It sounds like your growing up experience with holidays was truly a nightmare. Holidays bring out the best and worst in people. In alcoholic families or families with other serious emotional dysfunction holidays can be especially rough. Expectations are high and inhibitions are low. People “cut loose” and the results are often disastrous. Naturally, even the word “holiday” conjures up bad feelings and memories.
Now you are faced with a totally foreign situation—it sounds like your girlfriend has a fairly functional family that likes to celebrate the holidays and is really into them. You, on the other hand, are probably still suffering a lot of PTSD (post-traumatic stress) from your long history of traumatic family holiday experiences. These automatic reactions do not go away overnight just because you are now presented with the possibility of a better family situation.
You have a few options. First, it is important to talk with your girlfriend (if you haven’t already) about your history and experiences with holidays. If her experiences have been quite different from yours, she may have trouble understanding exactly how painful your experiences have been. However, even the healthiest of families have tension during the holidays from time to time. Uncle Derek isn’t talking to his son and his son refuses to attend Christmas if his father is going to be there. Someone feels slighted because they want to host the Christmas Eve celebration but the in-laws are getting to do it this year. So-and-so is going to get more time with the grandchildren than someone else in the family. As trivial as these issues may seem to you, they might give your girlfriend a point of reference for how unpleasant holidays can be.
The two of you need to have a frank discussion about your feelings of not wanting to participate in her family’s holiday celebrations. You have the right not to participate in anything you don’t want to do, but the real question may be what you really want out of your relationships with your girlfriend and her family in the long-run. If you think the relationship has real promise you may wish to participate at least to a minimal degree with an eye toward building up a new, more positive set of associations with the holidays.
It’s probably not wise to spend endless hours or days being with her family. You will need time to step back and process the complicated feelings that are likely to arise as you have new holiday experiences. Getting to know someone else’s extended family can be a challenge in and of itself. Hopefully your partner will understand what you are trying to do and be as understanding and accepting of your pace and needs as possible. It isn’t necessary for her to limit the time she chooses to spend with her family, only that she also be sensitive to the fact that your needs and your history are different from hers and patience is necessary for your experience of the holidays to change in a positive direction.