Negotiating Christmas

By Kristen Castillo

September 25, 2013 5 min read

Gina Kowalski knows it can be difficult for families to figure out where to spend Christmas. While her parents are divorced, Kowalski is grateful to have a happy family holiday with her 4-year-old daughter.

"Personally, I am blessed with two parents who are very understanding and do not get emotional about it," says the Ballston Spa, N.Y., resident. "However, I know that is not the case for every family."

For many, holidays can be tense and filled with emotion.

"The biggest misconception is believing that the one who hosts Christmas is the lucky one," says licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Seth Meyers. "There is so much work that people often regret hosting."

Don't confuse being the host with being the most loved, says Sharon Gilchrest O'Neill, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of "A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage."

"Most hosting decisions are made in very practical ways," she says. These decisions are often made based on whose home is centrally located and whose home can accommodate the size of the gathering.

*Making Plans

Give yourselves plenty of time to decide where to spend the holiday. A few weeks or, if possible, a few months before the holiday, start the conversation.

Initially, you can send a group email asking family members to offer their Christmas host and location ideas. You can then follow up with a group phone call or Skype conversation. Make sure all the family members who are interested in attending are involved in the decision-making.

Another option is to have one trusted family member "poll all the others and be objective in helping the group to come to a fair and sensible conclusion," says Gilchrest O'Neill.

*Hassle-Free Holiday

If you're facing a sticky hosting situation, you can offer to host the gathering at your home. Invite all family members to your place for Christmas dinner. If budgets are tight, host a potluck and ask each guest to make a festive dish.

Another way to avoid holiday drama is to focus on getting together no matter the date on the calendar. "Sometimes it's just not possible to fit everything into one day," says Kowalski. "Spending time with loved ones is just as great on Dec. 26 as it is on Dec. 25."

Kowalski spends Christmas Eve with her father's side of the family. On Christmas Day, her mother comes to visit her home. "I just try to go with the flow and not stress," she says. "Too many people stress about the holidays when it is supposed to be fun!"

*Negotiations That Work

Unfortunately, there's no one solution. Each family has to figure out what works best for them.

Rotating the Christmas host can ease tensions, especially if all the hosts have space for the party and don't live too far from everyone else.

Other families could designate a certain family member, such as a sibling or a parent, as host of the holiday celebration every year.

"Sometimes families meet at a destination. This keeps the work and emotions simpler in many ways, whether it's a fancy restaurant that they all splurge on or some days at a resort," says Gilchrest O'Neill.

For couples with different religions, the hosting dilemma is sometimes less complicated.

"One couple had a Jewish mom and Christian dad," says Meyers. "They spent Christmas with the family who celebrated that and Thanksgiving with the Jewish family."

If family members live a great distance from the rest of the clan, in most cases it's up to them to decide if they can afford to spend the time or money to come home.

"I'd say in general, the people who move away are usually in the position of having to travel back for family and friend events," says Gilchrest O'Neill, noting family members, namely the parents, may also come to visit their grown kids periodically during the holidays.

No matter what, stay calm and make the most of the holiday, even if the occasion is stressful.

"We can all grin and bear it for a short period of time," Meyers explains.

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