Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Juggling the Holidays

It starts about this time every year, or maybe even a little earlier, the complicated dance involving work, family, self and the holidays.

When do you have days off? Who wants you to come to what gatherings? How much running can you do and still maintain your sanity? Which gatherings do you really want to go to and how do you gracefully get out of the others? How do you swap out your work schedule to be there for the things you really want to attend?

I know for a lot of people the work schedule isn't a big deal. You don't work on Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's Day because it's a holiday. But for most of the working adults in my family, that isn't the case. My daughter works in emergency services and you can bet there's never a day when they close the place down. My son-in-law is in retail and days off are extremely limited. My new self-employed status as a dog boarder means I can look forward to one of my busiest times of the year each Thanksgiving and that week's work will help see me through some of the leaner days to come -- no way I'm shutting down. My husband is the only one who can count on days off.

Of course, if you have a job you have to work when you are scheduled. That involves negotiations in the workplace because everyone wants a day or some portion of the day off during those times. Some people can be downright intractable about what times they need for their personal holidays, without even looking at anyone else's family needs. If you've never had to adjust your celebrations to your work schedule, that first time can be a shocker.

My family, however, has been adjusting for years. When I was small we never had Santa Claus because my dad worked a job that didn't give him time off on Christmas morning. We celebrated Christmas Eve for several early years. Disrupting the holidays was a tradition I continued when I finally found a job in journalism. While the small town paper where I started out didn't publish on Christmas and provided a lot of leeway for holiday celebrations, someone still had to be on call. I remember toting a police scanner home when it was my rotation and spending at least one Christmas Eve on the side of the road at a bad accident scene. The family gathering we were supposed to attend took place without us. By the time I worked at a daily paper, we were accustomed to tweaking our holiday schedule to include producing a newspaper. Thanksgiving celebrations took place when we were off, even if that meant it was on Black Friday or a late dinner instead of lunch. My daughter grew up flexible on the holidays, although not being on hand Christmas morning with three little ones in the house is not an option she's willing to consider.

Once the workplace lottery is over, or when you already know what days you'll have off, that's when the trickiest part of the holidays sets in. When you know you've only got a set amount of time and a long list of family obligations, determining whether and when and where to go is as tricky as negotiating a minefield. We know the fallout from making a bad choice can have family members irritated until the next holiday season when we have a chance to make it up.

That whole family negotiation isn't one you worry about as a child when you're toted haplessly from place to place, or even as a teen when you don't get a voice in the excursions. Even when you're out on your own, odds are good you'll show up where your parents do. But when you have a partner, oops, there's a whole different realm of celebrations in the equation. And if you have children, then divorce, another layer of complications.

Gifts aside, it's no wonder the holidays become such a stressful time.

Folks are more likely to wind up in a serious argument over where to spend Christmas Eve or how many New Year's Eve parties to attend than they are about how much money to spend on gifts or how to pay for them. Stressing over the perfect holiday or our dysfunctional families or what we think we should be doing that we aren't adds even more unnecessary pressure.

With all that laying ahead of us, it's no wonder some of us take a deep breath before the holidays and fight the urge to run for cover.

I know I put myself through the paces for years, generally forgetting about what I really wanted out of the holiday. Did I want to run to the (former) in-laws' for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning? Once that obligation was over, did I really want to put in an appearance at all my family get-togethers? Had all those years of being dragged along when I'd rather have sat home with my new things made me unable to just say no?

My daughter, God bless her independent thinking, was jumping through the same hoops being held up by two families a bit more scattered than mine had been when she decided after a nerve-wrecking snowbound trip from Boone and too many holiday trips up and down Fancy Gap Mountain, that things needed to change. Since she held the trump cards (the all-too-adorable grandbabies), families have pretty well fallen in line. The Boone trip doesn't try to mesh with Christmas Eve or Christmas day, but instead is a weekend earlier so they have plenty of time to spend with family there. No more trips to my mom's Christmas Eve (even if she manages to have the evening off). They come to my house instead because her logic was that she always spent Christmas Eve at her grandma's and she wanted her girls to do the same. On Christmas Day, if she doesn't have to work, she doesn't make her girls go anywhere. Last year they stayed at home and enjoyed the day and we drove over and had lunch with them.

While the new arrangement means I've taken on Christmas Eve at my house, it's not a big thing and it's close family (the Fancy Gap portion comes down the mountain now) and I get to spend it with some of my favorite people. Christmas morning is quiet at home with no one we have to visit, but it was peaceful last year. And while I do regret not seeing my in-laws who are in Asheville, it's my work instead of a scheduling conflict that keeps us from traveling during the holidays. I'm hoping we can find a day to make the trip ahead of time instead.

The fact of the matter is the holidays are just dates. Thanksgiving changes every year to meet some schedule most of us don't comprehend, and Jesus was not born on Dec. 25. Our celebration of the events is what is really important and, beyond meeting the Christmas expectations we set for our children, they can be as flexible as we make them. They can also be as enjoyable or as hectic as we let them become. We can have Thanksgiving on Black Friday, Christmas at home instead of on the road, New Year's without the parties.

Instead of driving ourselves insane to meet the expectations of others or to keep some family tradition that has lost its meaning, what if we stopped to think about what we really want to do to make the holiday special for ourselves. Do we want to join the family in a big celebration, or would we just as soon not hang around the alcoholic relative, or the one who complains constantly? Would we just as soon skip the office party, or cut out early to avoid bad politics? Do we really have to show up at every gathering and drag our children in and out of the car a dozen times because everyone wants to see them, or would we like to stay home and have an open door policy so that if they really want to see them, they feel welcome to make the trip themselves?

We create a lot of the holiday stress ourselves and we can assert ourselves and say no. Believe me, it will get easier over time.

What makes the holidays special isn't seeing everyone, but the light in a special someone's eyes when we walk through the door or the smile on a child's face when they take in the gifts beneath the tree. It isn't about doing it all, but doing what counts for you and the people you genuinely care the most about. The adjustment may be a little rocky, but it can bring more meaningful, less stressful holidays in the years to come.

Me, I'm looking forward to turkey on Black Friday, Christmas morning at home with cinnamon rolls and coffee, and breathing a little easier because I know that nothing, including those two events, is set in stone.

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