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!