a woman is tiring and sit down after a Christmas party

What to Do When Family Holidays Don’t Go the Way We Expect

My husband and I sat at the dining-room table, discussing holiday plans over a cobbled-together lunch. We were talking about what he hoped would happen: connection, downtime from the steady clip of our schedules, and enough space for Christmas to feel worshipful. 

Then he turned to me. “What about you?”

At first, I said nothing—because there it was. I knew it would sound a little martyrish. But I’m a mother of four kids off school. I’m inviting relatives. My work-from-home schedule had already been put through the blender with the lid off. 

I found it much easier to just remain flexible and keep my expectations to nil, or at least a minimum. Holiday wish lists are great for kids, but a little dangerous for mums. Expectations just seemed to set me up to be a little Grinchy. Entitled, even. 


What to expect when you’re not expecting anything 

My husband, to his credit, acknowledged that there’s a lot to be said for open-handedness during the holidays. Most of us have been at the wrong end of someone else’s disappointed holiday, whether it’s the parents that wanted us home or expected a certain reaction about their “perfect” gift or plans, the kids or boyfriend irritated by not getting the rest their bodies need or by some critical comment from a relative. Or sometimes, a result of our own doing.

For instance, “Why did we think it’d be great to schedule dinner parties for three nights in a row?”, “Why did we agree to drive 26 hours with toddlers again?”, “Why did I expect ‘holiday’ meant ‘vacation from conflict?’”

I personally remember the year finances had restricted me from buying hardly anything for myself—and feeling embarrassed at the irritation I felt at receiving a frog Christmas-tree ornament rather than something from my wish list. 

As my friend mentioned, “Manage my expectations, manage my life.” Holding things a little more loosely, a little more lovingly, unquestionably makes for much happier holidays.  

But then my husband made his next point. “Just because you don’t want to have expectations doesn’t mean you don’t. So, you’ll end up being discouraged or disappointed without actually knowing why.” He then explained something that I had already written about before: acknowledging our expectations helps us manage them, and not the other way around.

Start by assessing what you want from the holidays  

So, before the celebrations begin, do a self-assessment: Where am I at right now? Am I tired? (Stressed? Giddy with expectations? Hopeful? Guarded? Sensitive?) What do I want or hope for out of this holiday season?). 

Asking yourself these questions helps you be aware of your expectations, rather than letting them subtly manipulate your actions and others’.

If what you’re really hoping for is rest, you might opt to only play one game with family, then head up to your room for some quiet time, rather than ending up churlish and resentful the next day. 

Or if a meaningful holiday to you means having a time for reflections and for deep conversations, rather than just eating, perhaps you can cover the table with craft paper so people can write down what they’re thankful for over the year. Or you can leave index cards at each place setting for a brief list of thanks and ask each person to share one thing they’re thankful for.


It’s important to also build mental breaks into your schedule

If you’re an introvert overwhelmed by large groups, try to find a quiet corner to hang out with just one or two people. Take a break every now and then from the festivities—don’t pack too much into your schedule, and if a house party gets too loud, duck into your room for a few minutes to take a few deep breaths and get back your peace of mind.

Yes, late-night games and conversations can be one of the best parts of holiday gatherings, but it’s important to take breaks to refuel, so you’ve got margin during stressful situations to respond in a way that heals rather than destroys.

Remember that you’re not the only one arriving with expectations. Most of us arrive at gatherings hungry for more than mashed potatoes with that heaping ladle of gravy. Hungry for connections, conversations, and community, and these can sometimes get overwhelming for some of us. 


And almost certainly, your holiday expectations will collide with your family’s 

Whether expectations are healthy, agreed on, and spoken, or absolutely not—God’s designed us differently. And that’s in part so we can reach toward each other, like He reaches toward us. His own life on earth showed that sometimes love means giving up what we love most . . . and without resentment (ouch!).

And sometimes, our family can suck us back into old, often unhealthy patterns of relating and responding to people. Therefore, it’s important for us to realise the power of old patterns. 

With those old patterns, one prayer I like is from Psalm 25:15My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for He will pluck my feet out of the net.

Remind yourself of common “triggers” for your dysfunctional behaviour and be ready for them. You might even prepare what you’ll say or do in place of your old pattern.

This may sound melodramatic, but for those of you entering unhealthy situations—manipulative parents, boastful siblings, entitled friends—meditate on verses like Ephesians 6:10-20 (putting on the armour of God) and 2 Peter 1:3-4. Pray that you’ll be: 

  • quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19)
  • for God’s power to return a blessing in the face of insult (1 Peter 3:9)
  • to only use words that build up, give grace, and are right for the occasion (Ephesians 4:29)

Often our extended families hold different values than we do, so pick your battles. Perhaps you’ll decide, “One day of video games will not kill my kids, but I’m going to gently ask my mum ahead of time not to bring up my daughter’s weight or my own.”

When you feel the need to confront, a general rule would be to keep it as private as possible, and use your words to give grace rather than shame to gain control or revenge (using Ephesians 4:29 rule as a guide).

Consider also your relationship with this particular family member. Are expectations for this relationship, as author Peter Scazzero writes:

  • Conscious?
  • Realistic?
  • Spoken?
  • Agreed upon?

Sometimes I need to rewrite my expectations for the relationship based on what the person is able to give, rather than just what I want. If there really isn’t much room for transparency and agreement, you may need to extend grace when what you want isn’t happening.

Importantly, go into the holiday season proactive rather than reactive—pray about your time together, and for each person there. Ask the Lord:

“What do You want to do here? How can I love people well and show them You?”

“How can I create healthy boundaries and patterns while remaining unselfish?” 

“What would it look like to do what’s best for those around me?” (Philippians 2:3-4).

Holidays are a great time to truly celebrate and enjoy the people around us. But we might have to fight for our own joy a little.

Even as we express our hopes for what the holidays might look like, we can still choose to hold on to them loosely than gripping on to them tightly. It might mean that we pinpoint just the one thing that matters most to us, and letting other priorities fall away. 

This article was originally published on the author’s blog here and here. This version has been edited by YMI.


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