Chag-tied: On the Stress of Holiday Invitations

The situation: Daniel and Rachel are happily married, with one darling 2-year old boy. They live a fairly stress-free life, their relationship is strong, and they’re the kind of couple that posts vacation photos on Facebook even though it’s like late October. But wait – the Jewish holidays are approaching. Suddenly, issues arise. Both sets of grandparents want a visit, they have five invitations for the same meal demanding an immediate response, and they still owe another 10 people invitations from last year’s holidays.

So how do Daniel and Rachel handle this situation? As one might expect: By carefully reviewing their options, always keeping in mind the importance of putting one’s own family first, and reaching a rational decision that, while disappointing to some, ultimately maintains a perfect balance of mental health and communal fulfillment.

Okay, I’m obviously joking. In reality, Daniel and Rachel will try to make everyone happy by overbooking themselves, attend numerous meals whose main course appears to be made up of an entire herd of cattle, and end the holiday season finally understanding why people go bankrupt to stay in a kosher Ramada Inn.

For many, dealing with the stress of conflicting commitments during the Jewish holiday season can be daunting. It certainly was for me. See, in my family, the calendar was always organized around who would be at my parents’ house for which holiday. Getting everyone together was viewed as a necessary goal, whose success we would celebrate by screaming at each other at the table about politics. Whether it was during college, graduate school, work, or a root canal, you were expected to be home. Death itself, presumably, was not an excuse.

Of course, life gets in the way, and getting everyone together for every single holiday became untenable. So my family started getting creative, including by promising visits for certain holidays in exchange for missing others. Soon a market established itself: one Passover equaled two Sukkots, one Rosh Hashanah equaled three Purims, and one Lag Ba’Omer equaled nothing because it’s not a real holiday. I would promise to visit during Shavuot, knowing that I was now off the hook for either Simchat Torah, Hannukah, or two cousins’ weddings. (Though technically not “holidays,” family weddings were similarly viewed as mandatory events. Which makes sense, as they too were excuses to come together, eat too much, and rip on relatives not present.) Non-Jewish holidays were also fair game, leading to weird valuations like three Thanksgivings for, say, one Yom Kippur. Given enough time, I can only assume that a secondary market of derivative holiday trading would develop.

As you can imagine, this system is not a very effective method of determining how to schedule oneself for the holidays. And the issue compounds itself after marriage, when two warring factions compete for family attendance. Now you have two entirely separate clans to keep happy, the failure of which can be catastrophic. If you’ve ever watched Game of Thrones and wondered how petty family disputes can lead to such colossal destruction, try watching two sets of parents discuss holiday planning in a WhatsApp group.

So how does one manage? Fear not, for I am here to give you some useful tips to help navigate this treacherous terrain:

TIP 1: Set a rotation. The goal is to set expectations early, which you can do by setting a schedule for holiday visits both this year and beyond. You can make Passover the yearly holiday for family X, and Sukkot for family Y. Or each family would take turns getting Rosh Hashanah. Or give your family a pick of one holiday per year. This both assures that each family knows what they’re getting each year, and prevents you from having to do something drastic in order to avoid drama, like disowning your family.

TIP 2: Disown your family. By far the simplest approach. No family, no familial obligations. Unfortunately, this also means no free babysitting, no free meals, and no free randomly sent chain emails from 2002.

TIP 3: Offer to host. If the thought of traveling by plane stresses you out (meaning: you are a normal human being), then turn the tables by offering to host your guests. This brilliant maneuver is sure to take your family off-guard. They, like you, ALSO have no interest in traveling for a family event, and will be forced to struggle with the same dilemma you just punted onto them. Just beware that they may call your bluff, in which case see Tip #2.

TIP 4: Go solo. By this I mean only the child from the inviting family need attend the holiday, while the spouse and/or rest of the family can remain at home. This greatly improves the logistics of traveling, as one person can show up to the airport well in advance of the flight, with plenty of time to buy a coffee and one of those $8 dollar Chex Mix baggies, while a family with kids can show up six hours in advance and still somehow only just make the gate (along with $32 dollars’ worth of Chex Mix). Simplify matters by sending a single sacrificial lamb…uh, willing and loving family member.

TIP 5: Stand up for yourself. This is obviously the correct answer, one that everyone struggles with from time to time. Care for our families, particularly our parents, is a beautiful ethos consistently emphasized in Jewish culture and practice, and the importance we place on holiday gatherings is its natural consequence. But it’s also one that can feel like a burden, particularly when forced to make difficult choices about how to allocate one’s free time, which adulthood seems to diminish each year. Rather than simply negate oneself by trying to satisfy all familial requests, we should remember that we have the right to do what’s best for ourselves and our families, even if it means affirming family bonds in different, more uncertain ways. Infusing a sense of flexibility into the inherent inflexibility of the Jewish calendar is undoubtedly a daunting task, but allowing all parties to come together out of a feeling of want and accommodation, rather than of obligation, can replace the anxiety so often associated with holiday travel with the sense of togetherness family gatherings are meant to nurture.

So whether it’s during this holiday season or next, be sure to remember these tips before agreeing to drive home when you have a work project deadline, or agreeing to the three-stopover flight with Spirit (motto: “Flying With Us Destroys Yours”) in order to save $20 bucks. Just don’t blame me on the WhatsApp group. Chag Sameach!