How to create peaceful family holiday gatherings.

Susan Newman Ph.D.

When I am trying to make sure the turkey doesn’t dry out or the potato casserole doesn’t burn, the last thing I want to hear is my daughters arguing about a ten-year-old slight or difference.

Whether you are the host or a guest, family holidays resurrect memories and emotions—both happy and troublesome. The added stress that comes with the holidays increases most everyone’s sensitivity. Your daughter announces she is spending the holiday with her in-laws; your brother claims the distance is too great to spend the holiday at your house. Divorced parents? With which one do you celebrate? Even if you worked out these details years ago, another issue will crop up to raise your hackles and test your mettle. Holidays touch a nerve and in the process your expectations can get squashed or dented.

Preemptive “Strikes” Tip Sheet

Preemptive “strikes” help you readjust, handle the unexpected, and avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings so you can have the best holiday you can possibly have. Set up some lines of defense in advance. Here are a few possible ways to cope with different potentially disturbing scenarios.

  1. Lower your expectations. Tell yourself that “perfect” isn’t necessary. You probably won’t get through the day without something going awry. From how you cut the apples for a pie to how long to cook the turkey, consider it a Happy Holiday if your mother or sister doesn’t try to direct the day. And, if she does, remember, you knew it was coming. Accept the fact that she’s that way to avoid a confrontation that will unnerve both of you.
  2. Taming the “Turkey(s)” in your family. Most likely you have relatives you don’t see often enough, the ones you have so much to tell that you could spend a week together. But almost every family has at least one relative who is best avoided, the one that causes trouble and may even think an inappropriate “dig” or comment is funny.

If you think (or know) a problem might arise, try to work it out beforehand. Call to say (or ask), “I don’t want to ruin our celebration. Let’s agree not to discuss this during the time we are together. Let’s put this behind us, it is not important enough to dampen the day.”

Ask yourself if a disagreement is important enough to create a family division. It costs you nothing to be the “bigger person.” And, really, is it important to be right all the time?

  1. Put someone on “high alert.” Tell her if she sees you cornered to come rescue you. “You are needed in the kitchen.” “The children want you to play a game with them.” Interference like that will extricate you from the confrontational relative.
  2. Pre-think who sits next to whom if you foresee trouble or that one person will be uncomfortable or unhappy seated next to the other.
  3. Play dumb when asked how you feel about a sensitive subject or family feud. Simply dismiss it by saying, “I don’t know” or “I don’t have an answer for that.”
  4. Add friends to the mix to dilute difficult family members. We all have friends who live too far to travel to their relatives or don’t have any. They can become regulars at your festivities…and after a few years feel like family members. Not only are they an important part of your created family, but they can also help diffuse tensions. Try it if you haven’t. It works.
  5. Mix in some fun that includes both adults and children. Most families have an activity or two in place already-a walk before dessert, touch football in the yard, chocolate turkeys or Santas for the children.  In our house at Thanksgiving, we sing “Hello, Mr. Turkey, How are You,” a short rhyming song learned by a friend’s child in nursery school. He is now 16-years-old and continues to lead us.


Divide your guests into groups to answer questions about Thanksgiving. You can find a variety of quizzes, long and short, to print out and pass around: 100 Thanksgiving Trivia Questions? (link is external) This link takes you to an assortment of printable Thanksgiving quizzes (link is external). You can look through for the one that is just right for your group.

  1. Be thankful. Take a few moments to be grateful. Go around the table giving young and old an opportunity to share what they are thankful for. You may hear, “I’m thankful for my dog,” from a six-year-old, but you will also hear many touching, heartfelt feelings of love and family. That same six-year-old may surprise you by saying, “My little sister.”


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