Get you something to eat?
Drive you out to the middle of nowhere?
Leave you for dead?
Cousin Eddie: Oh, I'm doing just fine, Clark.
In the spirit of family, I've spent the last month polling folks about the most difficult situations they usually encounter over the holidays. Here's what people had to say:
- I lost a family member this year.
- My aunt and uncle (or parents, siblings, etc.) divorced and things are tense.
- We can't seem to plan anything in advance. Decision making is chaotic and stressful.
- They smoke around my kids.
- My parent is bringing his/her new boyfriend/girlfriend to the house.
- We all eat and drink too much.
- My family lives too far away. I never know what to buy them for gifts.
- We barely talk all year long and then spend a week together. It's awkward.
- I spend too much money.
- My family member has a drug/drinking problem.
- I get lonely.
- They don't approve of my lifestyle and can't get past it.
- She/He's unhappy with life and their complaining is miserable.
As someone who's persevered through quite a few family transitions in my own life and counseled families navigating their own challenges, I've noticed trends. There are specific things people do on purpose that help them to feel peace through the holidays.
Here are some practical tips to keep JOY around this season:
1. Refuse to take anything personally.
There are no other people on this planet who can push hot buttons faster than close family and friends, especially when we're all sleeping under the same roof! As my father-in-law likes to say with a laugh, "I don't care who you are. Everybody starts to stink after the first three days together."
When we gather, it's normal to fall back into the old habits, thinking, and ways of communicating that we were accustomed to growing up. You can thank this phenomenon for loads of marital skirmishes (especially for newlyweds).
It's also normal for some of our new customs to feel foreign to the families we grew up in. We left our homes and came to our own conclusions about the world. The majority of us have opinions that conflict with a loved one's. That's ok.
Sometimes it feels like agreement is required for acceptance in our families. That being said, we can surely work to accept one another lovingly even with differing opinions. We're not robots, after all. That acceptance begins with us. Faith-filled and leading the way, we have the opportunity to set the tone.
Our own feelings remain personal to us, but we can't take other people's feelings personally.
We'll have disagreements, there's no doubt about it. Catalogue and acknowledge them. Should somebody suggest we change our way of doing things, then a conversation can be had at a later time.
Prayer, conferring with our partners or children, and clear heads are a "must" for anything beneficial to come of emotionally charged conversations. Refuse to be offended, as in:
Thanks for your opinion about our parenting, Aunt Ethel. I'll run your ideas past my husband when we get a quiet moment.
The kindest, most peaceful people I know are flexible planners. They schedule activities on the calendar, but they don't feel like they have to complete every last task on their own. They advocate for traditions but are OK if new ones are made.
What does that look like practically? Here are ideas from some wise ladies I've known over the years:
- Plan for each side of the family to be responsible for a dinner and an activity one night of the visit. Delegate shopping to whomever is in charge of the evenings events. Stock the fridge with items in advance and do self-serve style breakfast and midday meals.
- Preplan one or two family outings so that nobody is stuck sitting around staring at one another and tempted to debate religion or politics. Put it on the calendar and let everybody pack and prepare in their own way.
- Get tight on sleeping arrangements and keep the kids' schedules as routine as possible. There's nothing like exhausted, overextended families to add fuel to an argument!
- Transition to "secret" gifting or spending limits for giving. Money disagreements are a big deal this time of year. Plan to "eat in" if finances are a problem and ask every guest to pitch in time or groceries.
- Organize meals "potluck" style among family members to spread out kitchen work.
- Take a break from the mess of cooking for tons of people and pick a beautiful restaurant that everyone will enjoy.
3. Learn to Set Healthy Boundaries
Loving ourselves and others well requires us to say "no" sometimes. It's a common feeling that we should tolerate whatever behavior is thrown at us around the holidays for the sake of the greater "family" good. Have you ever felt trapped and defeated at Christmas?
What should we do when Grandpa drinks too much or your sister's kids are breaking household items with no consequence? The love of who a person is and how they choose to behave is not one in the same. Our loved ones are not the enemy, but sometimes their vices and hang-ups are. We get stuck in habits that aren't always good for us. Here are some examples of how to break out of them.
To a family member who's abusing substances and can't function:
We love seeing you and can't wait for you to be here at Christmas. Know that you're welcome to stay as long as you'd like, but that we won't be drinking or serving alcohol. I wanted to tell you in advance and we hope you're still able to make it!
To the parents whose kids are trashing the house:
We love that the kids are having such a great time, but we want to be honest. We feel pretty disrespected that they broke (insert household item here) and never apologized. Can you take care of that with them please? We love having you guys here but need you to respect our home.
Boundaries say to others, "I don't view you negatively, the way you view yourself. I won't contribute to your harm and I'll stand up for your health."
They also speak, "I refuse to be a bystander as others bring harm to me or my family. I'll speak up for my household. I'm willing to step away should things not improve."
The benefit is two-fold when we speaking lovingly and with care. Our loved ones are oh-so-welcome, but we can take a gentle stand against unhealthy activities. I would also hope that should we be the ones who need a heart change, we'd be able to receive correction humbly and with respect for the boundaries of others.
Let's begin praying now, well before these situations unfold and ask God to guide us as we lead our families through the festivities this season. Let's powwow with our partners and come up with a fun game plan for the holidays.
Most of all, cheers to Christ who conquered the dark drama of the world in one fail swoop!
Peace, Joy, and Drama-free!
2. What is your biggest challenge?
3. What steps need to be taken to plan for your unique family's holiday?
"Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end." (Prov. 29:11)
"But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it." 1 Timothy 6:6-7
"In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry..." (Eph. 4:26)
"A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?" (Eccl. 2:24-25)
"Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." (Eph. 4:32)