As family members gather for the upcoming holidays, there might be more than sugarplums dancing in their heads. Some, perhaps many, might be inwardly anxious about the potential for hurtful arguments that can erupt among multigenerational clans.
Of course, Christmas and the other fall/winter holidays are not supposed to be times of anger or argument, especially not within our families, which are centers of love.
But with public discourse becoming increasingly fractious and families straddling ever-widening gaps of age, experiences and opinion, fear about holidays-gone-contentious probably have more than a little merit.
Manners and manners of speaking that aren’t critical or dismissive are becoming rarer. The intensity of technology use among some generations can create wide deficits in the ability to converse in a meaningful way. People who have not seen one another in months or years might have changed in ways that can be difficult for some to understand.
I remember my grandmother remarking on my brother’s growth spurt after not having seen him for several months. She said, “My, how you’ve grown!” He replied, “What did you expect, that I’d stay the same forever?” (Fortunately, my brother was still in his “cute” phase.)
The holiday season itself can heighten negative emotions along with extra stresses on budgets, time and energy. Pervasive advertisements and superficial “trappings” all around might raise expectations about gifts, what others are supposed to do or say (“We always have Christmas Eve at …”), or not do or say (“She/He told me there’d be no arguments this year …”).
Disappointment when reality falls short of those expectations might spill over in expressed anger, shattering peace.
Many online resources provided by psychologists and others offer good suggestions on ways to defuse or avoid fractious family situations at the holiday season.
These include limiting alcohol available at gatherings (substance abuse can bring on familial problems that reverberate for a long time after sobriety sets in), setting boundaries about what you will and will not discuss (and abiding by them), not taking others’ comments, ill-meaning or otherwise, personally (which, fortunately, my grandmother in the above scenario with my brother did not), and communicating about concerns (budgets, family obligations, “who should visit who when”) before the holidays, so a happy compromise can be reached.
Understanding the relationship between expectations and reality can help temper temper.
There are additional suggestions that I have found helpful, too.
Stay true to the meaning of the holidays ahead. Be grateful in Thanksgiving, full of wonder at Christmas and eager to start afresh in a New Year (with our own resolutions or in light of a resentment that might still linger toward a family member).
Pray for peace and courage to embrace family members whose ideas or attitudes might not be our favorite things; we do not have to bend our values or abandon our beliefs, but simply, kindly, love.
Engage in the exchange of ideas and opinions respectfully; a family gathering is not a debate stage, but much more meaningful — and fleeting. We never know what the year between this and next holiday season will bring, nor who will be with us and who will not.
Although I have experienced a few unfortunate holiday gatherings, they pale against the warm memories of others where faith (Mass, prayer, sharing faith experiences), festive food prepared with care and the blessing of time helped me appreciate other members of my family, close and extended.
Against the backdrop of today’s world, these good memories and yours, too, help urge us onward into this season and the next, bringing peace, shining light, making it home.