OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Holiday tradition

Editor's note: Mike Masterson is taking the day off. The original version of this column was published Dec. 2, 2014.

Years ago, I had a relative by marriage who could be painfully honest.

For instance, upon arrival for another three-day holiday gathering at their home, he announced as we climbed the steps with two young children in tow: "Welcome! We're always glad to see you come. And we'll be glad to see you go."

Um. Say what, now?

All these decades later, I smile at his remark because I understand what he was saying with such brutal candor.

I believe many who hosted Thanksgiving gatherings and meals last week also can relate. Those responsible for organizing, preparing and producing these festive reunions find the experience enjoyable on one hand, but mind-numbing and exhausting on the other.

One morning their lives are sailing along in ways they've established as normal and familiar. The next day a full house, complete with children and perhaps a yappy--even snappy--pet or two, suddenly has transformed the hosts' world and home into a crowded, unfamiliar place.

None of this is said in criticism of our family gatherings and meals. After all, they are holiday traditions. It's simply based on my own candid observations after years of both hosting and attending.

Reality, unfortunately, often is far different than a Hallmark greeting. Imagine a handsome gift card with a snowy scene and warmly lit cottage that reads: "We're always glad to see you come! And we'll be just as glad to see you go!"

I've also noted how dynamics from the confusion and melee of these holiday visits have shifted dramatically over the years as divorces among family members and subsequent remarriages create blended families. That development can make things even more interesting, stressful and disorganized at holiday gatherings.

Truth is, while most family members can get along for a couple of days, some don't. One unhappy or negative person can spoil any event. The negativity becomes especially obvious when everyone suddenly is ensconced behind four walls and expected to be only positive.

Being the host also means you face the consequences of overlooking a more distant relative who would have appreciated the invitation. "Good grief, we forgot Aunt Minnie and cousin Eddie!"

Feelings also are easily bruised when sons and daughters who are now adults with children (and two sets of grandparents) must choose and juggle their holiday plans to please each side of the families. Your parents in the morning, then to mine for the evening? Vice versa?

I know this because over the decades I too have lived the scenario. Do we take squash casseroles or pumpkin pies to both?

The frustrations and tensions of trying to please everyone else's holiday desires can get worse, much worse, when shared grandchildren and related emotions get involved.

Those who host also often will purchase most of the meals, then prepare them. Many anticipate those chores since there's something seated deep in the collective psyche of nurturers (read: women) that provides deeper fulfillment from the aromas and creativity of all that emerges from their kitchen.

A significant number of hosts prefer to do the cooking in their own way and on a timetable that best fits their style. However, suddenly she's surrounded by those with their own preferred methods, all wanting to help. It's that too-many-cooks thing.

As beautiful and vibrant as children are, they also can add delightfully disrupting and annoying dimensions to a house unaccustomed to chasing and shouting, often as adults are trying to talk.

Kids will always be kids and parents are accustomed to their own. Yet for holiday hosts in middle age and beyond, the constant squeals and laughter can become, well, let's say a "mixed blessing" they haven't enjoyed in a long while.

A close friend who hosted her children and grandchildren this year released a deep breath after they waved goodbye to this fun and ever-attentive mother and Nana. Things were peaceful again. Time for the cleanup and return to normalcy before Christmas decorating. Whew!

"The cook never lacks for company on holidays," she said, smiling. "It's great for those who like to eat, but can be a physical, emotional and monetary challenge for the cook. My joy and reward is providing fond memories of family time for the kids."

No further questions, yer honor.

As for upsides to these family holiday weekends, there usually are some saintly family members willing to pitch in with necessary kitchen cleanups. And for the increasingly rarer ones who can keep their faces out of the blue glow of cell phones, families actually can spend time snapping photographs while catching up on life, times and precious memories.

One cousin reminded me this year that conversation and shared recollections were all we did in the years before cell phones.

Stay tuned, a merry Christmas is just around the corner.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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