Picture this: A fir covered in twinkle lights is sagging in the corner. Garland hangs from the fireplace. A made-in-middle-school clay menorah (apparently a thing all Jewish families have?) rests on the kitchen table while a holiday movie in the background soundtracks the festive scene. And in the middle of the scene? Eight adults with nothing in common—well, except for the fact that we’re all sick of talking about what seems to be our sole common denominator: the weather.
For the first years (seriously, plural) my mom’s boyfriend and his family spent the holidays with us, the supposed most wonderful time of the year was marred by a near-palpable stink of awkwardness. Blending two families of grown-ass adults is a pretty tall order, and it certainly didn’t help that our broods couldn’t be more different than those on opposing sides of the great bed-making debate. Nothing felt safe to discuss—not politics, not social issues, not even hobbies. (Okay, we did agree on the issue of how awesome my mom’s Brussels sprouts are.)
Despite our best Brady Bunch-esque intentions, we were struggling—until one night when my mom’s BF whipped out Code Names. For the uninitiated, it’s a pretty simple board game wherein all players are divided into two teams. It’s strategic. It requires teamwork. And it’s mildly competitive.
And guess what? We had fun. There was laughter! Nobody said “wind chill” or “snow” or “wintry mix” for the full two hours we played! I may have even touched my moms BF’s arm with glee (rather than my usual M.O. of side-eying him with slight skepticism)! Since that fateful night, my modern family spends the holidays playing games. Sure, there’s still some awkwardness. But our gaming-tradition has helped create a feeling of togetherness that really just makes me want to scream “Yahtzee!” all the time.
“Games can help us take down some of our defenses and bring out our playful side, which can help us connect with the people we have to spend the holidays with.”—Aimee Barr, LCSW
Brooklyn-based psychotherapist Aimee Barr, LCSW, says this makes total sense. “Maybe in the past you’ve walked into these holiday gatherings wearing your Protective Daughter hat, and the boyfriend walked in wearing a Nervous New Boyfriend hat. Games can help us take down some of our defenses and bring out our playful side, which can help us connect with the people we have to spend the holidays with.” They might even make us better people.
IMO, Code Names is best. But Barr says a giant puzzle, cards, or Scrabble are good tension-melting options, too. Psychotherapist Courtney Glashow, LCSW, suggests a modified version of Jenga. “You can even write out questions on all of the wood pieces, then the person who grabs it has to answer the question.” She says What’s you’re favorite food? or What’s your first memory? or What was the best compliment someone has given you in the last year? are all fair game.
Glashow’s only suggestion? Keep the super-competitive, potentially offensive, and touchy-feely games out of the mix. Basically, just reserve Twister and Cards Against Humanity for your game night with besties.
Speaking of family, here’s how to stay Zen when holiday stress get’s the best of you. And don’t forget to stock up on these essential oils, which’ll help you conquer whatever the holidays throw at you.
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