Christmas Holidays

How to Survive a Family Gathering


by Shannon Serpette

My family isn’t shy about sharing their opinions. We love each other fiercely and annoy each other frequently. I have four brothers and four sisters, and we don’t always see eye to eye. When you factor in all our spouses and children, that adds up to a lot of people crammed in one house during family get-togethers. You can’t turn around without bumping into someone, and that leaves a lot of opportunity for saying or doing the wrong things.

For me, going to a family get-together can only produce two results – it can be a wonderful night where everyone has a great time, or it can resemble gang warfare with two conflicting sides recruiting members and allies. We know how to push buttons on each other that no one else knows exists. You can leave a gathering feeling shell-shocked, betrayed and disillusioned. Not exactly how anyone wants to end 2016.

When you are dealing with people you’ve known your whole life, it’s easy to be hypersensitive and defensive. You need to realize that before you walk in the door.

The key to a successful family gathering is having a game plan. To make sure everybody gets out alive and the family name continues for future generations, here’s a few ground rules you should all abide by.

Avoid the political talk: Nothing can submarine a jovial mood faster than a Clinton/Trump debate at a family gathering. You can come from the same gene pool and have wildly different views on politics – believe me, I know all about this one.

Getting into a heated political discussion with your family is a recipe for disaster, and it will only lead to headaches, hard feelings and, after all the damage has been done, your debate still won’t matter because the election is over. So do yourself a favor and pick a topic less volatile to talk about, which could be almost anything in the world.

Now isn’t the time for an intervention: Is your sister enjoying the wine a little too much at the party? Has everyone noticed that has been a recurring theme as of late? This isn’t the time to bring it up. Saying “Merry Christmas, we all think you have a drinking problem” isn’t going to help your sister any. All it will do is create unnecessary tension and give your sister one more reason to refill her glass.

If you’re truly concerned, wait until after the holidays and have a private conversation with her.

Don’t make the night a statement about religion: Trying to force everyone to say grace before a meal or spending your evening attempting to strong-arm a relative into attending a holiday mass with you will become an unpleasant battle of wills. Not everyone shares your religion or worships in the same way.

Don’t trash a play out of someone else’s parenting handbook: You wouldn’t give a cookie to a kid who just had a major tantrum in front of everyone at a family gathering. Good for you – if your kid does that, don’t give her a cookie. But don’t point out to your brother that his child shouldn’t be rewarded for bad behavior. He probably knows that already, and maybe he’s just doing whatever he can to get through the night without having his overstimulated and overtired child have a Chernobyl-sized meltdown in front of everyone. You worry about your parenting style and let him worry about his.

Extend the olive branch: If there’s someone in your family you’ve lost touch with or have had a falling out with, make a small gesture to bury the hatchet. The worst thing that will happen is that you’ll be snubbed, and then you can move on or try to make amends another day. But you have a lot to gain by trying. You could potentially salvage a relationship that night.

Dial back on the games involving competition: It’s a universal fact: When you reconnect brothers and sisters, they’ll often regress to their old roles or patterns. Old feelings of competition or not stacking up to each other will resurface. If your family is full of gracious losers and polite winners, you’ve hit the jackpot. I have no idea what that feels like.

Most of my family is competitive, and we hate to lose. The tales of sore losing in my family are astounding – they’ve involved hurt feelings, the silent treatment, and even someone getting potato chips smashed on the top of his head. We’re a tough bunch, especially when we lose. If your family is anything like mine, you might want to rethink that “friendly” card night you have planned.

Remind yourself you don’t have to like someone to love them: You don’t get to choose your family – you’re stuck with the cards you’re dealt. Sometimes you get the luckiest hand in the room; other times, you want a re-deal. Since a re-deal isn’t possible, you have a couple options. You can spend the whole night in the bathroom pretending you have a gastrointestinal illness just to avoid that person. Or you can trick yourself into tolerating him for the length of the party.

If you choose to trick yourself, here’s what you do: Instead of thinking about all the things you don’t like about him, think about his good qualities. It may seem like a Jedi mind trick, but it’s usually enough to allow you to peacefully get through the family gathering without turning it into an episode of The Jerry Springer Show.

Reminisce about the good old days: Even dysfunctional families have had some good times. When things get tense, sharing stories from those olden days can help diffuse the situation and bring on some much-needed fuzzy feelings and chuckles.

The youngest members of your family will love hearing these stories. It’s hard for some of them to imagine a world in which their parent or grandparent was young and reckless, so these stories of yesteryear will amaze and amuse them.

These shared experiences and memories can carry your family a long way. They create a link, a bond that doesn’t easily break.

For some reason, even though we’ve had spectacular dust-ups and jaw-dropping arguments at some of our past family gatherings, no one is ready to throw in the towel yet. We’re all hanging in there, showing up gathering after gathering, and putting in the effort. That’s the true magic of family.


Shannon Serpette on LinkedinShannon Serpette on Twitter
Shannon Serpette

Shannon Serpette is a mother of two and an award-winning journalist and freelancer who lives in Illinois. She spends her days writing, hanging out with her kids and husband, and squeezing in her favorite hobby, metal detecting, whenever she can. Serpette can be reached at

Shannon Serpette on LinkedinShannon Serpette on Twitter
Shannon Serpette

Shannon Serpette is a mother of two and an award-winning journalist and freelancer who lives in Illinois. She spends her days writing, hanging out with her kids and husband, and squeezing in her favorite hobby, metal detecting, whenever she can. Serpette can be reached at

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  • Now I know why you like my writing style….it’s very similar to YOURS. On the eve of our family gathering, I needed to read this. The storm, she is a-comin’!!

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