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How To Combat The Upcoming Dread Of Holiday Family Meals

I love the holiday season. I love the lights, the store window displays, and wearing festive scarves. I even love the occasional peppermint mocha and Christmas playlist. However, there is one essential part of the holiday season that I don’t look forward to: large family meals. Don’t get me wrong—I have a great relationship with my parents, and I always enjoy hanging out with my grandpa or my cousins. However, there is something about the gathering of the entire family on Christmas Eve that inspires a sense of dread in me.

Throughout college, I began to accept this feeling as another unfortunate facet of adulthood. I assumed that this was a nearly universal experience among my generation—that we just keep going to family gatherings out of obligation rather than genuine desire to participate. I was surprised to read the headline "Dread the Holidays? Feasting Together Might Actually Help” in the New York Times a few days before Thanksgiving. The article argues that social eating is key to fostering connections between people. Reading this made me recall how I didn’t always have such a grim outlook. I used to adore family dinners as a child. I took joy in using my allowance to buy small presents for every member of the family. I loved sitting at the kids table during dinner, constantly getting up to annoy the adults and steal more mashed potatoes.

While I was in high school, however, I started to realize that my family wasn’t as close-knit as I once believed. As I learned of disappointing marriages, addictions, and sibling rivalries among my family members, I began to think of those holiday meals as facades where everyone would pretend that those rifts didn’t exist. As the years have passed, I have only grown wearier of family dinners, mainly because I feel so different from the rest of my family. I am the liberal, a, anti-capitalist cousin who lives in New York City, surrounded by a conservative, Christian family who tends to label any redistributive policy as communist. Moreover, my cousins were all in serious relationships when they were my age and are now married, while my dating life consists of nothing but the occasional Hinge horror story.

In addition to feeling like a bit of an outsider, my family gatherings have a censored quality to them. They are literally censored by the fact that my dad glares at me every time I use a swear word, but they are also topically censored. I don’t want to start intense political debates, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about what is happening in the world. I don’t expect to have sexually explicit conversations like those at brunch with girlfriends, but I shouldn’t feel the need to refrain from telling a story because it involves a guy I was casually seeing or a party where I was a little buzzed. I have always been shy, and coming up with great conversation topics has never been my strong suit. However, I seem to have an exceptionally difficult time thinking of something to talk about with my extended family.

This holiday season, I want to make family Christmas better—not just for me, but for everyone in my family who wants to move our interactions past surface level. This has been something I’ve wanted for years, but the aforementioned New York Times article on feasting together finally suggested a place to start. One of the most important steps is to think about “what the family needs most this year.” Author and group facilitator Priya Parker aptly points out that "Families are diverse, complex and ever-changing, and as with every other group, needs aren’t static. They change over time.” This made me think that, in the past, when the grandkids were younger, it made sense for my family to keep conversations focused on easy topics.

Now we are smart, funny adults who can tell our stories and share our struggles honestly, because avoiding the topics important to us can easily increase the isolation we feel from each other. If “we’ve created larger distance in the family, the deepest need might be to have meaningful conversations.” I think that will be challenging, but science is on our side. Eating, drinking, laughing and telling stories together has been shown in various studies to encourage connection. My plan is to think about what my family needs and how we can use the connecting devices of food, drink and laughter to get there. Even though I sometimes feel that I have nothing in common with some of my family members, “shared meals have the potential to connect people across lines of difference.” My goal is to foster just a little more connection this year, and I believe it can be done.


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