My wife and I wished we could skip the drama of the family Christmas party each year. We dreaded the family drama that would accompany the annual Secret Santa gift exchange.
Someone on my in-laws’ side of the family started this family tradition. Everyone participated—aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, grandchildren—but I don’t know anyone who would say they enjoyed it. At Thanksgiving, each family member drew a name from a hat. We were then expected to buy a gift for the person whose name we drew. The first problem was that some people bought good gifts, and others bought gifts that weren’t very good at all.
Setting the Stage
What made it worse was the way the gifts were distributed. The gift exchange occurred with us all sitting in chairs arranged in a circle. The gifts had been wrapped, labeled with the name of the assigned recipient, and placed under a Christmas tree. One of the youngest children would be selected to randomly select gifts, read the name on each box and distribute each gift to the appropriate recipient. After the first gift was distributed and opened by its recipient, the next person to receive their gift box had a choice: open their gift or take the first person’s open gift in exchange for the unopened gift. Each gift recipient thereafter could choose to open their gift or exchange it for someone else’s open gift. This continued until all gifts had been distributed, ending with the person who opened their gift first—he or she got to choose from all the previously opened gifts.
The Drama Begins
This is where the drama unfolded. When one of us received a good gift or acquired it from someone else, the next person to receive their unopened gift would snatch it out of our hands in exchange for their unopened gift. Most people ended up with gifts they didn’t want. Adults would pout or get angry, and children would cry. And the lucky person who opened their gift first, and got to choose the gift they wanted—everyone else despised him or her.
You may have experienced worse. Wherever there is family drama at Christmastime, it tends to undermine the spirit of the season and brings out our worst in people.
How to Keep Your Sanity
Years have passed since those Christmases where my wife and I cringed at having to endure another Secret Santa skirmish for the best gifts. Since then, we’ve discovered these secrets to keeping our sanity:
1) Know your circle of influence.
We thought about vetoing the Secret Santa tradition, but it wasn’t our call. Trying to change someone else’s plans or behavior often ignites or feeds the family drama. To paraphrase the Serenity Prayer, know what you can and cannot change, and ask God for the wisdom to know the difference.
2) Know what to expect.
Also, the more information you have, the better your decision-making, and the more you can do to prepare yourself for potential drama. As far as family events are concerned, past experience is a reliable predictor of future experience. You can expect the drama that occurred before to happen again. If it doesn’t, you can be pleasantly surprised.
When you’re invited to a family event, ask for pertinent details about the event. Those details might include what activities are planned, how long guests are expected to stay, what guests are expected to bring, and who else is expected to be there.
When inviting family to your own event, ask them to provide pertinent details in their response. For example, if they’re coming from out of town, ask when they will arrive, how long and where they expect to stay, and where they expect to get their meals.
3) Review your trigger thoughts.
Once you know what to expect, review the trigger thoughts you’re likely to have in that situation. Trigger thoughts are beliefs we hold that set us up for a negative emotional response to situations around us—in this case, to family drama. These thoughts often begin with “should” and “shouldn’t.”
For example, you learn that Aunt Betty will be at the family Christmas party. You know Aunt Betty drinks too much at Christmas parties and becomes loud and obnoxious. You can expect the trigger thought, “I should keep the wine away from Aunt Betty to control her drinking and her behavior.” If you’re not the party host, you can’t influence Betty’s drinking, but the trigger thought assumes you can. As soon as Aunt Betty gets a glass of wine in her hand, that trigger thought threatens to pull you out of our circle of influence into the drama caused by Betty’s drunken behavior. Goodbye, serenity, hello negative emotions.
4) Plan for peace.
Knowing your circle of influence, what to expect, and what trigger thoughts are likely to be tripped, you’re in a position to plan for peace.
Use the information you have to develop a strategy that works best for you and your immediate family. If there’s a crazy Secret Santa gift exchange on the agenda, you might choose to opt out or accept whatever gift you end up with without contributing to the drama. If Aunt Betty is expected at the family Christmas party, and her drunken behavior is a threat to your personal peace, you can decline the invitation or let your host know you plan to leave the party early.
Before you commit to attending the event or decline the invitation, make a list of all the options and choose the one that promises the best chance of supporting your sanity.
Christmastime: 'Tis the Season for Family Drama
A version of this post also appeared on LifeZette.com.