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  • Heather McDorman

Surviving Festive Family Gatherings

Holiday family gathering

We’re coming up on the “most wonderful time of the year,” right? As we quickly approach Thanksgiving, many of us are in full-out planning mode to host the “perfect” family gathering. What is intended to be a joyous occasion is often accompanied by stress and anxiety.

We want the food to be perfect (an unattainable goal). We want everyone to get along (not always possible). We want everyone to feel comfortable (not for those who have to sit in a folding chair). And we want to create lasting memories (now that’s possible).

Coming from a big family (I grew up with five brothers), holiday family gatherings have run the gamut during my 59 years. Some have been small and quiet (that’s hard to believe), and others were loud, crowded and filled with extended family members from nearby and across the country. If you are like me and come from a family with a moderate degree of dysfunction (from time to time), these “happy family gatherings” do not mean the dysfunction goes away around the holiday dining table.

I will share my top four most likely causes for stress surrounding festive family gatherings we can experience this time of year. For those of you whose family dysfunction or challenges are a bit higher on the anxiety scale than what I will share, I refer you to the experts at Psychology Today who offer their take on reducing your stress during family gatherings.

These challenges are from my own experience; however, I did ask my friends and family for their take on how to face these stressors head on.

Challenge #1 – Too Much to Do

The proverbial to-do list really takes a beating as we prepare for a large Thanksgiving, Hanukkah or Christmas family gathering. It begins as we invite all the relatives and make sure they all know the date, time, and place. Next our thoughts go to preparing our home for visitors – making sure it’s clean and that we have enough seating. The menu and shopping list brings about worry that we’ll have enough food or make the dishes that everyone will enjoy. Planning out the cooking so it’s timed just right – that’s always where my biggest stress comes from.

Woman feeling stress

The list goes on (and on). So how do hosts manage what can seem like an insurmountable to-do list?

  • Simplify. Try to simplify plans so your list is doable.

  • Day-by-Day. Break down the to-do list by the days preceding and including the big day. This will make your list more manageable.

  • Ask for Help. Consider asking for help with your list from local friends or family. It’s also common to ask guests to bring a dish to help carry the load.

  • Keep Expectations in Check. Friend and hostess with the most, Kathy, shared her philosophy for such events.

“Take a step back and remember the real reason for the gathering and just enjoy the day and the people.”

Challenge #2 – Too Many People

This is where the adage “too much of a good thing” proves itself! We love our family (and friends), but there probably is a limit to how many people can fit in your home comfortably – especially for a special occasion like a holiday gathering.

Large holiday gathering

Loads and loads of guests not only can create stress for the hosts, but it can also make the event uncomfortable for your guests as well. Our intentions are good – being inclusive, kind, and welcoming – but it would be wise to put some strategies in place to ensure a pleasant atmosphere. Here are some ideas:

  • Review Your Guest List. You’ll want to first consider how many people you can seat comfortably (at a table or otherwise). Many hosts also look at who they are inviting and how they will socialize with one another (although some relatives *have* to be invited, right?).

  • Confirm. When your guest list is large, it will help if you request an RSVP to ensure you have enough food and adequate seating and space. My close friend and experienced host Terri recommends confirming the numbers and adding two – just to be safe.

  • Mini-Spaces. Try to create mini-rooms or spaces set with chairs and tables or nice TV trays. This could help spread people out in smaller clusters that will help you avoid everyone gathering in one room.

  • Consider Place Cards. If you are as concerned about personality clashes as you are with adequate space, you may want to devise a seating plan with place cards. You know your guests well enough to know who will mix well with others.

Challenge #3 – Too Many Chefs in the Kitchen

We’ve all been there – everyone gathers in the kitchen at a family event, and they all want to help. On the surface, this is sweet. There’s nothing like getting help when you need it, but for the host, a holiday family meal has probably been timed out to the minute. Too many chefs in the kitchen can create more chaos than calm.

Cooking for a holiday event

My youngest brother Scott is a trained chef and was more than happy to offer ideas for this challenge!

  • When Guests Want to Help. As a guest, it’s best to offer help and watch the reactions of your hosts closely.

“It’s important to be very nonjudgmental and only give advice when asked. Leave your ego at home,” Scott said.
  • Communication Is Key. Hosts should communicate ahead of the event time. If it will help to have others to prepare a specific dish – let them know. Asking them to include heating or warming instructions for you will keep the numbers low in the kitchen.

  • Enlist a Helper. Consider appointing a sous chef who will specifically help the primary chef/host and can also help get drinks for people hanging out in the kitchen who want to help (but aren’t really being a help). They can encourage those helper wannabes to take their beverage and mingle with a group in another room.

  • Help Outside the Kitchen. Finally, if guests really insist on helping, see if they can assist with table settings, taking out the trash, picking up glasses or trash in other rooms, or doing other non-cooking tasks.

Challenge #4 – Too Many Opinions Around the Table

I think the challenge that is most dreaded by guests at holiday family gatherings is too many opinions around the table. It may be opinions about the menu, the taste of the food or wine, or even worse – politics and/or religion. It’s one thing to make an off-handed comment about dry turkey (but still – not cool), and a whole other thing to express divisive political commentary. This challenge can turn your happy event south very quickly.

Conversation at holiday gathering

Here are some thoughts on how to keep the table conversation upbeat and congenial:

  • Back to Place Cards. Whether everyone is seated around one large table or you have several tables set up, use place cards to seat people next to other guests who are least likely to create conversational friction.

  • Redirect, Redirect. Have a small list of safe topics on hand in case you need to redirect a discussion that’s gotten uncomfortable. If you have multiple tables, you may have a “table topic” ambassador at each table who has these “safe” topics in their pocket.

  • Be Direct, Be Kind. My fellow retiree Diane said she’s experienced a challenging moment at a holiday gathering. Her advice? Be direct but be kind. A simple phrase like “We’re not going to talk about that this evening” could do the trick.

There may be other challenges you’ve faced that I haven’t covered, so please share them in the comments – and don’t forget your ideas to address the challenges as well. No festive family gathering is perfect and that’s okay. You can do what you can to lower the stress by following some of these tips, but please leave room to create new memories – positive, goofy, happy, and unexpected.

I will never forget a family Thanksgiving I hosted many years ago. My husband and I were hosting my brother’s family, my mom, and my niece. There were about 15 of us, and after dinner we gathered in the den. Conversation had slowed but as a hostess and an aunt with many gifts to purchase for nieces, nephews, and great nephews, I decided to ask everyone to share what was on the top of their Christmas list.

The exercise was fun, and I jotted down the gift ideas just in case I could fulfill their Christmas wish. When it came to my sweet niece Bethany, who was probably 5-6 years old, she proudly stated “I would like a violin. A real violin!” Mind you, neither of her parents played instruments, she had never played an instrument, but you would think with the confidence she exclaimed her wish that she was preparing for her audition with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Needless to say, this round robin Christmas present wish list became a tradition at Thanksgiving, and Bethany did not disappoint us each and every year. The lesson here – leave the stress behind and allow your family gathering to unfold naturally.

Jodi and I wish you all very peaceful and warm holiday gatherings in 2022!

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Nov 17, 2022

Consider “drawing straws” (or pencils or twigs or cards etc — or having some other kind of friendly competition) after the meal to determine who gets to help clean up the dishes/put away leftovers in the fridge/wash cookware. The hosts get a break if they want it, and establishing the winners/losers becomes a bit of a sport. Maybe it even gets some of the lazybones off the sofa and the screen-addicted off their phones for a while!

Heather McDorman
Heather McDorman
Nov 21, 2022
Replying to

Love this - for many reasons! 😆

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