What to do When Going Home for the Holidays is Hard
Those tug-at-your-heartstrings ads are already in full swing. You know the ones: A bunch of happy relatives reunite around a cozy Thanksgiving table—and everyone seems really psyched to be together—or a scene unfolds where a family laughs and smiles while stringing Christmas lights without anyone seeming to be annoyed (or triggered) by siblings, parents, or in-laws. That’s how entrenched going home for the holidays is in our culture but, in spite of all that, it’s not always possible or enjoyable to be with your family this time of year.
There are countless reasons why the phrase “home for the holidays” might put a knot in your stomach. Maybe your job prevents you from making the journey, whether it’s because you don’t get the time off, or because it just doesn’t pay you enough. Perhaps you’re dealing with health issues that make travel impossible. Or maybe there is deep-seated tension and strife within your family that makes it healthier for everyone involved if you just sit it out. Whatever the reason, if you’re thinking of (or planning on) skipping out on family obligations this year and doing things your own way, rest easy: not only is that normal, it’s perfectly OK.
Amanda Minton has been on board with this idea since she left for college in California. After some soul searching, she decided that her days of traveling back to her divorced parents who live in her Charleston, South Carolina, hometown are now a thing of the past.
“I don’t care about blood being thicker than whatever that nonsense is,” says Minton, who lives in Delray Beach, Florida. “I have boundaries now and that includes my family. For example, my dad only calls me on birthdays, holidays, and if someone dies. It’s harsh, maybe, to say this, but I no longer feel the need to spend my time, energy or money going home for a holiday visit.”
Once she took the difficult step of staying put for the holidays, Minton realized that it helped her have a bigger realization about how seeing family affected her emotional well-being.
“After I stopped going home for the holidays, I just started to look at the big picture and realized that when I did go home, I didn’t feel good or free,” she says. “I was pulled in a million directions, people made plans with me then cancelled them and, worst of all, all the people who sent me on the biggest guilt trips for living so far away were nowhere to be found when I was home.”
If you’re finally ready to do the holidays your own way like Minton, Marni Amsellem, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Trumbull, Connecticut, suggests that you take the time to anticipate the emotions you might be feeling, especially if this is the first time you haven’t hopped on a plane, train or automobile to get home for the holidays.
“One thing I always suggest is that you make sure you’re in a good place and are managing your feelings,” Amsellem says.
For example, if you’re not ready to completely cut the holiday cord, one first step might be to join your family virtually by FaceTiming with everyone before the Thanksgiving meal, if that feels right.
Your next step once you’ve decided to enjoy the holidays on your own terms: Make sure your home feels like a good, positive place that exudes a feeling of festivity and fun.
That’s exactly what Sarah Knight, author the upcoming book “F*CK No! How to Stop Saying Yes When You Can’t, You Shouldn’t, or You Just Don’t Want To”, has been doing for the past three years. That’s how long it has been since she returned to Maine for Christmas.
She feels zero guilt about staying in the Dominican Republic, where she lives with her husband, and avoiding spending the better part of a day traveling home.
“I know my family would love for us to be with them in Maine but, for me, the holiday itself isn’t the reason to see the family,” she says. “I visit them at other times of the year and they’ve come here to celebrate with us. I like to take traditions that I love, apply them to my new life and create new memories.”
This means keeping some of the traditions from her New England childhood alive and tweaking others, too.
“Just because we’re in the tropics, that doesn’t mean we can’t prepare a Christmas dinner à la snowy New England,” she says. “We’ll make ham, mac and cheese, and mashed potatoes, and enjoy it at our own home.”
Knight and her husband have also begun celebrating Christmas with another expat family.
“Instead of wearing ugly Christmas sweaters, we wear ugly Christmas T-Shirts,” she says. “We incorporate the festiveness and get to be someplace that’s 80 degrees and sunny.”
Knight also makes it a habit to light a fir tree scented candle or room oil diffuser that’s only available at the holidays and she loves playing Christmas music, too.
“It feels like I get all the good parts of the holiday without the stress, sadness, distance and travel,” she says.
So, whether you end up hosting a Friendsgiving, Christmas morning breakfast, run a holiday-themed 5K or just decide to watch back-to-back holiday classic films while sipping a fancy hot chocolate, you can take back the holiday season and make it a time of year you actually look forward to.
“Planning an alternate holiday celebration with neighbors who are in your life or planning a day that’s meaningful to you can be one of the most joyful ways to spend the holiday season,” Amsellem says.
Just ask Minton.
“I usually go for a walk around town because it’s so quiet,” she says. “The beach is usually pretty empty so I might go there with my headphones and listen to music and smile at the sun. Or I’ll walk around town and use the entire sidewalk to soak in the peace and loving energy. I don’t feel sad or alone.”
Minton finds that the holidays have become one of the best times to completely unplug.
“It really is a magical energy that you only get on holidays,” she says. “It’s this guarantee that everyone is going to leave you alone. No one is working, so you can’t call the electric company to see what the new ‘convenience’ charge is about. No one is texting you about work. The gym is closed. There’s not even any guilt about not return a friend’s missed call. No excuse needed. No guilt. No obligation. The beauty is that it’s assumed you’re busy with family.”
The proof, ironically, for Minton came with the purchase of a pullout sofa.
“I fancy myself a minimalist, but I did opt for the comfy, most expensive pullout sofa and I let my family know that they’re welcome to come visit me anytime, holiday or not,” she says. “So far, no family has slept on this sofa which just goes to show that they don’t want it bad enough to spend their own time, money and energy on holiday travel so I shouldn’t feel bad about not doing it either.”