The holidays are full of traditions and rules, some spoken and some unspoken. But change, which we might call rule-breaking, is always an option. While we don’t all celebrate Christmas, most people in the world celebrate some kind of winter holiday (the word holiday was originally holy day). I celebrate Christmas because I’m a liberal Christian, but the approach I describe below can apply to any holiday or other interpersonal situation in which you’d like to create change.
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Choose the rule or tradition that you most need to break. If you’ve become uncomfortable with the status quo, what is it that most bothers you? Is it spending money you can’t really afford on gifts you’re supposed to give? Is it being expected to enjoy roast turkey for dinner when you became a vegetarian three years ago? Is it being on your feet all day in the kitchen while others relax in front of the TV? How about that rule about making a long and flowery speech of appreciation every time you open a gift? Or are you (gasp) hungry for down-time and solitude, and needing to break the rule about being sociable all day and all night?
Then, be for something, rather than against something. Create a path, rather than a complaint. Do you want to place a dollar limit on gifts, or give homemade items, or plan shared experiences for gifts rather than buying gifts? Would you like to focus on community rather than stuff? Make or bring a vegetarian entree for Christmas dinner? Humorously use a ten-second timer for the overblown thank-you speeches? Spend the day or evening by yourself, possibly in nature? Order food in for dinner instead of cook, or have a potluck?
The Christmas of ’88, I was in graduate school, and I decided I wanted to spend Christmas day volunteering at the Orange County Catholic Worker, serving a festive brunch to low-income folks. I remember seeing one of the brunch guests, a stoop-bodied older man, wearing the good winter jacket I had brought in to the CW Clothes Closet after getting my brother to donate it. That was a very rewarding sight. I didn’t exchange gifts with my family that year. They weren’t delighted with my decision, but there was no talk of disowning me, either. If I had that to do over again, though, I would have communicated with my family more warmly about it. I would explain that I was not rejecting them in any way, but feeling a specific need to be of service that Christmas. Which brings me to the next point.
Communicate with the people involved about your rule-breaking. Be warm and open about what you’re doing or deciding to not do. Don’t be cold or passive-aggressive. For example, not telling people things is passive-aggressive, and so is letting them find something out via a Facebook post. I suggest communicating in person or on the phone. Emailing about emotional topics rarely goes well. Issues escalate in emails that get handled much better voice-to-voice, even though talking tends to feel harder in the moment. Don’t make assumptions about how your rule-breaking will go. It might be that one or more other people have been secretly tired of the status quo, too, and would like to collaborate with you on celebrating Christmas differently than usual. Be open to what rules they may want to break that you’d never even thought about. For example, they may be in debt, and not wanting to go any farther into debt over Christmas, and thus needing to break some unspoken rules, themselves. They might need your support as much as you’d like theirs. Others get to shake things up, too.
Accept there will be reverberations. The ripple-effects of your rule-breaking can range from negative to positive. People may be upset with you. You can choose to not react to their reactions in anger (refraining from arguing is not the same thing as agreeing with what is said to you). Or, others may become more honest, themselves. Rebecca, my friend of 26 years, tells me that my lifelong willingness to ask for what I want gives her permission to ask for what she wants in a way she never experiences with anyone else. I suggest we all have the right to break rules that no longer make sense, concerning holidays or anything else. But that’s just my opinion. What do you think? Are some rules sacrosanct?