Ah, Christmas. That time of year filled with sugar plums and the spirit of the season. And then it happens. You try — contrary to what conventional wisdom says — to go home again.
What can you do when going home for the holidays feels just a little too much like starring in your own personal horror story? Let the following five tips be your holiday survival guide.
1. Don’t try to solve the unsolvable
There is a prayer that asks God to give us the courage to change what can be changed, the serenity to accept what cannot be changed and the wisdom to know the difference.
Generally, when someone is acting in an offensive way, the direct approach is best. But if that person has been treating you the same way since you were 5, chances are you are not going to solve the problem this year, or any year. The sooner you accept this, the happier you’re going to be.
When it comes to longstanding problems with family members, you have two healthy options. If the ongoing offense is too terrible an affront to either your personal dignity (for example, abusive language or physical violence) or to your sense of moral well-being (open and unrestrained hostility toward your faith and beliefs), then your best bet is to skip the family shindig this year and cultivate your own traditions.
On the other hand, if the ongoing offense is not quite so serious, this is your opportunity to practice that spiritual work of mercy known as “bearing wrongs patiently.” Remind yourself that you are a grown-up, and that while these people are an important part of your past, they can only play the part in your present that you see fit to allow.
2. You don’t have to save your family from themselves
Please repeat after me, “I am not the family Messiah. I am not the family Messiah. I am not ....”
Yes, when you are around your family, you should behave in a way that lets you leave with your dignity intact, but stop worrying about what you can say this year that will finally convince them to change their ways, or putting yourself, your mate or your kids on display so that the rest of the family will see your light and follow you to Midnight Mass. That is simply more pressure than anyone can stand, and it will make everyone (especially your spouse and kids) despise you.
The best way to be a light is not by being perfect, but by being peaceful. Do whatever it takes to maintain your calm and attend to your spouse and kids’ emotional well-being. If you can manage this, maybe someone in the family will one day come to you and ask, “What’s your secret?”
3. Don’t play the game
Certain people like to play a party game therapists call, “Let’s you and him fight.” That’s where somebody puts two people with violently divergent opinions in the same room, raises a hot topic, and then stands back to watch the fireworks. Avoid this game at all costs, because there are no winners. Remind yourself that you are being set up, merely for the amusement of another person(s).
Of course this doesn’t mean that you can’t answer sincere questions asked by more honest family members. Just remember that people asking sincere questions about spiritual, emotional or political issues don’t tend to do so with a smirk on their face and 20 other people looking on.
4. Know when to say when
Know when to call it a night (or morning, or early afternoon) and make sure you have a nice safe hotel to run to. There’s nothing wrong with finding an excuse to bug out whenever you need a break. You can always come back later, after you have cooled down. And if anyone is offended by you keeping a separate domicile, just tell them you’re trying to inflict yourself on them as little as possible. They won’t admit it to your face, but they’ll be as relieved as you are.
This is the most obvious suggestion, but also the most important. But if you pray, please ask God to give you the grace to be a sane credible witness before you pray for the sanity of the rest of your family. Remember, as the prayer says, it is much more important to understand than to be understood, to love than to be loved, to console than to be consoled. The paradox is, the more you practice these virtues, the more influence you’ll have on those around you. Pray that God would change you first.
These five tips probably won’t be the source of any great holiday miracle, but they just may stop you from impaling yourself on a sprig of holly at the thought of seeing “those people” for yet another holiday. And sometimes, that is miracle enough.
Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books and the host of EWTN’s More2Life Radio. Learn more about counseling and other resources at CatholicCounselors.com.