From Mandatory Merriment to Celebrations with Meaning

From Mandatory Merriment to Celebrations with Meaning

Celebrations: expectations and expressions. Within two weeks of Thanksgiving at least four people asked me about what I was doing for the holiday. Since an invitation was never mentioned, maybe they were being curious, comparing, or just making conversation. Such questions seem habitual throughout the winter holidays and for other occasions.

I make comparisons myself based on my preference for my family’s “unbirthday” celebrations when we would surprise one another with well-suited gifts at any time. I liked our idea of avoiding mandatory celebrations, often free of expectations that disappoint because of gaps between hopes and realities about special occasions, holidays or not.

Around one birthday, my parents gave me my first car, though they did not have a lot of money and I certainly did not. Other years I received nothing material at all except recognition that they were glad to have me in their lives. Their original notes and calls over the years meant much more than impersonal online or purchased cards with a salutation or signature that some well-meaning people send.

In today’s commercial climate many children’s gifts are tied to movie theme promotions. Too often, gifts to adults seem to be obligatory afterthoughts of people stuck in busy lives, a modern malady. Whatever the expense of the gift, showing that you “get” the other person has special meaning ─ to me at least. An apt example was a container of my preferred, ordinary body wash with a simple pump. In passing, I had complained to my friend that the thick liquid did not pour easily.

Actually, I feel joy when I spend a little time and thought considering what would have meaning for others, whether a handwritten card or gift. I find the results of such empathy and efficient focus gives me such a lift when I see the recipient’s eyes light up.

Opportunities in special occasions. For me, celebrations are situations in which I can be present for other people. We have time to cross the bridge from “how are you, I am fine” and other typical conversational habits to connect in ways that encourage openness. This contrasts with the poignant distance of repeated behavioral patterns between family members and other close long-term relationships, I’ve noticed.

But truly connecting with people takes too much work, concentration, or risk for some people. To avoid stasis, think of the process as a likely safe adventure that may improve closeness and even intimacy in the best sense of the word. How about using the time together for moving beyond usual conversational routines?
Perhaps encourage enjoyable explorations instead of feeling bored exchanging comments on the weather and gossip about third parties; asking questions starting with “what” and “how” may move you all forward. Though conversation about sports is usually an uncontroversial default, it assumes everyone shares common passions. It rarely gets personal.

Ideas for conversation at celebrations and other get-togethers. A recent Wall Street Journal article by Jason Gay sees promise in not avoiding politics; I think this is important especially these days when informed, caring conversation is beneficial. To help communication flourish, Gay suggests guidelines for talking about politics, but they also may be useful for other subjects. Here’s my adaptation of some of his ideas and my own:

At the start of a get-together:
• Agree on a specific amount of time for a discussion of mutual interest about politics, or other possibly controversial topics such as religion.
• Pay attention to what’s going on, verbally and nonverbally, as you prepare to listen well; put yourself on a diet of no speeches and monologs.
• Be ready with some credible sources if you imagine you’ll be quoting others’ ideas or facts in which you believe.

During the celebration:
• Listen to and engage the range of people of all ages, avoiding mechanical, manufactured comments and reactions.
• Respect others’ preferences, avoiding pushing food and/or jokes about vegetarian and vegan selections.
• Avoid tweeting and put cell phones away.

Ease the experience for the hosts:
• Have a humorous “penalty box” such as cleaning up for anyone who breaks conversational rules. Since the work of the occasion often falls on one person or a few people this can lighten the load.
• Acknowledge specifically the positive aspects of the occasion and what you enjoyed as well as the work of the hosts.
• Join in serving, clearing, and cleaning up, as appropriate.

I hope you’ll add your ideas to enrich your celebrations of all kinds. What comes to mind?

Ruth Schimel, Ph.D., is a career and life management consultant and author who writes about personal and professional progress in original, practical ways. See her Choose Courage series on Amazon: Choose Courage: Step Into the Life You Want and Related Handbooks and blogs at her new website: Contact her at or 202.659.1772.

© 2017 by Ruth Schimel, Career & Life Management Consultant, Author


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