Holiday Family Gatherings: It’s Time to Prepare For the Dysfunction

I think a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it. Author Mary Karr

That may be a stretch, but maybe you can see where I’m going with this. Although Thanksgiving has a great theme of expressing gratitude and sharing time with important others, holiday family gatherings sometimes bring not just joyful reunions but also dysfunctional misery and chaos.

After all, states therapist Harriet Lerner, Psychology Today: “Families are not fair and we don’t choose the one we are born or adopted into. Today a family is what most people are in recovery from.”

On the topic of survival over breaking bread together, some wise words from author Anne Lamott, Salon: “Families: hard, hard, hard, no matter how cherished and astonishing they may also be…At family gatherings where you suddenly feel homicidal or suicidal, remember that in half of all cases, it’s a miracle that this annoying person even lived. Earth is Forgiveness School. You might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants.”

For many, the Thanksgiving dinner is notable for all the overeating, over-imbibing, and overreacting. More quotes from some funny people:

David Letterman: “Thanksgiving is the day when you turn to another family member and say, ‘How long has Mom been drinking like this?’ My Mom, after six Bloody Marys looks at the turkey and goes, ‘Here, kitty, kitty’.”

Stephanie Howard: “My mom has a little nickname for [when I came out]. She calls it ‘the Thanksgiving that Stephanie ruined.’ All time is told in our family tree by this one day. I’ll go, ‘Hey Mom, what year did Grandpa have his heart surgery?’ ‘Well, let’s see. The Thanksgiving that you ruined was in ’92, so that means he had his surgery in ’67’.”

Bob Smith: “It wasn’t easy telling my family that I’m gay. I made my carefully worded announcement at Thanksgiving. It was very Norman Rockwell. I said, ‘Mom, would you please pass the gravy to a homosexual?’ She passed it to my father. A terrible scene followed.”

Every year TV shows and movies try to capture the spirit of Thanksgiving, some more realistically than others. In the now classic 1995 film Home for the Holidays (see previous post), at least one character’s attitude resonated with many viewers: “Nobody means what they say on Thanksgiving, Mom. You know that. That’s what the day’s supposed to be all about, right? Torture.”

An extra word on movies about holiday family gatherings: whether Thanksgiving or Christmas-themed, they don’t always work. In theaters now, the star-studded Love the Coopers, which comes with taglines that include “You can’t regift family” and “Be thankful the holidays only come around once a year,” is apparently one of the duds.

Susan Wloszczyna, rogerebert.com: “A third-grader would know there should be a comma after ‘Love’ since, as the holly-jolly folly of a cliché-engorged opening montage confirms, it refers to the clan’s preferred salutation on their greeting cards that duly employs, yes, a comma. As it stands, it sounds like a command. To which the correct response would be a resounding ho-ho-NO!—exclamation point included.”

Neil Genzlinger, New York Times: “Classic Christmas movies have a magic that can’t be manufactured, but ‘Love the Coopers’ desperately tries to do just that. It employs a familiar conceit — dysfunctional family gathers for holiday meal — and enlists recognizable actors to deliver it, but the result plays like a collection of ideas and jokes borrowed from other movies. The film is occasionally amusing but rarely feels genuine.”

Just in case you’re interested anyway, the trailer’s below:

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