Holiday Expectations: A New Look

by Maureen McKane, LCSW

Holiday expectations lead to disappointments. Change what you expect and you’ll enjoy, not just survive the season.

When the family gathers for a holiday, expectations live in two parts of the brain. There is the Norman Rockwell Lobe and the Scrooge Cortex. In Scrooge we know in advance that grownup siblings, sitting with their parents, will act pre-adolescent automatically. In Rockwell we hope for moments of deep connection backlit by candles. We get family dynamics instead. We hope for that special personal recognition that was missing in childhood. We get the back of a head that’s watching TV.

You may have given thought to what’s wrong with your cranky uncle, or why Grandma always makes that face when she sees what her granddaughters are wearing. There is the sister in law who inevitably drinks too much and starts a fight with somebody. But have you thought about how they see you? How do you annoy the people who annoy you? Picture that on Saturday Night Live and smile.

Humor is tactic 1 to surviving the season with grace. Look for every absurdity in your own holiday expectations and imagine it on SNL or a cartoon. We,humans, are at our best when we laugh at ourselves. Then even relatives look more amusing than frustrating.

Tactic 2. The urge to splurge has to go. I have a habit of thinking up gifts to create from scratch. The urge comes just before Halloween, but the lead time for knitting a sweater would have been last July. Perhaps your urge to splurge is money, or time, or stretching your own talents beyond the limits of Christmas.

Tactic 3. Relax your expectations of everyone else. Your spouse is not going to be more romantic, more considerate than usual, during the high-pressured month ahead, even though old movies say otherwise. You are stressed, so are they. It follows that even the kids will have less time, more demands and shorter tolerance. Drop the idealistic notions and have some fun instead.

Tactic 4. Slow down your engine. Smaller tree? Fewer yeses to invitations? More time with nothing scheduled? You know by now that you can’t do all the holiday expectations you listed for the month of December. Drop 2/3’s and enjoy what is left.

May your holidays be special. Not magnificent. Not ecstatic. Not flamboyant. May they have ordinary people, funny mistakes, predictable relatives and something unexpected. Make they be just special.