Family Tree Mediation





Holiday traditions are great, but only when they serve their purpose, which is to celebrate and nurture a healthy family culture.  The hitch is that, traditions aside, the holidays can be very stressful times, particularly if the family is already dealing with significant challenges.  And there seems to be no end to the different kinds of challenges families face. 

For example, you may be a newly single parent trying to meet the emotional needs of your children at the same time you are dealing with the financial challenges of re-entering the job market.  You may be a recent graduate who does not want to spend the holiday season being judged by the family because your professional or romantic life is struggling.  Or you may be in the political or cultural minority within your family and you are just tired of having to either hold your tongue at family gatherings or land in a big fight with Uncle Bob. 

Whatever the flavor of the challenges your family faces, a creative way to cope is to challenge the status quo. The holidays seem to beg for rituals and traditions that can be either heart-warming or uncomfortably stifling.  The longer they have been going on, the more mandatory they feel.  All the good memories they have created make suggestions of change feel wrong, even hurtful.  But if the tradition is actually aggravating pain you are already experiencing, change is not wrong; it is good medicine, like fresh air and rest.  In some situations, such change can be an essential part of taking responsible care of yourself.

So if you are approaching this holiday season with anxiety about the pain you are going to suffer, why not give the old routines a rest?  Why not breathe some fresh air into the spirit of the season?

Let me give you an example from my family.  My parents were divorced when I was four.  From that time on and for nearly 40 years, Christmas Eve was spent with my mother and eventually my step father and his kids, and Christmas Day was spent with my father and eventually my step-mother’s family.

But then my brother started a family of his own.  He followed the Christmas Eve-with-Mom / Christmas Day-with-Dad ritual for some time, but what he really wanted was time alone with his wife and son!  Ultimately, his solution was to offer to host Christmas Eve for both sides of the family and to reserve Christmas Day all to himself with his wife and son.

I like this part of the story because it offers proof that all kinds of beautiful things can happen with families that go through divorce.  Here, my mom and dad, and their spouses and a jumble of step children, half-siblings, and in-laws were all gathered around the table simply as “family.”  While we have our share of pain and trauma in our family, we also have grown a group consciousness of love for the fact we share each others’ lives as family, big and messy as it is.  We didn’t always have this consciousness, but now every year we see it growing stronger.  My brother’s new tradition played a huge part in bringing this love to the light of day where it could really flourish.

And in the environment of this new tradition, we found ourselves doing new things.  Impromptu guitar and banjo sing-alongs awoke by the fireplace.  The complexity of so many people required us to spend less time on each present and thus to de-emphasize the, shall we say, “commercial” aspect of the holiday in favor of the communal aspect of it.  We opted to a buffet style of dinner service with more food and seating options that suddenly made our Christmas dinner more lively and unpredictable.  Fresh air!


But as can often happen, new strains arise and new needs develop.  This year my brother and his wife got divorced.  At Thanksgiving, my brother’s ex-wife had the stroke of genius, and my brother had the wisdom to whole-heartedly support her plan, to take her son to, of all places, Bishop, California.  My nephew is an avid rock climber and it turns out that every year rock climbers from all over go bouldering in Bishop.  It is an event with a strong holiday and non-holiday culture all its own and it was a perfect way for my brother and his ex-wife to really take care of their son in a way that took the focus off what had changed in the family and put the focus on all the things the family was able to make possible in support of their son’s dreams.

Now Christmas is approaching.  The plan is that my mom will host Christmas Eve for everyone, including my father and step-mother and their daughter, my sister.  Christmas Day, my wife and I will host my wife’s family, my mother, step-father, brother and nephew in our little cottage home.  It will be a hilarious day-long musical chairs dance in a little space where my toddler son is both safe and king.  My father, step-mother and sister will, as always, spend Christmas day with my step-mother’s family.  My step-father’s children will spend Christmas Day, as always, at my step-sister’s.  For my wife, my two-year-old son, and I, this change-up is our chance to be host and to take care of family members we love very much and want to show support to during a difficult transition.  It is an opportunity for our hearth to develop the qualities of hospitality and warmth and to create new stories, stories that will join our household with the lives of our guests.  It will be a chance for our son to experience his home as the place where many people gather.  What a gift for us!

In these examples, there are many strategies being employed.  There is the request that both sides of a divorced family learn to celebrate together with grace, that the formality of the dining room table give way to a lovely chaos, that we just let go of needing gifts so much.  There is the spontaneous eruption of music because it is so natural when not hemmed in by holiday formalities.   There is the idea that maybe the best holiday this year is one completely away from home and family, out doing something adventurous, something that feeds something very important within us.  There is the idea that family members can be asked to extend themselves in new ways, recognizing that the greatest gift is the opportunity to take care of each other really well.

So now I’d like to ask you about your experience: Do you have story of how you breathed fresh air into your holiday experience in the past or plans of how you are going to this year?  What worked and what did not?  What surprising benefits did you discover?  Did the new strategy itself become a tradition or did it simply serve the needs of one particular time?  Are you looking for suggestions about how to inject change into your holiday routine this year given a particular set of challenges you are facing?  Even if you don’t comment below, if the thought of the holiday season brings you down rather than lifts you up, I hope this post will inspire you to go bold and request or demand as needed new strategies that will better meet your needs and the needs of those you love.  Sometimes tradition is wonderful.  Other times, it is really just fine to give it a rest and give something new a playful try.