Most of the dinner scenes from holiday movies are chaotic and end in fights; films like Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase, and The Family Stone with Diane Keaton. Perhaps the reason for the mayhem and anger is that they didn’t follow my simple rules for holiday meal etiquette. Add these ingredients to your feast and see if they don’t bring more closeness and peace.
1. Talk about politics and religion. You heard me; nothing is off limits for discussion as long as there is more listening than shouting. Please invite kids in on these conversations, because it’s invaluable for them to engage in open debates about serious topics with their elders. Be sure their voices are heard and valued, so they feel encouraged to share more. When I was growing up, I loved standing behind the chairs of my dad, uncles and grandfather as they played poker after family dinners. The conversation sometimes got a little crude, but I learned tons about how men relate and how they stood on issues. I can still see the cigar smoke, hear their laughter as they teased each other, and feel their camaraderie to this day.
2. Leave your judgments at the door. Nothing creates tension and distance faster than feeling judged. Be like Atticus Finch and try to walk around in everyone’s shoes and see things from their point of view. It doesn’t mean you agree with them; it just means you love and respect them and their opinions.
3. Honor your elders. Holiday get-togethers are a great place for kids to learn about their ancestors. As you sit around the table digesting the heavy meal, have older relatives tell stories of holidays past, of the trials and tribulations of their long lives, and their perspectives on life. Better yet, record these sessions for future gatherings after they have passed.
4. Perform old traditions. All three of my adult children still look forward to our old family traditions, especially the ravioli meal with our family’s secret meat sauce brought over from Italy by my great grandfather Giuseppe Cortopassi. We also got in the habit of showing old slides of relatives past and present; kids LOVE to see old pictures of their parents at their ages. Or have your kids help you create new traditions that will enrich each holiday season to come.
5. Express gratitude. We often go around the table and have everyone share what they are grateful for in their lives or from the past year. Nothing takes anger, resentment, and tension out of group better than when people express what they appreciate and are thankful for, especially if it’s about the folks they are sharing the meal with.
6. Unconditionally love each other. Every family has it’s characters, black sheep, and rogues, like the scamming son in one of my favorite movies, Parenthood. Do your best to set a place at the table for everyone, and try to accept and love them as they are vs. trying to fix them.
There is nothing that brings a family closer than sharing stories, honoring each other, expressing gratitude, unconditional love, and laughter, so make sure these are on the menu this and every holiday to come.