Holidays becoming a family burden?

Dear Dr. Gail: I have a small family. For the holidays, we rotate between the homes of the two matriarchal aunts, now in their early 80s. Increasingly, everyone complains this is an enormous burden, what with cooking, cleaning, dishes, decorations, etc.

One cousin in particular complains most about how hard it is for the aunts, so others should contribute more and help more with decorating, serving and cleanup. She sends e-mails saying things like "We are all strapped with family health issues, stressors, etc." and telling everyone what to do.

For example, she accuses me of not doing my share of work (though she is also glad to accuse me of rinsing the dishes improperly, loading the dishwasher wrong, etc.) Last time, the kitchen was so packed with people “helping” that a platter of dessert fell on the floor.

I have suggested we simplify the holidays — we could go to a restaurant, get a prepared meal, gather for something simple like dessert, dispense with the decorations, etc.

Most of my relatives think that, for tradition's sake, this is totally unacceptable. It is important to them to do the holidays as they “should” be done, despite their loud complaints about doing so. I made my point and backed down so as not to fan the flames. Can you suggest how I should handle this?

Dear Frustrated Relative: I will start with a fascinating statistic: A full 68 percent of us approach holiday get-togethers with feelings of dread or obligation. This figure comes from psychologist Leonard Felder, Ph.D., author of "When Difficult Relatives Happen to Good People," (Rodale, 2003).

At the holidays, it’s common for families to gather with high expectations, which is a breeding ground for pressure and judgment: Are the decorations gorgeous? Is the table perfect? Is the dinner as good as last year’s?

People also have huge disagreements about how the holidays should be celebrated. Many people feel strongly about family tradition, and may therefore have trouble being flexible and letting things happen differently. Which brings me to your question.

In your case, it sounds as though your cousin is the main problem. She wants to be a martyr for the holidays. She insists on doing everything to the max, suffering accordingly and complaining about it. Martyrs are best stopped by showing them what they are doing, a well as by setting limits.

The issue is not that the aunts are elderly or that people wish to honor tradition. But time marches on. Normal life events require accommodation. People inevitably age or move or die or marry or divorce, altering the dynamic. It’s likely that your cousin is upset that people are growing old and infirm.

Your mistake was coming off as too extreme. While it is reasonable to prefer a less elaborate meal and a less burdensome celebration, your suggestions irked your cousin because they sound like extreme solutions rather than minor modifications.

She hears you saying: Let’s throw tradition out the window. She might be more amenable to less extreme suggestions: Chicken instead of turkey, for example, or fewer decorations, not no decorations.

To defuse the situation, I suggest you set limits. Point out there are two good options: Have the traditional fancy celebration and stop complaining about it, or don’t have the traditional celebration.

Say to your cousin, “We are having a big dinner like you wanted, but you don’t need to be critical about it. Your martyrdom in the name of tradition is ruining the day for me and for everyone. We can have a fancy meal without all the complaints, or a simple meal without all the work, but it is impossible to have both.”

I also suggest you make your comments quite pointed. Don’t just toss out a sentence while you are rinsing those dishes, or it will get lost in the noise and confusion. Draw your cousin aside for a moment to emphasize your seriousness.

You can also inform your cousin that not everyone does things her way. It’s not helpful to accuse her: “You make everyone help in the crowded kitchen so that things fall on the floor.” It’s better to say how you feel, and suggest an alternative: “I feel that a crowded kitchen is counterproductive because things fall on the floor. How about I clear the table and when I am finished someone else load the dishwasher.”

It’s a bad idea to build a team and create sides. The “might makes right” approach merely puts other relatives, who might prefer to have no opinion, in a bad position, and breeds defensiveness and hostility.

You can accommodate your relatives’ requests in a way that feels right and reasonable to you. For example, maybe you can’t cook the food, but you can arrive early to set the table. Provide a choice of what works for you, and let her pick among those.

You needn’t cower under the criticism or avoid expressing yourself. Unfortunately, avoidance will fester and make the next time all the more difficult. So you can calmly repeat, “We are upholding the holiday tradition as you wished, but your negativity and complaints are ruining the holiday. If it is so burdensome, we can rethink the way we do it. Meanwhile, I would appreciate it if you stopped picking on me. It turns this into a day that’s no fun.”

It is advisable not to engage in rancorous arguments. It may be that no matter what you do, your cousin will not approve, and will continue to resist reasonable accommodation. If so, you can choose to meet more than halfway, knowing that a good relationship with your relatives is the bigger goal.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: If relatives criticize you for doing the holidays the “wrong” way, be accommodating within reason, but set your limits.