraction and make others happy?
What if, this holiday season, you paid attention to what you want, to what makes you feel good, to what makes your heart sing, and then went and did that? What if you threw out the traditions that no longer serve you, that don’t give you pleasure anymore, and created new ones? What if you did whatever the hell you wanted to do?
Of course, I know what you’re going to say: “It will kill my mother/hurt my family/make everyone mad at me.” Traditions are bad enough on their own, but when you add religion to the mix, it can get really ugly. Not only are you disappointing your family, but you are disappointing God. And there’s just no coming back from that, is there? I mean, going to midnight mass, even though you’d rather be sent down to a planet inhabited by Zombies wearing a red shirt1 isn’t such a high price to pay for getting into heaven, is it?
But what if religion simply doesn’t hold that much weight for you anymore? What if you find yourself wanting to strangle anyone who uses the words “Baby Jesus” and tells you that you simply have to put on your special reindeer sweater and eat fruit cake because that’s just how we’ve always done it? How are you supposed to keep your Happy Shiny Puppy vibe going then?
The lesser of the evils
First of all, realize that YOU don’t have to participate in any activity that you don’t want to. Most of the resentment that comes up during the holidays stems from people thinking they have no choice. “You don’t understand, Melody” they’ll say, “not going to my mother’s house for Christmas is simply not an option!” And to that I say, yes it is. It is an option. It may not be an option that you’re willing to choose, but it’s still an option and it’s still your choice. You are choosing to go to your mother’s house for Christmas, because it’s the least bad feeling option you have access to. It’s not a good feeling option, to be sure, but it’s the one that will seem to cause you the least amount of hassle. So, you capitulate and give in and go anyway, even though you don’t want to. The only reason you’re doing that is because you’re unable, in this moment, to see a better feeling option, NOT because such options don’t exist. This is an important point to remember.
When you consider that there are other viable choices that feel better, but which you’re simply not aware of right now, you take the first step to opening yourself to seeing those options. And remembering that you are making a choice, you are not being forced to go to your mom’s for dinner at gunpoint, will help as well. Family pressure can often make us feel trapped, like we’re actually in a life and death situation (or hell and heaven), but let’s get some perspective, shall we? No one will actually die if you don’t wear that ugly sweater, or go to mass, or eat turkey (if you’re a vegetarian, for example), or spend hours of horrendous and boring time with people you normally choose never to see (for good reason). Let me repeat that: your family will fucking survive. No matter how much guilt they try to put on you, keep that in mind.
Ignore the drama
If you’ve ever watched a football/soccer game, you’ll be familiar with the phenomenon of players faking injuries to slow down the game. Since the induction of instant replay, this has become quite a comical thing to watch: players who are nowhere near the ball and nowhere near another player, will suddenly throw themselves on the ground (the less skilled don’t even pretend to trip), hold their knee and begin to wail like a five year old girl. The really good ones produce actual tears. In other words, they turn into big, giant, muscle-y (had to be said) drama queens. And no one takes them seriously. They yell “My knee! My knee! I’m hurt! I may never play again! You’re all really bad people for not instantly rushing over and taking care of my obviously fake injury! You cold bastards! I don’t think I can walk anymore! I’ll probably need an amputation! Your momma didn’t raise you right! We discussed it last night after I gave her a good rogering, and she expressed her disappointment in you, also!” This is what I imagine they’re saying, but there’s a fair amount of trash talk in sports, so I’m just going to assume this is spot on, although obviously, I’ve given you the more family friendly version here. Because it’s the holidays. And I fucking care.
Anywho, your family are like those drama queen players (for those who have never seen a soccer game, it really is an awesome sport. Don’t let the melodramatics put you off. Just maybe don’t watch Italy. Sorry Italy, but you know it’s true). You don’t have to take them seriously. They are faking it. It will not literally break your mother’s heart if you don’t put up a nativity scene. And your family will not fall apart if you don’t host them for Christmas this year (think about it. The entire family dynamic depends on you killing yourself over the holidays? Are your family a bunch of mental patients who will disintegrate into total chaos if any kind of change is introduced? Try to answer seriously, not sarcastically, although I know the urge must be overwhelming right now).
