by Elise Ellsworth
A favorite childhood memory of mine was my Great-grandma Leuthold’s annual Christmas gathering in Sherwood, Oregon. Nostalgic smells and a crackling fire greeted us warmly as we entered the gathering place. Aunts milled in the kitchen catching up and checking on the food while the men congregated watching sports in the family room. There was a big, warmly lit tree in the living room with presents underneath for the annual gift exchange. There were crafts in the dining room for the children and lots of goodies including great grandma’s traditional Swiss kuechlis and bratzelis. We were a hodge podge family of many backgrounds and lifestyles – an artist, a military chaplain, a jeweler, a builder – women with sparkly high heels and others with conservative dresses, single, married and divorced. But when we finally gathered in the living room for carols sung by the children and the opening of presents there was a wonderful warm feeling. It was the immensely comforting feeling of belonging.
A 2014 article “Americans Love the Holidays, But Spend Them Doing Things They Hate” pointed out that time spent in family activities and traditions is one of the most anticipated and enjoyable holiday events of the holiday season. Indeed, research suggests that “participation in ritualized family celebrations increased positive well-being: satisfaction with life, perceived social well-being, and the balance of affective well-being.” However, Americans often spend more time buying and preparing presents than they do at family gatherings. This materialism contributes to decreased enjoyment of the holiday season. So what are some ways that we can get back to making family a central part of our holiday celebrations?
- Attend or organize family gatherings – Sadly, the amount of effort required to host family gatherings causes some to opt out. I am as guilty as any mother of the occasional fleeting thought that cancelling Christmas might not be such a bad idea. And Thanksgiving. It’s much easier to go to a restaurant than to cook Thanksgiving dinner. But what are memories worth? Remember that what your children really want for the holidays may not be the expensive ski trip – it may be time spent with you and other loved ones.
- Make Gatherings a Magical Time for Children – I especially believe that family gatherings should feel magical for children. Make an effort to provide games and special activities or treats that they will remember for some time. Whether your family re-enacts the nativity or makes a traditional holiday dish the unique traditions of your family should embrace and include children.
- Take time for visits and outings with relatives – Perhaps your great-aunt in the care center needs a visit. Or you could make Christmas shopping a family outing with sisters and sisters-in-law. Instead of going it alone, make an effort to include extended family members in your holiday activities. The connections and happy memories are well worth the effort.
- Don’t let disagreements get in the way of family togetherness – So what if your great aunt’s apple-walnut-jello salad drives you nuts or if your father-in-law’s parenting advice comes off a little too strong. An attitude of forgiveness, tolerance and love is what the Christmas season is all about. You might find that a rekindled relationship is the best Christmas gift you’ll ever give (or receive).
- Simplify – If focusing on family is most important then try cutting out some other activities. You don’t need to attend every holiday party, bring a goodie plate to every neighbor, or send cards to mere acquaintances. Calendar family first, then fill your time with a modest amount of other activities.
If you want to make your holidays unforgettable this year come home to family, home to relationships – spending holidays with family may well be the most valuable spending you do all season long.