Every year it happens: My husband, kids and I are standing on the same cobblestone street, in front of the same romantic Christmas tree stand, being waited on by the same porcelain-skinned, dreamy-eyed girl from Vermont wearing homemade red mittens, when--wham!--it comes time to decide between the 12-foot Fraser and...The short, cheap, ugly, pointless tree.
Perhaps I am not being clear enough about my side of the argument. I grew up in Alaska. Trees are supposed to be 11 feet or taller. They are supposed to take over your living room. You are supposed to worry--and enjoy the suspense of worrying--if the tippy-top will hit the ceiling and slump sideways into a deep, unsightly bend. The perfume of pine needles is supposed to penetrate your sinuses--and brain--so deeply that your nose runs before you fall asleep and your dreams are tinted green. This is the point of the holiday.
I could present you with my husband's side--we live on the fourth floor, we have no elevator, and (his coup de grâce) the only ceiling in our place high enough to accommodate a 12-foot tree is our kitchen--but why? I am clearly in the right. He is in the wrong. And this is why strangers shy away from us as we bicker in public--and an innocent young salesgirl from Vermont exhausts herself, dragging out tree after tree that we cannot agree on.
Having done an informal survey of nearby families, I have discovered that we are not alone and, also, that we all seem to have the same fight over and over and over. Our deepest yearning is for closeness during the holidays, says David Treadway, PhD, author ofIntimacy, Change, and Other Therapeutic Mysteries: Stories of Clinicians and Clients. "But most families have underlying tensions ... Creating a sharp, ruinous clash between what we yearn for and what is." We asked him and a few other experts to identify the most common arguments and how to keep the peace--if not on earth--then at the dinner table.
Stuffing in versus stuffing out
The classic dinner dilemma: Are you going to cook the stuffing inside the bird so that it turns out moist and rich and infused with turkey juices...And risk getting food poisoning? Or are you going to cook it in a sensible, sanitary pot on the stove or oven and risk it being so dry and crumbly that not even a gravy tsunami will help?
"One of the trends I've been observing is that everybody has gotten much more picky about food," says Frances Goldscheider, PhD, professor of family science at the University of Maryland, College Park. People now eat vegetarian, lactose- and gluten-free. "Our culture thinks you should eat exactly the way you want to and have every possible choice." During the holidays, however, the point is being together. Her advice: "Eat what's served and don't eat what you don't like."
Menorah versus poinsettia versus shrine to lord ganesha
Last year, some married friends of mine, one Jewish and one Christian, got into a huge smackdown over a poinsettia a guest had brought to their latke party. He wanted to display it. She did not. While they carried on--loudly--I got nervous and uncomfortable and ate all the dreidel cookies.
Back in the days of limited tolerance, this was the traditional interfaith family blowout: Hanukkah dukes it out with Christmas. Now we all know better. There are a lot more religions and a lot more people in the world--like Hindus, who celebrate Pancha Ganapati in December, which requires a living room shrine. Add to that atheists. There are members of my family who do not cotton to my crèche on the mantel.
Teri Apter, PhD, author of What Do You Want from Me? Learning to Get Along with In-Laws suggests trying this line of questioning: Do you not want to put up the poinsettia because you didn't grow up with this particular kind of religious decoration? Or do you not want to put it up because it's upsetting to you and a matter of principle?
In the latter case, you may have to find a more radical way to accommodate everybody, such as celebrating one religious event in your house and the other at a restaurant or an in-law's house. In the former, you might be able to find a compromise in the home, such as no Christmas decorations during the Hanukkah festivities. Or Christmas decorations in the study and Hanukkah decorations in the living room. The key is creating your own family customs that everybody feels comfortable with--even if they deviate from the so-called norm.
SOURCE: Leigh Newman