What’s important to you?
That being said, before you go and announce to your whole family that Christmas is dead this year, that you don’t believe in Baby Jesus and that holidays are for suckahs!, you may want to take a moment to figure out what’s really important to you? What do you actually want during this holiday season?
You see, when you’re first coming out of the whole “I’m trapped. I have no choice” mentality, it’s really easy to overreact and just rebel against anything and everything. Holiday décor of any kind makes you want to vomit and seeing Santa at the mall fills you with an irrational rage. How could these sheep be so stupid and buy into the blatant commercialism? Why don’t they wake up already and see how the greedy corporations are just using them to drive the capitalist machine (or whatever grinchy thoughts you’re having, I could be wildly exaggerating here…)?
But, consider for a moment, that people aren’t as stupid as you may currently (in your state of rebelliousness) think they are. People don’t participate in Christmas or any other holiday because they’re dumb or asleep. Sure, we often follow traditions well past the point where they serve us, but then we all do all kinds of things past that point (relationships, jobs, dieting, you get the point). And people aren’t religious because they’re brain damaged.
No one does ANYTHING for any other reason than that they think it will make them feel better. People participate in Christmas traditions because they feel good, or they think they will feel good. When you do something because it feels less bad than all the other options you currently see, you’re doing the same exact thing. For a lot of people, Christmas is an excuse to let go of troubles, to focus on warm and fuzzy topics like joy and peace and goodwill, it’s a time to think of others in a positive way, to give and appreciate, to bake cookies and make stuff that smells nice and looks good and feels like awesome. In other words, people believe in God and Jesus and celebrate Christmas and other religious holidays, because they choose to.
The key is to figure out how you’re feeling, why you’re feeling that way, and how you’d like to feel instead. This also means not overreacting to things that actually aren’t that important to you, and allowing other people’s point of view to be valid.
Breaking it to your mom
For example, your mom may take great pleasure in giving you a piece of the nativity scene every year. It may not be important to you, but so what? Why can’t you let her have that joy? Remember that there’s just as much (if not more) pleasure in giving a gift than in receiving it. Obviously, these gifts mean a lot to her. So what if they don’t mean anything to you? Does it really hurt you to let her give them to you?
You see, when you detach your reaction from theirs, you’re often able to allow others to have their point of view without pushing against it. She’s not forcing you to appreciate what she does; she just wants the right to give you a gift that makes her happy. Why not consider your gracious acceptance of the present your gift to her (i.e. letting her have this one just because it makes her happy and you don’t really care either way?). If having those pieces in your house makes you want to vomit, then you have some real work to do. Why would something like that make you react so strongly? Hint: it’s not about the nativity pieces, it’s about what they represent to you…
As far as not showing up for Christmas, that one’s a little harder. But, if going away for Christmas is the best feeling choice you have, then you have to honor that. First of all, remember, this will not kill anyone. Those who claim that no one will be able to enjoy themselves if you’re not there need to get a freaking life. Think about it: If they are willing to sit around and be miserable all night just because you didn’t show up, they’ve got real problems. Problems you can’t fix. You might as well go and enjoy yourself. Also, it has to be said, there have to better selling tactics than, “you must come and entertain our miserable asses”. Just saying.
When you tell your mom or anyone else, be kind but stand your ground. Meet her half way on her beliefs. If she really feels that Baby Jesus will cry if you don’t join them for midnight mass, you don’t have to shout “Baby Jesus will get over it! Melody said so!” Understand that for her, the idea that Jesus was born at Christmas gives her comfort. And you don’t just get to take that comfort away or poop all over it. You don’t get to poop all over Baby Jesus, is what I’m saying (and yes, I had to actually say it. I often truly cannot help myself). Honoring your own beliefs is not the same as negating those you don’t agree with. Otherwise, you are doing the exact same thing that you’re accusing them of doing: you’re insisting that what you believe is right, and what they believe is wrong.
