Find Harmony This Holiday Season

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by Kelly Phelan Powell

Since I was a young girl, I’ve dreamt of the perfect family Christmas morning. My handsome husband and I would spring, totally refreshed, from bed when our beautiful children awoke us with shouts of delight at their surprises from Santa Claus. We would sit, all of us together in our matching Land’s End pajamas, and sip cocoa in front of a roaring fire. The children would fully comprehend (because Fantasy Husband and I are model Catholic parents, you see) that Christmas Day is not just about Santa Claus, toys and turkey but instead celebrates the birth of our Savior. Spending the day with our entire combined families, all of whom adore each other and get along perfectly at all times, would give us even more reason to praise God on this beautiful Christmas morning that would never, ever be 78 degrees with 90 percent humidity.

Except for the handsome husband and beautiful children, not one of our eight Christmas mornings together have even remotely resembled my quixotic Dream Christmas. (And I have loved each and every one of them more than I ever thought possible.)

Unrealistic expectations are just one source of stress at the holidays. Emotions run high, and even the smallest slights can become A Very Big Deal Indeed. Old family grudges, politics, religion and even child rearing are landmine conversation topics at big family gatherings. And then, of course, there are far more serious matters between family members that could include physical, psychological or sexual abuse, domestic violence, racism and bigotry. Combined, these factors make holidays into anxiety-ridden nightmares for many people.

“Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive,” says St. Paul in Colossians 3:13, but that can seem impossible when you can’t even have a peaceful Thanksgiving dinner together.

As Catholic Christians, we’re called to build strong families, and there are some things you can do, at the holidays or any time, to help smooth family interactions so that peace and love have a chance to take root and grow. Dr. Brandi Patton, an adult psychiatrist in the public sector/government in Birmingham, AL, shared some advice for less stressful family gatherings.

1. Limit alcohol. 

We may joke about needing a stiff drink when times get tough (or Uncle Lester starts pontificating about politics), but alcohol can make things significantly worse. “Too much alcohol can lead to disinhibition and send conversations in the wrong direction,” said Dr. Patton.

2. Manage expectations and acknowledge anxiety.

“Practice self-care,” said Dr. Patton. “Know your limits – don’t invite 100 people if you only have space for 20 or a budget for 10. Communicate your needs; don’t expect others to read your mind or know [what you need] instinctively. Lower your expectations. Allow yourself to accept the holiday gathering or event as it actually is, not as you want it to be or thought it would or could be. Spend time alone before or after if that’s something you know you need. Try not to over-schedule yourself, and allow for a different definition of success.” In other words, focus on “We ate dinner together and everyone was satisfied,” rather than “We didn’t have a five-star, four-course meal served on China with silver.”

3. Use humor. 

Dr. Patton suggested a joke followed by a quick subject change to something you know the other person likes or is interested in: “I’ve started my New Year’s resolutions early – and one of them is giving up talking about politics! Have you been taking your boat out a lot?”

4. Take a break. 

“Take a bathroom or other break,” said Dr. Patton. “Or say you need to check the turkey. Seriously! This can be really helpful to rearrange the conversational groups and change the mood.”

5. Have a code word. 

“Agree with your significant other or another close family member or friend ahead of time that you will ‘rescue’ each other if you anticipate a particularly problematic issue with a certain relative,” said Dr. Patton. “You serve as each other’s ‘wingman’ who can request assistance in the kitchen or whatever makes sense for the two of you.”

6. Save complex topics for another time.

If a family member brings up a sensitive subject on which you know (or strongly suspect) you fundamentally disagree, Dr. Patton suggested, say something like “I’d really like to talk about that later when we have more time and privacy,” and then move on to another topic. If they press the issue, politely point out that you have feelings as strong as theirs, but out of respect for the holiday (and the host), you’d rather discuss such a serious topic another day.

7. Know your limits.

Nearly everyone knows that family member or friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend who spouts off offensively about whatever topic is at hand. Dr. Patton suggested a firm but civil response like, “I don’t insult members of other races/cultures/religions/etc., and I expect the same of others while they’re in my home.” As a last resort, “if the person will not drop the subject or suggests violence, you may need to kindly but firmly ask them to leave,” she said. “Always consider safety first and contact authorities for assistance if a dangerous situation seems to be developing.”

May we all experience peace and joy this holiday season. But if you can’t find peace, at least try to find humor. We may never have the ridiculously perfect holidays of our dreams, but thanks to Jesus, joy is always within reach.

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