“Happiness,” suggested comedian George Burns, “is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city!” The Yuletide season is one of gathering together with family and navigating the stress that comes with it! How can we make it through our Christmas celebrations without having a relational blowout? Here are some suggestions:
Every Christmas celebration entails going to the store to stock up on festive supplies to make the day a success. Do we have enough food, napkins, games, and drinks? The same mentality needs to be taken with our spiritual preparation for potentially tense discussions with seldom seen relatives. The Puritans understood the need for regular times of solitude and rest, calling Sunday the market day of the soul. What they understood that modern believers do not is the role the soul plays in keeping our selfishness in check and providing grace to resolve conflict. In this light, the Sabbath is the deliberate cultivation of a spiritual reservoir. Just as a marathon runner loads up on enough carbohydrates to last the entire race we need to prepare for the challenges of the upcoming week. The best preparation for interacting with relatives is taking time for engaging in the market day of the soul and reflecting deeply on God’s grace and love toward us. “For by grace you have been saved,” notes Paul (Eph. 2:8). In other words, a good Christmas dinner starts the week before as you spend a day creating a spiritual reservoir of grace that will be utilized once the guests arrive.
If conversations with adults get tense, make sure to visit with the kids. The great thing about kids is that they are wonderfully excited about Christmas and visiting relatives—which often entails more food and gifts. If talking to your deeply opinionated uncle starts to get heated, excuse yourself and join in on a kid’s game. Not only will others think it’s great that you are interacting with their children, the physical exercise will do you good. Getting your heart rate up—even just going outside to help build a snowman—releases chemicals called hormones that not only help you burn off steam, but also increase positive emotions and outlook.
A Norman Rockwell painting where everyone is sitting around the dinner table laughing often haunts me when I envision a Christmas gathering. Expecting family members who have not seen each other all year—and are potentially harboring ill feelings—to sit around carefree and laughing is probably not realistic. Perhaps it is more realistic that your family cordially interacts with each other as we slowly catch up. Having distractions such as a football game on in the background or watching kids open presents allows adults to smile and slowly get into the Christmas spirit.
There is an ancient proverb that states: “Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult” (Prov. 12:16). When a relative sends a verbal shot across the relational bow by way of sarcasm, ignore it. “Excuse me, I need to check in to see if they need help in the kitchen. Can I get you anything?” Remember, it takes two to argue.
Why did Christ come in the first place? Was it so we could merely have family gatherings, exchange presents, and eat until stuffed? No. We celebrate Christmas because God understood we all needed a Savior. When I’m tempted to harshly judge fellow family members, it’s good to look inward. I am a sinful person who is often petty, short-tempered, and judgmental—the very things I often accuse others of being. Yet, God graciously dealt with my sin through the giving of his Son.
Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University and author of several books, including I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting. His most recent publication, Defending Your Marriage, speaks to spiritual warfare in marriage and how to equip yourself to defend your relationship. For the past 18 years, he and his wife, Noreen, have been frequent speakers at FamilyLife marriage conferences. Muehlhoff regularly writes and speaks for the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. Follow Dr. Muehlhoff on Twitter.