During my weekly grocery shopping excursion, I noticed a store clerk frantically organizing boxes of shiny ornaments and hanging up tinsel in the seasonal department. That’s when I realized, Oh, wow, it’s that time of year again. For some reason, nine months out of the year, most of us can successfully postpone the thought of the holidays, because we live in the moment or perhaps would rather ignore the encroachment of Thanksgiving and Christmas. I, however, happen to be one of those eccentrics who loves every single holiday. My oldest daughter, Felicity, and I are “Christmas buddies,” sometimes singing festive tunes in July just to lift our spirits and build anticipation of the upcoming season.
While it’s true that many of us enjoy spending time with our families of origin and relish those annual traditions of food and fanfare, some of us actually dread this time of year. Spending time with family can be stressful at best, toxic at worst. And some of us do not have family with whom to gather around the table, argue and nitpick, or laugh and share. Our western culture is infatuated with the idea that holidays must include extended family all nestled in one very suffocating, enclosed space for a few days just to preserve tradition. But there’s nothing that our Catholic tradition states in regards to this way of celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas. In order to understand (and discern) how or even if you would like to spend your time with others during the holidays, it’s important to take some time for thoughtful conversation with God.
Here are some ways of surviving the holidays with grit and grace:
Who is “Family” to You?
While families of origin are the go-to people for annual celebrations, they aren’t always the most emotionally healthy people with whom to spend your time. I’m not one to suggest shunning your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins for years at a time, but I do realize that some family dynamics can invoke frustration, fear, anxiety, and even depression. Let’s face it: Does anyone want to spend Thanksgiving Day feeling like that? We’re blessed to have the few days off for rest and enjoyment, so I believe we should use that time prudently so that we can restore not only our bodies but also our souls.
Remind yourself that family doesn’t necessarily mean biological relatives. Family can include close friends or neighbors with whom you share an affinity. Recently I lamented to a priest during Confession that I really wished my in-laws made more of an effort to spend time with us. It’s been years since we’ve even seen them, and the few times we sporadically Skype with them are superficial and insipid. The priest put everything in perspective for me when he said, “Think of the word affinity. There are some people with whom you share an affinity, and others with whom you don’t. Don’t focus on the people who have no affinity for you, but spend time with those that do.”
Think of the people in your life who draw you closer to God, encourage and inspire you, make you laugh, and challenge you with love. Consider the fruits of the relationships in your life: Are they bearing holy fruit, such as patience, kindness, self-control, or peace? Or do you feel shallow, angst-ridden, disturbed, and despondent after spending time with them? While we are called to honor our parents, we are not required to spend the holidays with them. Spend time with the people who are closer to you in heart than in origin, and you will find yourself refreshed rather than depleted when Christmas comes to a close.
Tip: Don’t avoid seeing your family of origin because of unresolved conflict. Instead, take your feelings and perhaps even unforgiveness to Confession before the holidays arrive so that you can approach your loved ones with a fresh perspective.
Use the Holidays As An Opportunity to Grow in Virtue
If you decide you’ll take the trek across the country to see Gram and Gramps or Mom and Dad, do so with forethought and confidence rather than begrudgingly. No one wants to get together with someone who walks in the door with a bad attitude. Now is the time to start rehearsing how you will respond if someone asks that inappropriate question or makes that embarrassing statement. The best thing to do is understand two things: One is that all of us are fallible, and two is that we are all in different places on our life’s journey. Approach the people who love you (and hopefully whom you love, as well) with compassion.
If someone asks you a question that makes you feel uncomfortable, you can politely decline to answer it by stating that you’d rather not discuss it right now. Sometimes you will receive a snarky retort, but you can keep your cool. Say a silent prayer to Our Lady to assist you in your hour of need. Call upon St. Michael for spiritual protection if a battle ensues. Ask the Holy Spirit to guard your tongue. Just because your relatives are loose with their comments does not mean you have to respond similarly.
The same is true when those awkward family moments pop up. You don’t have to participate in those conversations. If things get too heated between Aunt Gina and Uncle Greg, you can quietly slip out of the room. It’s perfectly acceptable to take a breather when you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or those old insecurities rear their ugly heads. Take that time to go for a leisurely walk or spend a few moments reading an inspirational Scripture passage that will renew your resolve to be charitable to your family. Remember that you can be the example of kindness when no one else chooses to be.
Tip: Use the extra days off of work to attend daily Mass if you have the opportunity. The Sacrament will give you the fortitude to face whatever travails assail you during the holiday season.
Set Appropriate Boundaries And Stick to Them
Some people prefer to spend Christmas solo, contemplating the birth of Jesus in solitude. If you are one of those people, don’t be apologetic about it! It is quite possible to appease your family’s or friends’ requests to partake in their yearly traditions while also responding to God’s prompting for time with Him. You simply need to come up with your boundaries, communicate them clearly, and honor them.
You may decide to stay in a hotel rather than sleep in your old bedroom at Mom and Dad’s house. Perhaps you choose to visit for two days instead of four; then you can spend the remaining two days resting, engaging a long-lost hobby, or in prayer. It’s important to remember that moderation is a healthy concept at all times of the year, particularly when our culture convinces us that we need to be busier. Don’t expect your family to understand, agree with, or appreciate your boundaries. Be charitable but firm if you encounter opposition, and you will not lose your inner peace.
Reminder: Boundaries are often the emotional lines we draw to keep us safe. While many of us feel guilty or even believe we are un-Christian by saying “no” to our loved ones, it’s actually a gesture of self-respect to do so without regret. That’s not to say we can bulldoze over everyone else’s feelings; rather, consider the possibility of how others may feel and how you can still honor their desire to spend time with you while still feeling secure.
The truth is you don’t have to dread the upcoming days of feasting and festivity. Stay focused on the deeper meaning of Thanksgiving (e.g., Eucharist) and Christmas (Christ Mass), and you will likely not succumb to the antics of family members who don’t share your love of Jesus and the Church. Keep in mind that you weren’t immaculately conceived, either, which may help you maintain a sense of level-headedness when you find yourself annoyed by their comments and aggravating behavior. Holidays are truly holy days, so spend the next couple of weeks discerning how God is calling you to keep them holy even in the midst of potential disaster.
Holiness within us grows when we are willing to encounter imperfect people in imperfect situations. Challenges present us with opportunities to confront our weaknesses and temptations. Consider how the holidays may help you grow in sanctification, and your positive perspective might be your saving grace this year.