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Goyer: The Holidays: Chaos or Cheer

Keeping things running smoothly - Sticking with routines and traditions.

I don't know about you, but when my family gets together for the holidays, it's often, well, mass chaos. There are three generations—each of us with different expectations, energy levels, interests, attention spans, appetites, cleanliness habits, communication styles and physical capabilities.

We all try to gather at Grandma and Grandpa's house for a week or more. Twelve people, sometimes more (we tend to take in "strays" who can't be with their families this time of year), can get a bit crowded. But the more, the merrier, right?! In addition, we tend to operate on "Goyer Time" (perhaps your family also has its own time zone?), which is generally completely unrealistic and leaves us quite often late. It's not the least bit unusual for us to be rushing to church, a restaurant, or the movie theater just in the nick of time. Since many of us think we can do a heck of a lot more during any given time period than is humanly possible, there often can be cause for disappointment, anger, or hurt feelings.

Don't get me wrong. We really do love each other, and being apart during the holidays is like torture to us. The CIA could extract any number of secrets from any one of us just by threatening to separate us over the holidays. We are holiday freaks—all of us. But if we are honest, we might also admit that the annual holiday family gathering can be a bit draining. And we don't want anyone going home with post-holiday stress syndrome.

Over the years, we have developed routines and traditions that help things flow more smoothly. For example, the adults take turns fixing dinner each night. Still, there are moments of utmost frustration. So, a few years ago, my instincts honed during my years as a music therapist/activities coordinator kicked in, and I decided to get my family organized for our holiday visit together. Now, you have to understand this really is like herding cats—cats that all talk simultaneously. It was a very ambitious goal. A tough job worthy of hazard pay, but somebody had to do it! So, I put on my helmet and went to work.

I got two large flip-chart-size papers and taped them to the wall. One was a brainstorming page, and on the other I created a column for each day that we were going to be together. I called for a family conference. They knew I was serious about this. (A tip here: The family conference tends to go faster and easier if there are no video games or books allowed and if there are plenty of age-appropriate snacks and libations available for all. If you feed them, they will come.) It was a wee bit of a challenge the first time we did this. It felt a bit too "formal," and the decibel levels got quite high. But once we got through the first one, everyone voted to continue the tradition. Every family member gets a chance to put forth the things he or she wants to do—no matter the age or position in the family.  

It's actually quite enlightening to hear what the priorities are and how they change over the years. They range from walking the dog every morning, Grandpa's storytelling, eating lunch at our favorite diner, visiting the Chandler tumbleweed tree, baking cookies, playing video games, hiking, taking down the decorations, watching movies or family videos, sleeping, and making sure we have enough unscheduled downtime. Of course, there are always a few wiseguys who add things like "put curlers in Grandpa's hair," but that usually gets voted down. There's nothing like having it all down on paper for the group to realize that we can't do everything. So, we prioritize and assign time frames on the calendar. We find that this process really makes us consciously aware of what is most important to us.

Here's the part where I tell you that since we started doing this, our holidays go off without a hitch. Push-pull-click-click, right?  I cannot tell a lie: Things still sometimes go awry. It's still a challenge to get that many people ready to go anywhere on time. We still sometimes plan more than we can do. But I will tell you this: There is a lot less disappointment and frustration.

We have clearer expectations and a conscious sense of what our individual priorities are. As a result, we can relax more, laugh at our foibles, and just enjoy each other. We see that the priorities, even for the kids, are less about presents, money and costly activities, and more about creating the memories that keep bringing us back together. Even when budgets are tight, it's the simple things that we remember and look forward to each year, such as being together for meals and having sister time or cousin time or grandparent/grandchild time—just to hang out.  But we do find that it helps to schedule such things so that they don't get lost in the rush of the season.

You may think your family would never go for a more conscious, planned or organized holiday together, but I suggest you try it. People like having a voice in what happens—you may be surprised. Grandpa may end up with curlers in his hair. But hey, if he does, he will know it was the collective group priority!

Here's wishing you and yours a happy and organized holiday season. And don't forget your flip chart.

Tips for an Organized Family Holiday:

Hold a family conference. Even if there are only of a few of you, it's still a good idea to sit down and prioritize all the things you want to do. The season goes faster than you think it will. Remember to give everyone a voice—as soon as children can talk, believe me, they have opinions and deserve to be heard.

Plan ahead. Start saving articles about local holiday activities early in the month so you know what your choices are.

Brainstorm activities. Make a list of free or low-cost activities your family can do. Try these:

  • Take a walk in the neighborhood at night so you can see the lights.
  • Go for a hike whether you are in the snow or in the desert—it can be a beautiful time of year.
  • Have a snowball fight.
  • Plan a family game night with games for all ages—charades is still tops for interaction among the generations.
  • Have a family "no talent" show—compete for who has the worst act instead of the best.


Lighten up and be open to changes. Sometimes the spontaneous things are the most memorable. You probably won't get to do everything you want during the holidays. Get over it. Enjoy the moments you have.

Share responsibilities. Take turns with things like meals, baby-sitting, cleaning, and driving.

Communicate clearly and often. Take more time to listen than to talk, and you'll go a long way toward open communication. Everyone has a viewpoint, and sharing can alleviate a lot of stress. Miscommunications over the holidays can cause problems that can haunt many holidays to come.

Honor family traditions. Traditions of all kinds have different meanings to different family members. No matter how insignificant a tradition may seem or how difficult it is to pull off, respect that it might be the one thing that makes the holiday season special for someone else.

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