Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas with the Family

(News-Herald, December 20) Plenty of pressure comes with the Christmas holiday. Selecting presents, eating food, shopping crowds, bad music—but for many people the greatest challenge is the dreaded family gathering.

I have reached that stage of life where my house is otherwise empty until people come home to it. I find that prospect pretty exciting, and I likewise look forward to the three of us heading off to my parents’ home for a massed clan onslaught. But I know that not everyone finds these sorts of prospects appealing.

Like many parts of Christmas, this tradition carries a high stress level because we expect that it will be acted out with all the polished treacly perfection of a Hallmark television special. Real live non-televised humans are considerably messier than the Hallmark kind.

When some people gather with family, they bring more issues than the simple desire for perfection. There are some other habits of mind that foster discontent during seasonal hearth gathering.

What have you done for me lately? There are people whose relationships ride the roller coaster of recent events. I’m not talking about major news, like discovering that someone you trusted has stolen your life’s savings. I’m talking about the person who was your buddy last week when you were shopping together, but yesterday she snubbed you at a party, so now you hate her.

When I close the book on a professional or amateur career, I would hate to have that whole span judged based on the last few chapters, particularly because our last chapters do not always find us at our best. We forget that, though, so there we are thinking that we don’t care if Uncle Duddly saved our lives years ago—right now he’s irritating and loud and he smells funny.

The eternal grudge. This is an absolute family pitfall, because families have a mountain of history. It’s almost certain that some time in the last fifty years everyone has done something unpleasant and painful to everyone else.

It doesn’t matter if it was the time Madge insulted your dress or the time your sister hit on your new boyfriend or the time Uncle Duddly hinted that your son is not very bright. You can select the wound and pick at the scab forever.

Grudge-holding is an absolute killer at Christmastime because everyone is supposed to be warm and happy. So the offender can make a show of being regretful and sad that he did a Bad Thing, thereby being a spirit-killing party pooper. Or he can get in the appropriate happy spirit, giving you the cue to quietly seethe—how dare he act as if he doesn’t care how rotten he was to you.

Sitting judgment. How is it that we can look at strangers and acquaintances and say, “Well, everybody’s entitled to make their own choices,” but when it comes to family, we feel the need to correct Errors in Judgment.

Cousin Ethel has adopted a diet that won’t oppress green leafy vegetables, and since we think that’s Horribly Wrong, we’ll make sure that we don’t do anything that might suggest we in any way approve. This makes use of that great old rationalization: “It’s not rudeness if I’m really right and she’s really wrong.”

Alpha battles. Christmas brings together many people who are used to being royalty in their own castles. It’s not always easy for them to spend time around someone else’s throne. Wrestling for the crown can involve anything from subtle discomfort to open combat.

Sometimes it’s not just you. Sometimes there’s a family member who really is a jerk. Really.

How can you cope with the extra drama of extra family togetherness? Well, you can focus on everything you ever loved about the ones you find difficult. It’s not really any harder to fixate on something you loved than on something that bugged you.

You can focus your attention on a relative that you particularly love, someone you would give the greatest gift in the world if you could just afford it. Your gift to that person can be a peaceful, stress-reduced Christmas gathering.

Or you can just imagine that your family members are dead. Yes, that’s an awful thought, but stay with me.

Where’s the one place that bygones are bygones and the family is loving and supportive without hesitation? The funeral home. When do we let go of the worst of someone and grab onto the best with unconditional love? When they’re dead.

Well, if you can do it then, you can do it now. So before you walk up that snow covered walk to the house, remember how much you would miss the folks inside if they were gone. Put love first. Have a Merry Christmas.

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