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Coping With Family Tension at Christmas

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There is no formula for settling Christmas conflicts because they're highly emotional interactions with the people we care about the most. But knowing what some other couples have done can help.

“Thanks for meeting guys,” my friend Austin said. “I need to talk this over with someone because I don’t think I can do another Christmas like we had last year.”

Austin had asked me and our mutual friend Brandon to meet for coffee, and, although he hadn’t told us what this was about, we could tell it was important to him.

“What do you mean, Austin?” I asked.

“Geniece’s family gets together every year on Christmas Eve. They all go to church together, eat a late dinner and then open all their Christmas presents. I told her I wanted us to do things differently, but it made her really upset for several days. I finally decided it wasn’t worth the argument and went along with the plan. By the end of day, our two kids were exhausted, and we ended up spending the night at her parents’ house. It felt as if we missed Christmas as a couple since we didn’t get home until after lunch. When I tried talking to her about it, she accused me of not liking her family.”

Brandon jumped in, “At least you only had to deal with her family. My family demands that we show up on Christmas Eve, and her family pushes for us to arrive for brunch on Christmas morning. It is doable but exhausting. Just about the time we start to relax on Christmas morning, we have to get out the door. I think Christmas ought to be a great day for us as a couple, but it usually isn’t.”

“I guess the fact that my family lives in a different state and doesn’t put demands on us is a good thing, but I’m not sure I can keep doing this,” Austin responded. “I love her family, but I want some personal time with Geniece. The gifts I get for her are pretty private to me, and I don’t want an audience when I give them to her.”

“I don’t mind giving Tiffany gifts in the presence of family,” added Brandon, “but the whole process drives me crazy. She never wants to talk about a Christmas budget because she feels the need to get gifts for everyone in the family. She tells me, ‘It doesn’t matter because we will always get back as much as we give so it breaks even.’ I don’t even know what to do with that.”

They both looked at me and asked what I’d do if I were in their shoes.

One size does not fit all

There is no formula for these situations because they’re highly emotional interactions with the people we care about the most. Let me share with you what some other couples have done to navigate these waters.

One couple I know decided to adopt the motto, “Our marriage gets the best, our parents gets the rest.” When the marriage is young, many couples find ways to work in all the traditions from the homes they grew up in, but that becomes stressful. Usually out of frustration they conclude that they can’t do everything. No matter what they do, they’re going to disappoint someone. Once they conclude that someone (and maybe everyone) is going to be dissatisfied, they decide their marriage must take precedence. As Genesis 2:24 states, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (NIV).

These couples ask themselves, What do we want to do at Christmastime to enhance our marriage? That becomes the main priority, and they put it on the calendar before anything else. Of course, this can become a selfish pursuit if other relationships are simply ignored or if a negative attitude is involved. If, however, it is done with grace and a true sense of priority, most family members will eventually adjust and be supportive. This approach usually requires practice to say, “I am sorry this is disappointing, but we need to do this. We love you and hope you can accept our desire to do things this way.”

This idea resonated with Brandon. “I think our parents would really respect that. The reason they want us all together on Christmas is because they believe family is important, especially marriage. If we can explain together to our parents that it’s important for us to have more time as a couple on Christmas, I think it will work. Tiffany’s parents would probably be willing to end earlier on Christmas Eve, and my parents would probably be OK with an afternoon meal rather than brunch. I am going to talk with Tiffany about that.”

New families can do new things

Some couples take the “new thing” approach. Isaiah 43:18-19 (NIV) states, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” Any time a couple gets married, a new family is formed. This new family will have new traditions, desires and goals. Some will be similar to the traditions each grew up with, but there will also be a newness to their experience that is unique to them as a couple.

Questions that help these couples identify their new traditions include:

  • What can we do at Christmastime that is new but incorporates some of the traditions from our families?
  • What new traditions can we negotiate with our parents so that everyone makes changes and establishes a new way of doing things?
  • What do we want to do on our own to make a friendly statement to both our families that a new thing is happening?

Austin sat up in his seat and said, “I would love to take that approach, but I don’t think Geniece would ever be open to that. Have you got any other suggstions?”

Everyone in the Nativity story was away from home

A few couples I know have decided to embrace the “away from home” approach as part of an authentic Christmas experience. Last year my pastor preached a Christmas message from Luke 2 highlighting the fact that all the major players in the Christmas story were traveling.

  • Joseph and Mary (v. 4) lived in Nazareth but were called to Bethlehem for the census.
  • It was normal for the shepherds (v. 8) to live in the fields with their sheep most of the time.
  • The angels (v. 13) are ministering spirits who will go anywhere and do anything to carry out the bidding of their Creator, but their sweet spot is being in the presence of God and celebrating around His throne.
  • Most important, Jesus (v. 6-7) was away from His Father and the majestic dwelling that only He deserves.

This perspective gave me a new appreciation for the inconvenience of Christmas. Rather than complain about traveling to see people we care about, my wife, Pam, and I choose to rejoice over the camaraderie we have with the original Christmas troop.

“My wife might really relate to that,” Austin said. “If we all take turns being displaced, it might make everyone think just a little more about the real Christmas message. I’m going to bring that up with Geniece. Pray for me.”

Austin’s first attempt didn’t go quite as well as he had hoped. He shared with Geniece the new “away from home” insight about Christmas, but he didn’t explain what he wanted to do in practical terms with the other members of the family. Her response was, “So, you want us all to be homeless for Christmas? That doesn’t sound like much fun.”

The second attempt went much better. He was able to explain that traveling at some time during the Christmas celebration could be a good thing for everyone. “We know what this is like,” Austin pointed out enthusiastically, “because we always spend time at your parents’ house. Why should we get all the blessings?”

When he suggested they talk to her family about taking turns being away from home, she was intrigued.

“We will need to point out that some years we will host, some years my siblings will host and other years my parents will continue to host,” Geniece thought out loud. “We will also have to emphasize the new appreciation we can all gain for what it meant for all the Christmas players to be away from home.”

Both Austin and Geniece were amazed when her parents got excited about the idea. Her mom said, “I don’t care where we get together, I just want us to get together. I think it’s good for all of us to take turns being ‘away from home.’ If it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”

If your Christmas celebration is surrounded by tension, you might try setting new priorities, establishing a “new thing” or rejoicing over your time “away from home.”

Bill Farrel is the co-author of Men Are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti.

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