A Survivor's Guide to Holiday Traditions and Traumas

Now might be a good time to tell your family to fuck off.

Elisabeth Ovesen | NYT Bestselling Author
Published in
8 min readNov 24, 2021


Spending the holidays with your dog might be healthier than with your family. (Illustration: Noon/Rawpixel)

Well, folks, it's that time of year again––the holidays. It's the time of year when you not-so-gleefully indulge in 30 pounds of ham over a belaboring three-week period even though you swore off meat ten months ago. It's your aunt's bourbon-glazed ham, and she's made it every year for as long as you can remember. If you don't eat it, she'll feel offended and harken back to all the “starving kids in Africa” you've heard about ever since you threw out that egg salad sandwich in pre-school. Your mother makes the macaroni and cheese, a recipe handed down from your grandmother. It's drenched in butter and cream and four kinds of cheeses that you'll feel forced to eat, even though you quit dairy right before the pandemic. You offered to bring healthier alternatives but were met with mockery and shaming.

"I ain't eatin' no damn Tofurkey and fake cheese!" your nana insisted with a bang of her cane. She's contributing the candied yams this year. You're a vegetarian now, so you were looking forward to the sweet, orange, potato-y goodness of this beloved holiday dish until your grandmother revealed her secret ingredient––neck bones. The woman puts neck bones in everything.

Your creepy uncle is invited to dinner this year. You, know, the one who hugs you a little too long? Since you were a teenager, he's never missed a chance to comment on how voluptuous you've gotten and how much you remind him of his third wife, Irene. She had a "rack you could eat a steak dinner off of," apparently. Still, instead of excluding this creepster and helping to make you and other young women in the family feel safe this holiday season, Uncle Moe Lester will be seated right next to you because, after all, "he's family."

The Trump presidency is over, but Biden isn't cuttin' the mustard, according to your dad. He and your uncles are sure to start an argument about who's the lesser of all the evils in politics. Your mother and aunts will undoubtedly hold a town hall meeting on why you can't "keep a man" and how unnatural it is not to want children. Your cousins will be busy betting on whatever sports are on this year, and everything will go smoothly until someone loses a shit ton of money and doesn't want to pay up. Then, they'll start fighting, and your nana will grab a broom and tell them to "take that shit outside!" But, still, no one's going to kick Uncle Moe out even after he tells your teenage niece she reminds him of his second wife, Gertty.

There are traditions, but there are no rules. Spend your holidays however! (Illustration: Noon/Rawpixel)

Families, am I right? For some people, they're the best––the non-toxic lifeblood and support every human deserves. For others, families are an unrelenting fountainhead of lifelong trauma, anxiety, and disrespect. For the latter, holiday gatherings and traditions can be triggering. So, being without their families during the initial pre-vaccination year of the pandemic was heavenly. In that time, those who have needed respite and healing found just that. As a result, most of us have created new traditions with our significant others, children, friends, and most trusted family members––traditions that differ vastly from how we did things in the before times.

Not only have we learned what is considered essential, but whom. In 2020, we were forced to change the way we live and work. And while most of us were jarred by the initial transitions, as with all things, we grew accustomed to them over time. We have perfected these changes and acclimated so seamlessly that we refuse to go back to the way things used to be. Many of us are happier now, working at home in our pajamas and limiting our interactions. Those who found it difficult to erect personal and professional boundaries were given Covid as a universal excuse and learned to say no because of it. As deadly and disorienting as this time has been, many survivors are grateful to be alive, counting nothing small, and are better for the wear. However, as we prepare for our first vaccination-optional holiday season with widely-accessible testing, we are freer to gather now than in the previous year. This means there are fewer excuses to be made for dodging family. So, in preparation for what may be a stressful time of year, here are some concepts to consider:

