Our family tradition for the last ten years has been to spend the weekend before Christmas with my husband’s family for the annual “cabin party”. A cabin or lodge is rented for the day and the whole extended family gathers for food, games and other traditional family activities. The problem is there is always some kind of major drama during the visit. Sometimes it’s just the nature of life, someone with cancer or other serious illness, or the first Christmas since the death of a relative. But other times it’s more complicated, such as the year my mother-in-law’s new dog tried to eat my daughter. (Seriously, he put her whole foot in his mouth and wouldn’t let go, fortunately without biting much. Other times he went for her face. She spent the whole trip climbing up on my husband’s shoulders; mine being too short to protect her since the dog could still reach her when he jumped, even when I was holding her). There is always a ton going on and it feels like we have the same two superficial conversations with everyone and his mother is too busy to sit down. We’re not selfish. We understand that everyone is busy. But we drive almost five hours, now with two kids, and it would be nice to feel like anyone really cares if we are there. Most of the family lives within 20 minutes of each other, except for us and an aunt, uncle and cousins who come in from Chicago. (Crazily enough they are going to be driving in this year, each taking turns and barely staying 24 hours.)

We’ve debating doing away with the trip all together because the negative family dynamics are so emotionally draining to my husband and it is a long trip and a lot of preparation. But this is the last surviving visit we make to his family. We used to travel up three or four times a year before we had kids and had planned to continue doing the same, if not more often, but the situation has gotten so bad that once a year is the most we can manage.

So how do we do it?

Create Boundaries: For us this meant staying in a hotel, even though we couldn’t really afford to do it. We save all year with rebate checks, credit card rewards and anything extra we can scrounge to sell on Ebay to afford a two night stay. This year is more expensive than usual in part because the cabin party if so close to Christmas and the nightly hotel rate is higher. We also discovered that having our own private space has made a difference because at the end of a long day of family socializing we have a quiet place to go and recharge. Plus if the whole situation goes down hill we can pack up the kids and head out to the safe haven of the hotel room instead of returning to a relative’s house.

Mentally Prepare: I was inspired last year by Megan at SortaCrunchy when she shared a self-talk script that I found very helpful.

I am not responsible for fill-in-the-blank family member/friend’s happiness.
If _____________ is mad, that is his/her feeling, and it doesn’t have to affect me.
I cannot make _________________ happy.
It’s okay that I am happy and he/she is not.

I also find it helpful to have prepared answers to potentially awkward questions. I’m prepared to discuss our choice of living situation, my staying home with the kids, why we try to keep Christmas simple, my choice to use cloth diapers etc. in as short and easy a way as possible, attempting not to deliberately offend anyone of cause unnecessary conflict. I also try to keep my passion in check. I get very passionate about certain issues, including politics and faith. So when these topics come up I try to diffuse any tension that may result in both myself or others. This is especially important when talking with older relatives who are very set in their ways and opinions. Let them talk. Smile and nod and interject politely when needed. If you disagree you can say so politely if necessary or just let it go. You probably aren’t going to change anyone’s mind and sometimes keeping your opinions to yourself can help maintain some family harmony. I love giving my opinions but I’ve learned to sense they best times to have a serious and thought provoking discussion and when to just let someone rant, even if I think she is completely wrong and I’m dying to set her straight.

Reserve the Right to Do Your Own Thing: We raise our children differently than some of our other relatives, we have different values. We do make exceptions for our daughter around the holidays allowing her food items that we normally don’t keep at home. We also give her some grace because we know that she is over tired and over excited, but ultimately our rules for behavior still apply.

We also don’t really celebrate Santa and the rest of the family does. So when “Santa” arrives at the family party, we compromise. She goes up to get her gift from Santa but she doesn’t sit on his lap and pose for pictures. (This also has to do with my personal opinion that I find children sitting on Santa’s lap a little bit creepy. I never liked it but when I was pregnant with my daughter I was pressured/forced to sit on Santa’s lap for “baby’s first picture with Santa,” and ever since the idea makes my skin crawl. It doesn’t help that as the children of the family have started growing up and becoming young adults the whole sitting on Santa’s lap thing has definitely taken on a more, ahem, adult tone.)

This year we’ve also decided to opt out of the big gift exchange; sometimes called a Yankee swap. We struggled every year to find a gift that seemed nice enough for the $20-25 limit and it really took a chunk out of our budget. I tried really hard to find a $25 gift for $10 or $15. My husband especially struggled to find an appropriate generic gift for a man. The game is fun, but each year “the family” keep adding new rules so that it will be faster since everyone is rushed and mostly seem like they just want to get through the day as quickly as possible. Honestly, it’s already people with too much stuff trading gifts they don’t want and can’t afford for more things they don’t need. I have gotten a few things I’ve loved over the years, but the fun has kind of gone out of the game anyway.  It seems like people get bitter when they don’t get something they like. Well then why not just go out and buy yourself a gift and forget the whole thing?

But we didn’t want to forget the trip altogether so we found a way to have family time around the holidays that works for us.