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Christmas & your dysfunctional family

Growing up, Christmas was sometimes a mixed blessing. No one wanted conflict, so we all would be on our best behavior. But along the way, if nothing else tripped us up and messed with our good intentions, the present-opening process did.   We open our presents in two stages Christmas morn…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
Growing up, Christmas was sometimes a mixed blessing. No one wanted conflict, so we all would be on our best behavior. But along the way, if nothing else tripped us up and messed with our good intentions, the present-opening process did.
We open our presents in two stages Christmas morning. Before breakfast we open big presents. After breakfast we get to everything else.
Eventually we would get to that time when the fast present-openers would be fidgeting while the slow-openers meticulously unwrapped each fold in the wrapping paper.
“Does she really need to save every scrap of paper?” We fast-openers would think.
We’d fidget and try to move things along, and then, sure enough, all the nonverbals would add up and one of the slow-openers would say some snippy, biting thing.
As an adolescent this was when Christmas would fall apart for me. I’d go into a mental tailspin and sit in a funk behind some book for the rest of the day.
Even as an adult, I’ve got to take a breath and remember afresh that I’m a grown man. No, I don’t have to be hooked by comments like that.
How many of us go back into that old family environment thinking only warm memories, only to be side-swiped by the crusty, dysfunctional habits that continue to dog us all these years later?
I thought about the reasons that this happens And came up with a list:
  • Crossed agendas. Kids want to get to the toys and play with them. Parents want to enjoy the process of watching them open their new presents. Kids want to wake up early. Grandparents want to wake up late. Mom slaves away in the kitchen and the men rush through the meal to get to the football game. Too many people have an agenda and lines of authority are blurry.
  • High trust relationships with low trust guests. You may have a healthy family. You may process issues well. But bring guests into the home who are shut-down emotionally and their issues can become your issues. You find yourself doing stuff just to “get along” until they leave.
  • Financial stress. You wanted to give gifts you couldn’t afford, so you maxed out the credit card, upsetting your spendthrift spouse. The tension between you is set aside till after Christmas, but occasionally leaks out in conversation.
  • Old memories. This Christmas isn’t like past Christmases. You wish things were different. Your disappointment colors your attitude.
  • Loneliness. You’re not connecting with people. You’re away from family and friends. Suicide rates jump during Christmas and you understand why.
  • Emotional needs. Everyone’s busyness masks the needs they’ve got that go unmet. A little validation or affection would go a long way, but we’re all too busy shopping, wrapping or cooking.
What to do?
Earlier this week, knowing that we’d have a house full of guests, some of whom have gone through very difficult struggles in the last half a year, I gathered a few of our family members to discuss how we can not only be good hosts, but good friends. I described where I felt they might be emotionally and what we should do. We prayed together. We got geared up – I realized how important a time like that can be.
With just a few days left and a lot of the guests arriving this weekend, here are six strategies that will help you prepare for the onslaught and maintain a healthy atmosphere in your home this Christmas.
  1. Gather your family in advance and discuss the needs that your guests may have.
  2. Establish guidelines that you’ll share with guests. Some family members need to know the “lay of the land” before they unpack. It’s not unreasonable to establish expectations and  to cast a vision for what you all want. Recruit those guests you trust to be allies in creating a healthy atmosphere for everyone. Orient all guests by telling them the agenda and your hopes for your time together. If you’re a guest, ask how you can help.
  3. Brainstorm about how you can work together. Dads and kids need to ask mom for To Do lists.
  4. Organize some activities to help people mix better. A lot of families like to do puzzles or games. Establish no-computer and no-video game times so people don’t regress into a non-interactive state.
  5. Debrief the day. Check in with one another along the way or at the end of the day and make course corrections.
  6. Pray together. Don’t let secular culture overwhelm your good intentions. Establish times to pray and worship together. Set the spiritual tone in the house. Take authority over the havoc that evil wants to visit on your home.

What kind of home atmosphere will you be walking into this Christmas? What kinds of strategies will help you enjoy one another and make a holiday season to remember?

Comments (6)

  • Thank you, Seth. You’ve articulated well a source of frustration and pain for my wife and I as we make plans to join my family during different holidays and other family events. Which is on to say that the pain is between my wife and I, but between us (primarily me) and the rest of my family. To add to your list, what do you do when a)your siblings and/or guests aren’t believers, and don’t want to be, and b)your hosts don’t want to lead or rock the boat spiritually (or otherwise)? These are some of our other issues, and make the deeper ones difficult to get to. Thank you for reminding me that I’m not alone in these struggles, and there are ideas and Biblical ways of dealing with them. I just have to have the courage to step into the storm.

  • A great article, Seth. Reading this, I realize how much I take for granted the family that I was born into and the one I married into. But I also feel better prepared to know how to pray for my friends who are in this situation. I imagine how rough it can be, and your words I think will be an encouragement to many.

  • We grew up in a Jewish home in the 1960’s and did not celebrate Christmas. We knew nothing of the difference between Gentiles and Christians. In our ignorance we were mistaken to believe that if a person was not Jewish then they were a Christian. I came to know Jesus as my Messiah at age 22, celebrated the holiday for a few years enjoying the fun and beauty, acknowledging that God did indeed send his promised son, Messiah Yeshua, to the world. Fortunately my husband and children did not develop a tradition of giving big gifts so we have no expectations and do not support the commercialism of Christmas. All the hype of the holiday takes people’s focus off Jesus and what He came for. Our seasonal celebrations consist of a mixture of Chanukah and Christmas, whatever honors Jesus, the Light of the World.

  • The admission of being dysfunctional is a great 1st step in being able to change. I could really relate to your comments. The eyeopener for me was a few years ago…seeing myself in a home video on Christmas morning with an exasperated look on my face. It made me realize how much I was letting the conditions around me control me.

    Now for this year…I got up at 7:30 made coffee sat in our sun room reading a book and watched the sunrise turn the mountains pink. I was able to totally relax and wait for everyone to get up…11:00am!!! We started the festivities with communion. We then opened gifts. Steve is not only very slow about opening his gifts, he manipulates the situation so he gets to open the last gift. It used to be frustrating. This year I enjoyed every minute of the experience. It’s great to have him back.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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