When you can accept that what you believe is right for YOU, and what they believe is right FOR THEM, conversations tend to get a lot easier. Ask yourself what’s truly important to you. What is it that you’re trying to affect with this conversation? If the answer is, to stomp them into the ground and prove to them how stupid they’re being, maybe take a moment to regroup. If you answer “I just want them to stop making me feel guilty”, then remind yourself that no one can make you feel anything. That guilt is on you and you can just stop feeling it because no one is actually going to die (see paragraphs on soccer players above). What you really want is to feel good and to be free.
Well, you are free to feel good. You’re free to make the decisions you want to make. And your family is free to make the decisions they want to make. If they decide to feel like crap because you decided to not do exactly what they wanted, that’s their choice. Remember that the people who call you selfish are usually the most selfish of all…
Finding the balance
But again, choosing to feel good doesn’t mean that have to be cruel or rebellious or deny them their joy. You don’t have to push against what they want in order to get what you want. Whether you spend the holidays with your family or not, here are some tips that will help you find the balance between capitulating and just doing what they want even though you’d rather not, and going postal on them and their beliefs in an attempt to regain your own power:
- Whenever someone talks to you about God or Jesus or uses any other term that you kind of take offense to, substitute the word “Universe” and see if that doesn’t lighten things up for you. For example, when someone says “Jesus loves you”, translate it to “The Universe is love”. When they state “God watches over us all”, you can hear it as “We are all constantly supported.” In other words, listen to the essence of what they are saying. Often, religious people are saying the exact same things as we LOA’ers, they’re just using different words. If, however, your family are the fire and brimstone type and keep insisting that you’re going to hell, you may want to follow your intuition on out of there.
- Evaluate and re-evaluate your traditions. Are there any that actually don’t feel good anymore and really haven’t for a long time? You may be surprised to find out that even your religious traditions aren’t actually all that religious. Many families have greatly changed their routines over the years, so arguing that you can’t get rid of a tradition because God declared that it had to happen, may not hold that much water. But don’t try to get rid of all your traditions at once. Keep the ones that actually still feel good and identify the ones you’d like to change. Then, begin substituting new traditions that actually feel the way you want to feel, one by one. This way, you won’t be trying to introduce massive change to your family, while giving them the opportunity to get the warm and fuzzies they’ve been aiming for, but haven’t actually been achieving. I suggest you start with the tradition that bugs you the most, so you’ll get maximum relief from the least amount of change. Keep the drama queen rule in mind as you do this, so the relatives that scream the loudest don’t manipulate you with false knee injuries.
- Remember that you don’t need them to change so that you can change. If you make your happiness conditional, you’re not going to get very far. Participate in what you want to participate in, and don’t do anything you really don’t want to do. Allow them to do the same.
- Keep in mind that how you feel is the most important thing. If Christmas is about happiness in your house, then make sure that’s what you’re actually creating. If it feels more like a rage fueled murder party, re-evaluate what you’re doing. If your traditions are more about obligation than feeling good, get rid of them and do something that feels better instead.
- If you are not feeling good, something needs to change. DO NOT sacrifice your own well-being by telling yourself that it’s for the good of the family. Their true happiness will never come at your expense (the Universe does not work on a win-lose basis. It’s win-win, or lose-lose. If you are losing, so are they. I promise you.)
