Dealing with Family During the Holidays
by Dr. Michael Murphy

“You are coming over, right?”

A lot of proclamations are made about Christmas time. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” “It’s magical and joyous!” “It’s a hectic time… there’s so much to do!” “It brings up painful memories I’d rather forget.” “It’s the time when folks feel coerced to visit their insane family!”

Overall, it seems like Christmas time #1) isn’t the same for everyone and #2) is such a mixed bag for most, especially when it comes to family gatherings. But it’s going to happen, right? The family is getting together (and if you don’t have much of a family, or you’re estranged, not getting together also matters). A lot of people are excited about it and for good reasons. Old cousins, new grandkids, time-honored traditions, tasty foods… But a lot of people are not excited… and for good reason. Too much alcohol, too weak social filters, dysfunctional family dynamics… these are enough to make the visit unnerving.

Whether such get-togethers are mostly good or decidedly bad, it’s important not to miss the point of it all: the birth of Jesus Christ! Wow, how could I forget Him? Oh yeah, He’s why we have even a shred of hope and joy during Christmas time. And if that hope and joy happen to be in abundance for you, you might multiply it within your family. But we can’t forget the point. We can’t throw the Baby out with the apple pie that Aunt Marie just burned and who will now be in an unbearable mood for the rest of the day! But how?

Give yourself permission to put Christ at the center of Christmas. Its outlandish advice, to be sure, but putting God where He belongs and positioning ourselves around Him is always stabilizing and nourishing. When it comes to family gatherings (and the whole Christmas season), begin by locating Christ within you. Use external cues (such as a nice manger scene) or a crucifix as a reminder if you can. Surviving or flourishing is more achievable if your relationship with Christ is present and primary when family dysfunction emerges.

If you can locate Christ within you during this Christmas season, foster your awareness and connection with Him. Consider Confession, Advent songs, or Eucharistic adoration as powerful catalysts for this process. Prayerfully meditate on the daily Mass readings. Talk to Jesus in your heart about all this holiday season brings up for you.  These practices will not only draw you closer to God but also help you as you make decisions during the Christmas season. Important decisions that possibly don’t match expectations that other shave for you or that you have for yourself. Decisions like…

Which family gatherings do I attend? If Christ is the center of Christmas, then this is a valid question. If the hectic logistics of attending 4 family gatherings in 3 days cause significant anxiety, it may be time to simplify. Foster the priority of celebrating the birth of Christ within your family. Prayerfully consider His will for you this Christmas. For some, this could mean greater involvement and investment in family gatherings. For others, this may mean less family involvement and more time in prayer, worship, and charitable works. If you’re not sure, set aside some quiet time with Him and ask.

But I have to be there! There is no decision! If I don’t go there will be consequences… Some circumstances are complicated and indeed consequences are certain to follow if someone “rocks the boat” and doesn’t come to the family Christmas party. Consider if these consequences are something you can live with or if they are a part of your growing pains towards healthy individuation from your extended family. If you are going to be there, prayerfully holding onto Christ is all the more important. Let Him weather the storm with you.

How long should I stay? We all have our limits. When preparing to attend family functions, honestly consider – given your current state – how long you can interact charitably with those in attendance. This does not mean how long you think you should be able to be charitable but how long you can actually be charitable right now. It also does not necessarily mean as long as people are charitable towards you. Indeed, we are called to bear with others patiently and extend forgiveness generously.  Nonetheless, if a relative is particularly difficult, and you are struggling to remain in a loving frame of mind, consider talking to someone else or switching rooms. Decide ahead of time about how much time you want to spend there, stick to your plan, and reflect on the experience later. Find out how much charity you are capable of sowing and accept your limitations.

What should I do proactively during these gatherings to make it better for me and my family?  While you can’t change or determine who will be at a big family gathering, what you engage in once you’re there is open-ended. Consider what typically happens at the gathering, which might involve preparing food and socializing. For the sake of keeping Christ in Christmas and keeping your own sense of peace and joy, what would you like to change or add? Could you start a“find the wise men” hiding game with the younger kids, not only to enrich their awareness of baby Jesus but also to give you a break from the adults? Maybe play a board game with the teenagers? Is there a member of the family you don’t know much about, or an in-law that is newer to the family? It might be worth shaking things up a little and showing some benign curiosity. They may feel just as refreshed as you to have some genuine, positive attention instead of getting lost in the usual family dynamics.

We all need to find Christ somewhere in our mixed bag of Christmas. He is the beginning of our hope and the only substantial bulwark we have against the anxiety that weighs us down during this busy season. And more than that, He is our salvation after the storms have come and gone! Let us work to welcome Him in our hearts and in the hearts of those around us.