  • Just because someone is related to you doesn't make them family, and just because someone is family doesn't give them the right to disrespect and disregard your emotional well-being.
  • If you want to celebrate the holidays with vegan mac and cheese dotted with organic peas, served up with a slice of Tofurkey, you have earned the right to do so, and no one has the right to mock you for your healthy choices.
  • You have the right to celebrate the holidays any way you want, or to not celebrate them at all. Just because there are traditions doesn't mean there are rules.
  • You have the right to come away from how things have always been in your family. You can start your own set of traditions or fly by the seat of your pants if you so choose. You should not be or feel pressured into carrying on traditions that make you uncomfortable or do not speak to who you are today.
  • You have the right not to discuss your personal life, plans, or goals with unsupportive family members and not to be pressured into trajectories that don't speak to your specific needs or desires. You don't have to date, get married, or have children. You don't have to be a nurse or a doctor, a lawyer, or whatever anyone else expects from you. You don't have to explain yourself to anyone or sit and listen to their opinions. Do you, boo-boo!
  • You have the right to act and talk like a grown-up in a room full of elders and not be treated like a child. Family should treat you with the same respect you have come to expect from other adults in the world. You shouldn't stand for being dismissed, scolded, or shunned by anyone, regardless of their age or position in your family. You deserve as much respect as any elder.
  • Although you are part of a familial unit, you are — first and foremost — an individual with your own needs, wants, and feelings. So this holiday season, honor yourself above all else no matter how many eye-rolls you get.
Cat lover? No problem. Enjoy the Mew Year with Fluffy if that's what feels right. (Illustration: Noon/Rawpixel)

While the latter months are touted as "the most wonderful time of the year," the holiday season is a horrible season for many. For those who usually dread spending holidays with their families, this time can be a tipping point for their mental health and emotional well-being. Holiday triggers and holiday-associated trauma are no laughing matter. Usually, there is an uptick in attempted and completed suicides during the holiday season, as well as calls to suicide prevention hotlines. This is not to say that being mocked for your vegan macaroni and cheese or for putting raisins in the potato salad will send you into a suicidal spiral. However, it's this sort of microaggression that chips away at one's self-esteem and worth over time.

As with any microaggression, having your feelings, ideas, choices, and contributions disrespected, disregarded, and dismissed may seem insignificant at first. You've probably made excuses for members of your family like, "that's just the way she is," or "he's just old and cranky." And while these sentiments may be true, they still don't give someone the right to make you feel unheard, unsupported, or uncomfortable. So, if you find yourself feeling this way when you're with members of your family during the holiday season or at any time throughout the year, try this three-pronged approach:

  1. Identify your trauma triggers. If you're feeling anxious, afraid, or hesitant about gathering with family this season, write a list of what or who is prompting those feelings for you. Maybe it's being mocked for your diet, questions about your romantic life, or jabs about your weight. Perhaps it's seeing an abusive family member or the anticipation of the arguments that happen every time your family gathers. Whatever it is, be brutally honest with yourself and write it all down.
  2. Practice radical self-care. In situations such as this, a spa day isn't going to solve anything. Self-care isn't always about pampering ourselves and fixing what's on the outside as a way to soothe the more significant issues inside. Sometimes, we have to take care of ourselves from the inside out. Radical self-care is the kind that tends to make other people feel uncomfortable because it doesn't include them. This brand of self-care may purposefully exclude some people temporarily or even eliminate them from your life completely. Take a look at your list of trauma triggers. If everything and everyone on that list cannot be removed from your familial holiday plans, you, my love, will have to remove yourself.
  3. Set boundaries for your family. Most people have a difficult time telling their families to fuck off. And while you may or may not say it quite like that, there is probably at least one person, experience, or tradition in your family you would rather live and celebrate without. Let your family know what you will and will not be available for this holiday season. If you'd rather have a small brunch with the women of your family and skip the large family dinner, do that. If you'd rather spend the day with your significant other and their family, do that! If you'd rather be with your spouse and your children without introducing them into the chaos that is your dysfunctional family, by all means, do that. Celebrate how you want with whom you want and put your family and other loved ones on notice that you will not accept judgments of any kind.

Now may be an excellent time to ask yourself, is it a tradition or a trauma? So much of what we put up with from our dysfunctional families in the name of tradition is actually scarring us for life. Whether it's the creepy uncle who dresses as Santa every Christmas and pressures all the ladies to sit on his lap or the drunk auntie who always starts a fight by kissing someone else's husband on New Year's Eve, enough is enough. Times have changed, and if you want to order a pizza and catch up on your shows this Thanksgiving, instead of trying and failing to live up to the expectations of your family, treat yo'self. You've earned it.



Elisabeth Ovesen | NYT Bestselling Author
Writer for

3x New York Times bestselling author, art enthusiast, and design girlie living between Los Angeles and New York City