(Don’t) Have a Very Scary Christmas

I’ve been thinking about holiday family gatherings after reading an article about family tensions during this time of year. Boiling it all down, I think that a lack of tension in the air is the greatest contributor to a joyful family get-together. Just relaxing and enjoying good conversations can be one of the great blessings of the holiday seasons.

Last Christmas Tom and I went to visit his uncle and aunt who live about an hour away. I will always remember that delightful afternoon as we sat in their sun room watching the wildlife out their big windows. They are a couple who are still in love after so many years. Their home exudes a peace and welcoming that speaks of all their happy years together and of the love of their adult children who adore them. (Will still talks about a trip to their house last summer where they sat on their porch and just talked and watched the rain come down. That’s family time at its finest.)

Getting back to the holidays, it is evident from the number of articles on family tensions at this time that it is a real problem for many. Uncle Hank is sitting in the corner sulking because nobody will give him the attention he believes he deserves as he attempts to tell his much-worn and much-embellished stories about his service in Vietnam. Aunt Gigi doesn’t like her niece’s new tattoo and is tight-lipped after making trenchant comments about it to her sister, the girl’s mother, and getting short shrift. Uncle Max is laughing that horrible booming laugh that is so loud it makes the candy dish rattle on the coffee table and shuts down conversation every few minutes. Cousin Ricky is inveighing against Barack Obama to his 40 closest relatives – relatives who have voted a straight Democratic ticket for 3 generations. Adult siblings are eyeing each other with barely veiled hostility and making pointed remarks that keep the conversation one comment away from an explosion. And hey, these are just the ‘Christian’ families!

My attitude towards this kind of circus is why bother? What is the point of getting together for gladiator sessions against a backdrop of red and green Christmas lights? Sitting and enjoying conversation last night with my sister and her family and seeing the cousins having fun together, I was reminded of how priceless such times really are. In an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance (the right kind), relationships flourish and get-togethers are infused with joy and love. These are the times our children will want to remember.

Here is my advice to those who are in families where the wars begin even before a family gathers in the glow of the Christmas lights (arguments over location, timing, who’s doing most of the work, who is out-manipulating the others to achieve their own dysfunctional ends, etc. etc.)

1. We are under no obligation to gather socially with those who have a track record of creating Very Scary Christmases, family or not. God never requires us to become human punching bags for those who live in misery as a lifestyle choice.

2. We need to reflect on the impact such poisonous parties have on our children. If you have unresolved, unhealthy and destructive dynamics in your family of origin and they come out at these gatherings, don’t model passive acceptance of abuse. Either draw some boundary lines ahead of time or don’t attend. And don’t take on false guilt because you didn’t go.

3. I have heard some people say that their non-Christian relatives use holiday family get togethers to offend them in every way possible. Who needs this? Masochism is not a family value. Stay home, make hot cocoa and put on some Christmas carols. Your children will thank you!

4. The romanticizing of this time of year (think the Hallmark Channel) creates ridiculous expectations that nearly always fail to come to pass. In toxic families, why make a mockery of Christ’s Incarnation – rooted in love – by showing up either as a human offering to the ritual holiday sacrifice or by participating in Christmas cage fighting with your professing Christian relatives. Joy to the World. I hate you. Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men. I despise the ground you walk on. Seriously?

Most people have unhealthy dynamics in their families of some kind. Christmas can be a time to show forgiveness and forbearance, and we should show our hospitality and love any chance that we get. In extreme cases where an otherwise happy time is turned into a low-budget episode of Jerry Springer, save your heart and your mind, and avoid repeating past mistakes. Make your own happiness where you are emotionally safe. Let your children see you model self-respect and good boundaries. Leave the Very Scary Christmases behind and have a blessed and happy remembrance of Christ’s birth instead!

6 thoughts on “(Don’t) Have a Very Scary Christmas

  1. Diane says:

    I came to your website through wordpress tags and wanted to thank you for your article. This ‘Jerry Springer’ holiday thing has discouraged us from wanting to go to our family’s upcoming Christmas gathering. They use guilt every year to get us there and then we feel like we’re having to fight for survival emotionally the whole time due to ongoing bad relations with my father-in-law. Every year it ends up with me leaving in tears and my husband getting angry. Your article was just what I needed to realize this and see the situation with new eyes. Our two 9-year-olds don’t need to witness this every year either. Thanks for this thoughtful article. Merry Christmas to you!

  2. Jean Selden says:

    Dear Ingrid:

    Well said. It is so sad that these awful Christmas family gatherings reign supreme in Christian families.

    I am with you. Slow down and value the time you spend and who you spend it with. Maybe the rude relatives might realize when sitting all alone at the holidays that there is a reason they are alone. The power of abuse should never be fed for the sake of guilt or obligation.

    We have severely curtailed our family obligations to avoid stress and pain during this season.

    We also cherish our memories of time spent with our loved ones over a good cup of coffee. We have forsaken gift giving for time spent just being with the ones we chose to be with. Memories are much more important than things.

    I just lost my oldest sister a month ago. I am so glad that our holiday memories remain of cooking, laughing, drinking good coffee and sharing the blessings of God.

    God bless your family this season. Thank you for your ministry. You have helped and encouraged many.

    In Christ Alone,

  3. Ingrid Schlueter says:

    Jean, I was looking at some interesting websites of abandoned homes around the country today – some fascinating photos (http://www.photographyblogger.net/30-cool-abandoned-house-pictures/) and I was thinking of all the families that lived in those houses and how they’re all gone now. All of us are writing our stories, and there is no time for foolishness and grudge-holding. Soon we will all be gone and all the silliness and trivial things that seemed so important will be gone with us. We don’t know how much time we have, so why waste a moment? The relationship you and your sister had is something you can always treasure. Why would we want anything else, especially if we claim to be Christians?

  4. Lisa Green Kentala says:

    Ingrid – I totally agree! My youngest sister has been poisonous at holiday gatherings over the last several years and I resolved to not be sucked into that ever again. It turns out I didn’t have to do a thing – she recently contacted another family member and says she no longer celebrates any holidays. As much as I shake my head over this, I am relieved for the rest of us. We can now have a much more pleasant atmosphere! Some people delight in making others as miserable as they are. I am too old to be around people like that 🙂

  5. Stacey says:

    While we are blood related to certain people truth is that our real family is those who love us and care about us. Being single the only real family I have are not from my birth relatives who want nothing to do with me. My long time friend invites me to her family’s home for Christmas and New Years and I’ve been going now for 10 years. They treat me like one of their own. Just because we are genetically related to someone doesn’t guarantee anything and sometimes it means nothing at all when it comes to having someone care about you.

  6. Carol Hobbs says:

    I am spending a little extra time today trying to catch up on my reading. I wish I had read this earlier. I’ve experienced another miserable Christmas season. It has become progressively worse over the past several years. We do this because it is made very clear that attendance is not optional and we feel obligated to our parents who are elderly and in poor health. It’s quite complicated, so I won’t go into detail. I will say that the examples you gave seem to mirror our dysfunctional gatherings. Actually, your fictional family sounds a bit less hostile than our family. I told myself that I was being a good example to my adult children and my grandchildren by tolerating the situation. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and insight.

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