- Ask others to help. There is NO REASON for you to do it all. Ask relatives to bring food (you can cook the turkey and stuffing, and they can bring the sides, for example). Ask them to come over and help clean before and after. Yes, I’m serious. If you are now thinking “they’ll never do that”, think about this: they will do whatever they need to do. So, if they are not required to help, they may well not. But, if contributing something is the only way for them to get what they want, they will. If everyone does a bit, no one has to do a lot. See your role as more of a manger, as a coordinator, rather than as the one who has to do it all. If people refuse to help, they don’t get to eat or participate. And no, you are not ruining Christmas with this rule. You are simply taking yourself out of the role of unpaid slave girl and into Christmas Coordinator. You all still get to have a great Christmas, just one that doesn’t depend on one person killing herself.
- Take shortcuts and don’t assume that things have to be done a certain way. For example, if you are make special dishes to accommodate a bunch of different tastes and allergies, etc., consider making one simple, vegan dish (not fake turkey or any of that crap. Trust me on that, no one appreciates that), with no preservatives or chemicals and leave it at that. Ask the people with special diets to bring a dish they can eat and share. Many will prefer that, since they can totally control the ingredients (depending on how severe the restriction is). You are not being a good person by doing it all. Making one dish is quick and easy. Making a hundred is not. Look into purchasing some of the food. For example, you may want to offer three different pies, but you don’t have to bake them all. And yes, there are pies out there that are handmade with love. Make your life easy and look for shortcuts that you can feel good about. Focus on the one or two foods or activities that are important and let the rest go. Remember, if it’s a burden, you’re not achieving the feeling you want.
To me, what this comes down to is taking the focus off of merely surviving the holidays, which assumes that they’re going to be hard and torturous by design, and putting it onto thriving. Christmas can and should be fun for everyone. If it isn’t, something has to change. You don’t have to accept any amount of suffering. Remember that everyone wants to feel good, and everyone is doing their best to do so, even religious folk. We’re all just doing the best we can.
So, give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and try to listen for the core of what they’re saying. Evaluate traditions and make feeling good the priority for everyone (including yourself). Don’t rebel against your family at every turn. Allow them to follow their beliefs just as you ask them to allow you to follow yours. And, if all else fails, blow off all traditions and go to the beach.
Personally, I’ll be spending Christmas at a spa, which is the tradition my mom and I started a few years back. Actually, we’ve always gone just after Christmas. My mom would still get a tree and decorate it, even though we were only ever there for 3 days. As my diet changed (and she happily followed suit), we went from cooking a chicken (there are only two of us, and getting a turkey would’ve meant killing a baby turkey, something we simply couldn’t stomach), to chicken breasts (the whole chicken was far too much, and we ended up not being able to get rid of the leftovers before going on holiday), to a simple meal of sautéed veggies. The traditions at my house have been falling away over the years, as we had to recognize that they simply didn’t fit for us anymore. This year, we’re heading to the spa for Christmas eve, so there will be no need to rush around and get a tree or cook dinner. Again, this makes sense for us.
For me, Christmas means snow (although I am fascinated by the idea of an Australian Christmas with BBQ’s and such), German Christmas markets, mulled wine (which I just hold and smell but don’t actually drink), candied almonds (again, I just smell them now, because I can no longer handle that much sugar, but I still get immense joy just from the scent), Christmas carols, rosy cheeks, cookies, sitting by the fire (this is a new tradition, which I am extending to the whole freaking winter), and now, the spa. It means being with my family, taking time for myself, slowing down, and appreciating. These are the things that are important to me. Receiving presents, having the perfect specific meal, rushing around in the throng of holiday shoppers and making sure my house is spring clean, are all either secondary or irrelevant. For example, I no longer feel the need to be surprised by gifts. I’m quite happy to tell someone what I want, if they really want to give me something. This way, I get gifts I will actually use, and I will think of the person who gave them to me every time I do so. I also prefer it when people just tell me what they want (or send me a link to their Amazon Wish list). It makes life so much easier and everyone ends up getting the perfect gift.
What’s truly important to you this holiday season? And what were you about to do just out of obligation (that you will hopefully drop now)? Share in the comments (if you write it here, you may hold yourself more accountable…)!