‘Tis the Season for Family Drama

Let's leave the pouting, the problems, the tensions far behind us by 'planning for peace,' as one wise counselor advises

My wife and I wished we could skip the drama of the family Christmas party each year. Why? Because we dreaded the drama that would accompany the annual Secret Santa gift exchange, a tradition begun by someone else in the family (and many people engage in a variation of this “game,” so some of these details won’t be a total surprise).

Everyone participated in the family event — aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, grandchildren — but I don’t know anyone who would say he or she enjoyed it. It would begin at Thanksgiving, when every family member drew a name from a hat. We were each then expected to buy a gift for the person whose name we drew. The first problem was that some people bought good gifts — while others bought gifts that weren’t very good at all.

What made it worse — to sound a Grinch-like note here for a moment — was the way the gifts were distributed. The exchange occurred as everyone sat in chairs arranged in a circle. The wrapped gifts were all labeled with the name of the assigned recipient and placed under the Christmas tree. One of the youngest children was selected to randomly select gifts, read the name on each box, and distribute each gift to the appropriate recipient.

After the first gift was distributed and opened by its recipient, the next person to receive a gift box had a choice: Open the gift — or take the first person’s open gift literally right out of his or her hands. Each gift recipient thereafter could choose to open a new gift or exchange it for someone else’s open gift. This continued until all gifts had been distributed — ending with the person who opened a gift first choosing from all the previously opened gifts.

This is where the drama unfolded. When one of us received a good gift or acquired it from someone else, the next person to receive an unopened gift would snatch it away in exchange for an unopened gift. So most people ended up with gifts they didn’t want. Some grown men and women would pout; children would cry. And the lucky person who opened his or her gift first got to choose any gift at all — leaving everyone else feeling begrudged.

Related: Best Gift to Your Kids Isn’t What You Think

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Is this the most horrible thing ever to occur? Of course not. In so many respects, we are blessed and are thankful for so much. But wherever there is family drama at Christmastime, it can undermine the spirit of the season and bring out the worst in people. No one has that intention, of course, but it happens.

Years have passed since those Christmases where my wife and I cringed at having to endure yet another Secret Santa skirmish for the best gifts. Since then, we’ve discovered these four secrets to keeping our sanity:

1.) Know your circle of influence. We thought about vetoing the Secret Santa tradition — but it wasn’t our call. Trying to change someone else’s plans or behavior often ignites or feeds the family drama. To paraphrase the serenity prayer, know what you can and cannot change — and ask God for the wisdom to know the difference.

As far as family events are concerned, past experience is a reliable predictor of future experience.

2.) Know what to expect. The more information you have, the better your decision-making, and the more you can do to prepare yourself for potential drama. As far as family events are concerned, past experience is a reliable predictor of future experience. You can expect the drama that occurred before to happen again. If it doesn’t — you can be pleasantly surprised.

When you’re invited to a family event, ask for pertinent details. Those details might include what activities are planned, how long guests are expected to stay, what guests are expected to bring, and who else is expected to be there.

Related: Forget ‘Burden’ When It Comes to Holiday Time

When inviting family members to your own event, ask them to share relevant details, too, in their response. For example, if they’re coming from out of town, ask when they will arrive, how long and where they expect to stay, and where they expect to get their meals. It’s better to be up front and prepared than not.

3.) Review your “trigger” thoughts. Once you know what to expect, review the trigger thoughts you’re likely to have in that situation. Trigger thoughts are beliefs we hold that set us up for a negative emotional response to situations around us — in this case, to family drama. These thoughts often begin with “should” and “shouldn’t.”

For example, you learn that Aunt Betty will be at the family Christmas party. You know Aunt Betty drinks too much at Christmas parties — and then becomes loud and obnoxious. You can expect the trigger thought: “I should keep the wine away from Aunt Betty to control her drinking and her behavior.”

Before you commit to attending any event, make a list of options.

If you’re not the party host, you can’t influence Betty’s drinking, but the trigger thought assumes you can. As soon as Aunt Betty gets a glass of wine in her hand, that trigger thought threatens to pull you out of our circle of influence into the drama caused by Betty’s drunken behavior. Goodbye, serenity; hello, negative emotions.

4.) Plan for peace. Use the information you have to develop a strategy that works best for you and your immediate family. If there’s a crazy Secret Santa gift exchange on the agenda, you might choose to opt out or accept whatever gift you receive without contributing to the drama. If Aunt Betty is expected at the family Christmas party, and her drunken behavior is a threat to your personal peace, you can decline the invitation or let your host know you plan to head out early.

Related: What Your Christmas Traditions Say About Your Marriage

Before you commit to attending any event, make a list of options — and choose the one that promises the best chance of supporting your sanity.

Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book, “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”

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