3 Tips for Happier Holidays from a Mediator's Playbook

Jingles may wish us happy holidays, but commercials and social media, by design, influence how we bedeck our homes, spend our money, measure happiness and practice traditions around holidays.  It can be overwhelming.

If we succumb to all the pressures buzzing around us, the reality is this: the main focus of the holidays is wiped out by stress, misunderstanding and conflict.  Here are a few personal stories as well as tips from my 20+ years as a mediator on how to avoid common pitfalls.

go below the surface

A few days after Thanksgiving, a girlfriend told me about an ongoing family conflict over Christmas decorations.  A couple years ago, my friend, who I’ll call Liz, was persuaded by her partner to ditch a fake tree taking up coveted garage space.  In exchange, her partner, we'll call Doug, promised to buy a fresh one each year going forward.  

Christmas tree on a van

Liz then explained, with exasperation, that she had spent the past two days trying to decorate, and no one in the family would help her. To make matters worse, as Liz was rounding up family members to shop for a tree, Doug suggested this year they skip the big, fresh tree. She described the ensuing argument in detail, repeating, “I’m just furious!”  

I responded, “Wow. That's understandable.  He didn't keep his promise.”

Like Liz, I was raised in an American Catholic home in which decorating the day after Thanksgiving is unquestionably routine.  I asked Liz if she had considered that her Jewish partner may not fully appreciate her tradition of holiday decorating. I shared with her that I had spent a couple Christmases with a mixed Jewish and Christian family in Europe. They decorated on December 24.  

“What’s the point?” Liz snapped.  


“Really?”  I asked her, with a smirk on my face.  “You're asking what is the point of Christmas?”

She immediately laughed at her own response adding, “It hadn’t occurred to me I may be sucking the joy out of Christmas. I should ask the rest of my family what they would like.”

Holiday cookies, Christmas and Hannukah

There is meaning behind every holiday.  By definition, religious holidays are holy, or sacred. Too often activities around rituals lead to stress and conflicts that undermine the spirit of the the holidays.  Retracing and reflecting on the genuine origins of sacred occasions can be calming reminders that also help to build peace within our homes.

It's important to reconcile "the point" of each holiday with our own underlying interests.  Under the surface of the tree conflict, Liz told me she ultimately wants a holiday that includes meaningful traditions within her family.

Practice Active Listening

Later that same day, I stopped by a neighbor’s house, returning something I had borrowed. Exasperated, this friend, who I'll call Carlie, said she was also frustrated that day because no one was helping her with -- you guessed it -- Christmas decorations. Everyone else in the family was so caught up in their own work, she felt ignored and unappreciated.  

I described the exchange I'd had with Liz earlier in the day.  While we were talking, Carlie’s husband, joined us on their driveway.  

Holiday decorations don't have the same significance for everyone!

Carlie told her husband, who is, incidentally, also Jewish, about our conversation. She asked him, “How would you feel if we had a family discussion about Christmas decorating?”  He sighed, “I honestly don’t have the energy for it.”

He went on to say he really appreciated the calming holiday ambience Carlie created in their home.  He looked at me, “I know it’s a lot of work for her right now and I feel badly that no one is pitching in.”  He continued that, as a university professor, however, he wouldn’t be able to help out until after the end of the semester.

Carlie said to us both, “That’s so true.  They [husband and kids] are so busy with school right now, I really shouldn’t expect them to get excited about decorating.  It helps to know it’s important to them, though.”

Acknowledgement of her efforts was what Carlie needed most.

Moreover, she immediately realized that by following through with a decorating tradition in the home, she preserved the harmony they all cherished.  It gave the process meaning and purpose to her.

Carlie and her husband demonstrated active listening by:

Active listening goes well beyond just hearing what is said.  It requires compassion, patience and skill.  Not always easy under pressure, right? 

Give your listening skills a tune-up with the checklist on the right.  I keep several copies around the house and office, especially during the busy holiday seasons.


Several years ago, I adopted a fresh perspective about the holidays.  Actually, the shift happened after I was blindsided by self-induced stress.  

Thanksgiving dinner

Has this happened to you?  I was making myself crazy, frantically preparing a picture-perfect Thanksgiving feast.  Going down my checklist, I frenetically ironed the tablecloth and napkins, warmed the cider, polished the silver, ensured cranberries didn’t boil over, basted the turkey, double-checked my 20-ingredient-from-scratch sweet potato recipe, set the table, and so on.  I also assigned tasks to my sons, reminding them that everything had to be perfect by the time extended family arrived later that afternoon. After dutifully finishing their Thanksgiving chores, my 11-year old, the eldest of my 3 sons, announced they were all heading to the park to play football with neighbor kids.  

A single mom, I immediately felt overwhelmed, resentful and sad.  Tears flowing, I said, “I’m trying to make this a perfect Thanksgiving and no one cares.”  My sons hugged me and said, “It is perfect, Mom. You work too hard.  Just chill for a change.” And with excitement in their voices, they headed out the door with, “See you later!”

Chill?  On Thanksgiving?  Are you kidding me?

Suddenly, I had an epiphany.  Of course my sons cared about Thanksgiving Day. They did not hold dear the things that I was knocking myself out to complete.  I was projecting my expectations on the rest of my family and, in doing so, undermining the meaning of the holiday.  I sat down, poured myself a gorgeous glass of wine and cherished a moment of calm on that Thanksgiving morning.  

Gratitude was the tradition I'd cultivate with my sons going forward.  

With this vow, I forever reframed my perspective of Thanksgiving, as well as other holidays going forward.  I talk more about reframing in a previous article.


When my sons returned from the park, they hadn’t noticed that the house wasn’t perfect.  In fact, no one did. They did, however, convey their excitement over the aroma of turkey, the great time they had at the park and the bountiful feast we would soon be sharing.  I’m pretty sure they also noticed the smile on my face and the calming effect of candles in a dimly-lit dining room (which perfectly hid all imperfections).  They hadn’t realized this momentous, conflict-averting shift they helped me make.

Giving thanks, we did, enriched by joy, laughter and acceptance of imperfection.  May you find the same in your home.  I hope you experience sacred meaning in whatever holidays you gather to celebrate!