How To Break The Rules At Christmas

By Sunday, December 2, 2012 14 0

The holidays are full of traditions and rules, some spoken and some unspoken. But change, which we might call rule-breaking,Rules about what you can and can't do 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.

Before I forget, please know that I’m doing a drawing for a $50 Amazon gift card. You get entered in the drawing by taking this five-minute survey, and also by becoming a subscriber (to your right). The survey asks about your online reading preferences, my goal being to improve my blog’s focus, and grow my readership. 

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?

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  • Danielle
    December 20, 2012

    Alison, I really appreciated what you said about communicating with friends and family about your rule-breaking and being brave enough to do it in person or over the phone.

    I started my christmas rule-breaking a good few years ago, but I did it via email which didn’t really go down well at all…and I definitely made assumptions about how people would and wouldn’t react. There were also times when I didn’t say anything, and on reflection, I think you were right in saying that was passive-aggressive behaviour.

    I have some very conflicted feelings about this time of year, and I’m really still trying to work them out. I haven’t done anything much in the way of communicating this time round, and have been feeling a little like I’m sinking underneath the pressure.

    Yet, having said that, your article has given me a sense of the way forward…just be honest and be willing to accept the fallout..that’s so true. I intend to speak to each of my family members and explain how I’m feeling and then let go.

    Ok, now just for the courage to go ahead and do it!

  • Alison
    December 8, 2012

    Tess, I knew from the beginning of writing this piece that it needed the voice of an introvert added to it, to counterbalance my extroverted assumption of sociability. Thank you, and well done. I’m much better prepared now for tomorrow’s follow-up post.

  • Tess Giles Marshall
    December 8, 2012

    I love your ideas here, and the notion of rule-breaking plays well with me.
    I’m lucky in that my Christmases have become far less complex over the years, partly through choice and partly because so many family members are no longer here. (I don’t, of course, mean that I’m lucky family members have died. Of course not. But my experience of large family Christmas gatherings was always to force siblings back into childhood roles we’d outgrown everywhere else. I always enjoyed my family one-on-one rather than en masse.)
    My bravest Christmas, however, is one I haven’t yet achieved: to spend it alone. It sounds so bleak to other people but to me it would be sheer self-indulgent delight!
    As I’ve grown older I have found that being single gives a distinctly odd feeling to Christmas Day. I usually get invited to spend it with my sibling and her family, which is kind of them. But then I end up feeling like a spare part. Or I invite them round, resent the invasion and long for peace and quiet! (It occurs to me this might come under your definition of passive-aggressive communication, but the odds of any family member of mine reading this comment are very remote!!)
    Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, then a long, slow day full of delicious nibbles, DVDs and books. Gorgeous. That’s what I’m aiming for next year!

  • craftygreenpoet
    December 6, 2012

    This is an excellent post, so true. I think a lot of people feel that Christmas is special but aren’t prepared to compromise and see that it can be special in different ways to different people.

    • Alison
      December 8, 2012

      Juliet, I’m quoting you (and your fellow commenters) in tomorrow’s post.

  • Tim
    December 5, 2012

    One of the rules that I sometimes struggle with has to do with family verse service on Christmas Day. This is the first year in the past four that I will not be working - either at the hospital or preaching. I, of course, love the idea of being with my children on this special day but somehow christmas has changed for me now and not being with my patients or parishoners leaves me kind of sad. I don’t really know how to balance this as christmas days when I am working I feel closer to Christ. I suppose the challenge for me is to somehow find Christ while not serving others - and that is something with which I still struggle.

    • Alison
      December 5, 2012

      Tim, I kind of envy your problem. I am strong on self-care, and what I’m always for praying for is to be more fully and consistently of service to others.
      We all seem to want the thing that does not come easily to us. I really appreciate your dilemma.

  • Colleen
    December 4, 2012

    I like it when you mention God on your blog. I also like the idea that holiday traditions don’t have to be fixed. I do, however, think that throwing out or keeping a tradition depends on who you’re celebrating with. For celebrating an all-adult Christmas, a ‘no gifts’ policy is great (I personally like giving the ‘gift’ of experiences). But with children, as long as they understand the meaning behind Christmas gift-giving, I think the tradition is worth keeping. The tradition is a tangible expression of God’s love, and thus understandable for them. This doesn’t mean excess. And it all comes secondary to celebrating the birth of Christ.

    • Alison
      December 5, 2012

      Colleen, I agree there’s a real difference between adults and children concerning what they need at Christmastime. I like your approach of making sure children understand the God-driven meaning behind giving and receiving gifts. You’ll make a great mother in the not-so-distant future.

      Concerning the disgruntled person who is hugely turned off by talk of God, Diamond-Cut Life will never be a fit for that person, for that very reason :).

  • Barbara
    December 3, 2012

    Alison - Thank you for giving us “permission” and inspiration to shake things up a bit this year! I’ve always been a fan of picking and choosing which traditions are working and which need to be retired or changed. I love that you are encouraging us to identify our values then go about the hard work of living them. I’d add just two caveats to your suggestions. First, avoid being judgmental of others who aren’t ready to shake things up just yet. Remember, those are YOUR values you’re living out and everyone else gets to have their own set of values, whether they choose to examine them or not. You may have committed to a vegetarian diet years ago, but your mother may still equate that golden brown turkey with all the trimmings with showing her love and nurturing her family. Finding a way to walk that tightrope between compromising your own values and asking someone else to change theirs requires a very delicate balance indeed. And, secondly, be kind to yourself if you don’t always succeed at living out your values. Maybe, after 3 years as a vegetarian, a heaping pile of mashed potatoes drowning in your mom’s turkey gravy speaks comfort to you in a way you can’t pass up. Maybe you’ve decided not to give presents this year, then spot the most perfect thing ever for your sister and give in to the vision of watching her delight when she opens it. Whatever the situation, be gentle with yourself as you would be with others. Accept that living a spiritual life is a journey and try to love yourself as God loves you.

    • Alison
      December 3, 2012

      Barbara, thanks for bringing some needed nuance and complexity to the table. You’re right; there is a lot to this business of living out our values, because our lives intersect with others’ lives.

      Also, thanks for mentioning God’s love. I was just reading through responses to my survey on my blog, and one person stated that hearing about god (lower case ‘g’) repeatedly was ” a huge turn-off, especially from someone with a counseling degree”. Barbara, don’t you think we should turn her on to Anne Lamott?

  • Alice
    December 2, 2012

    I need to come up with another rule to break. I broke one a few years ago & haven’t looked back. We usually host Christmas dinner, which used to be expensive prime rib with all the trimmings. Trouble was, with family and friends coming and going all day, we’d have all kinds of yummy snacks and nibbles all day long. By the time dinner was served, everyone was too full to enjoy it. Nobody wanted to give up the nibbles so anfew years ago I decided to make Christmas dinner into a light soup, salad and sandwich bar. I make an easy soup in the crock pot that can simmer all day while I relax and enjoy the festivities. A quick salad and throw together a platter of cheese & cold cuts and we’re ready! Everyone seems to love it. I love it and save a lot of money and time in the kitchen.

    • Alison
      December 2, 2012

      Alice, the light Christmas dinner after a whole day of snacking is soooo sensible. Excellent rule-breaking. What will you think of next?!