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Making spirits bright when you won’t be home for the holidays

A longtime exposure shows traffic flowing past houses illuminated by Christmas decorations in the snow-covered landscape near Unteriberg, Switzerland, Dec. 2, 2017. (OSV News photo/Arnd Wiegmann, Reuters)

By Mary B. O’Brien

(OSV News) — It’s no longer as simple as a sleigh ride through the woods to join the whole family at grandma’s for Christmas Day. Nevertheless, many of us make a trek, sometimes several times annually, to celebrate our holidays together. These days, we battle traffic, hectic work schedules, kids’ commitments, crowded airports and icy freeways to get there.

Although we love our large gatherings and longtime traditions, leaving home for special occasions demands plenty of planning and desire. Here’s how to pull off a holiday away from home with grace — and only a few frazzled nerves.

Since you’re not the host/hostess, it’s easy to get complacent about preparations — and then run out of time at the end. So start early. You’ll need to shift gears and think about getting ready in a new way. Instead of cleaning the guest bedroom or planning your Christmas centerpiece, begin by prepping the car (or, as the case may be, making the airline reservations). Get the oil changed. If your area promises snow, put the snow tires on. Install the luggage rack. Find a few new kids’ travel trinkets to hide under your seat. Pack snacks and drinks to avoid extra costs en route.

Call your hostess to find out about your share of the cooking, but be careful what dishes you sign up for. Choose foods that travel well. If you’ve a long way to go, perishable items are out. Avoid disasters like sloshing cranberries on your dashboard (and floor mats), leafy salads that freeze in the trunk of the car — and then thaw to a limp green glop — cakes that lose the top layer in transit. Select instead easily transported Christmas breads, holiday bars and cookies, or the makings for a spectacular veggie tray. Or take the ingredients for your famous pecan-cornbread stuffing and assemble it when you arrive.

Buy and wrap gifts early, but don’t add bows and ribbons yet. Instead, pack presents snugly into boxes or an extra suitcase for protected travel. Take along bows to add later so they won’t be flattened beyond recognition when you arrive.

If Santa is part of your tradition, the kids will be wondering how St. Nick will find them if they’re gone on Christmas morning. Let them write to him with their away-from-home Christmas address. While you’re at it, tell them about other things to expect, like attending church in a new place and greeting relatives they might not remember who want to give them bear hugs.

With all the excitement and buildup, kids are bound to feel hyper. The holidays are joyous — and almost unbearably exciting — for children, and, of course, you want them to have a storybook Christmas they’ll remember forever. But having a great time and running wild are two different things.

Let the kids know what behavior you will expect of them as guests. Start talking early, so they have time to listen — several times if necessary. Let them know that grandma (or whoever the host is) will be upset if they fly their new spaceship amid her crystal lamps, or play keep away in the living room. Laughing at Uncle Albert’s warts, using the beds as trampolines, bullying younger cousins and juggling dinner rolls will all cause problems. Try to anticipate potential disasters and let everyone know the limits beforehand.

A special note about presents: Be careful what you bring. A toy fire engine with a real screeching siren seems like a fun idea at the store, but in a small house packed with relatives, it will make everyone climb the walls. Likewise, new gliders and footballs are too tempting not to be thrown, at least a few times, through the sitting room filled with gray heads. New paint sets don’t mix with your hostess’ pastel carpeting. Don’t expect kids to be angels. And don’t bring potential problems to the gathering.

Plan an afternoon activity for the kids. Make sure they have the opportunity to go to the sledding hill, build a huge snowman or pile in the van for the nearest movie theater. That way they’ll have a chance to burn off some energy and have some long-remembered fun. And they’ll leave behind a little peace and quiet for those who need it.

When you’ve done all you can, simply enjoy the holiday. Remember to put your “candle” on a candlestick, not under a bushel, so it will “giveth light unto all that are in the house.” You’ve done your work well (or at least you’ve tried your best), and now you’re ready for a day of fun, family and faith.

Mary B. O’Brien and her family have regularly traveled to relatives for the holidays.

People take pictures in front of the Paris City Hall decorated with Christmas lights as part of the holiday season illuminations in Paris Dec. 21, 2022. (OSV News photo/Sarah Meyssonnier, Reuters)

Holding on to traditions

There’s a hidden danger in always leaving home for the holidays. In the hustle and bustle of preparations, there’s a real possibility that your own family’s special holiday traditions will gradually fade away or get lost in the shuffle. Don’t let it happen.

First of all, make sure you and your spouse and children celebrate the entire season — not just the day itself — by creating your own customs at home before and after your trip. Put up a Christmas tree, go caroling with friends, open Advent calendars, bake sugar cookies together and attend Mass, even if the rest of the family doesn’t.

Second, take some of your traditions with you. Holiday travel can actually enhance and enliven your rituals, bringing a deeper sense of roots to your children. Loved ones at the gathering will come to appreciate the traditional carols you play on Christmas morning, or the stuffing you bake using great-grandma’s old family recipe. Attending church away from home means you’ll soon have a whole new church family to welcome you when you visit.

So go ahead and stop by a homeless shelter on Christmas Eve with your usual extra mince pie. Light a special candle in memory of someone no longer with you. Read your favorite Bible verses aloud before the stockings are hung.

Just because you’re in a different place doesn’t mean you can’t continue your customs. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve created the best of both worlds: memorable holiday traditions at home and cherished rituals that can travel with you to enhance the holiday with your larger circle of family and friends.

A spoonful of sugar

Sibling squabbles. Mother-in-law friction. Blaring TVs and raucous kids. Uncle Ted’s off-color jokes. Buried hatchets that surface again. All the things that strain our nerves and ruin our composure can be present at family holiday gatherings. Here’s how to rise above them.

Try to take care of yourself, despite the hustle and bustle. If you’re a frazzled, exhausted wreck, you’re bound to have a short fuse and tears lurking near the surface. Even though it seems impossible, an extra hour of sleep, a good breakfast and quiet moments of prayer will make your holiday brighter.

Pay attention to details that can avert problems. A prime example is dinner-table seating where strategic placement of relatives will help ensure good times and harmony for everyone. Seat your patient-as-a-saint brother beside your long-winded uncle.

Separate the two loud aunts. Let kids who are best friends sit together. Make sure that grandpa, who’s hard of hearing, is in the middle of things.

Remind yourself that even at the best of family gatherings there are bound to be moments of conflict. Decide in advance what your response will be to minor irritations, and then stick to it. If Aunt Maude says your turkey stuffing is too dry, will you tell her off in a thousand ways — or turn the other cheek? Plan how you want to handle Cousin Bill’s in-your-face cigarette smoke, or your wild little niece who grinds mashed potatoes into the carpet. As annoying as someone’s habits can be, there are times when family good will is worth more than correcting a small and temporary situation.

Refuse to ruin the day. Save squabbles and business discussions for another time.

Vow to be happy. Your good cheer, patience and love will set an unforgettable example for your children — and you will know that you’ve done your best to create a happy, holy holiday for all.

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