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What to Do When You Don’t Want to “Go Home” for Christmas

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 12/23/14

Survival tips for the most common complaints about spending Christmas with family

“I’ll be home for Christmas.” What do those words bring to mind? Perhaps the poignant lyrics of the song that became a hit for reflecting the feelings of homesick soldiers and heartbroken families during World War II. Maybe you think of Hollywood’s lighthearted and idealized depictions of Christmas, like Bing Crosby’s movie, “White Christmas.” Or the words “I’ll be home for Christmas” may bring to mind a darker side of Christmas memories, as you identify more with actor Chevy Chase in the Kafkaesque “Christmas Vacation.”

With all the social, emotional and spiritual expectations associated with Christmas celebrations in our culture, what should you do if going home for Christmas fills you with anxiety—or even dread?

When I was a Jesuit novice, one of the older priests referred to going home for Christmas as “returning to the scene of the crime.” Those words come to mind at this time of year. And having spent 20+ years working with college students, who usually have no choice but to go home for Christmas, I can understand why folks may be ambivalent, at best, about “going home for the holidays.” A lot of time in close quarters with people you wouldn’t ordinarily choose to spend a lot of time with, with whom you may have a painful history, mixed in with high (but usually unspoken) expectations (and resentments), and perhaps a lot of alcohol—that’s not a recipe for high hopes and happy memories. So, let’s look at some specific reasons why “I’ll be home for Christmas” may cause some anxiety, and let’s look at some ways of living your faith during “Christmas-difficulties," without losing sight of the fuller meaning of Christmas.

Here are the concerns I most often hear from students as they pack up to go home for Christmas break

1. "Everyone will be there.” Everyone? Yes. Uncle Larry who drinks too much. Cousin Mildred and her boorish boyfriend. Grandma Jones who only wants to talk about dead people. Your exasperated sister and her feckless husband, along with their three bratty kids they can’t control, etc., etc.  

2. "At Christmas dinner, everyone will give me grief about the way I live my Catholic faith." Everyone? Yes. Aunt Jane who just wants “everyone to be nice and not ruin everything by dragging religion into Christmas.” Your older brother who during his three semesters of community college took a course in “Modern Critiques of Religion” and scoffs at Christmas cards depicting a blue-eyed baby Jesus. Your younger sister who demands to know why “you Catholics won’t stop hating advocates of reproductive freedom and marital justice”, etc., etc.

3. "All of the Masses at my parish will make me crazy." All of them? Yes. The 4:30 PM “Let’s-Just-Get-This-Thing-Over-With” Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve “night.” The Midnight Mass where the pastor wears a “Santa Claus hat” during his homily. The Christmas Day Mass where the associate pastor has small children in costumes “act out” the gospel, etc., etc.

My students usually don’t have many options. They have to go home and face what they find there. I remind them that it is precisely into this world, this very world with these real human beings, deeply flawed human people like their family members, like them, like me—all made in the divine image—it was into this very world that God decided to enter, and to assume fully our messy and maddening (and somehow redeemable!) human condition. It is precisely because we are not ideal, but rather because we are crazy, mean, selfish, addicted, corrupted and corrupting that the Son of God became the Son of Mary. I tell my students that if they find it an act of heroism to leave the (relative) safety of campus life for the circus of family life, then they should consider the boundless generosity that is revealed when the Son of God left the bliss of Heaven for the limits of human life.

If you’re not looking forward to going home for the holidays—and there were times when I did not—I’ve found it’s best to begin by laughing at ourselves. I have to look in the mirror and say, “If God can put up with the likes of me, who has offended Him infinitely, and insisted on not giving up on whatever good there could be cultivated in me, then surely I can express my gratitude by trying to love and serve whatever good may be found in those back home." (Please don’t misunderstand me: If home is a violent or abusive place, do not go there! Seek shelter and seek help!)

It is true that large, holiday dinners at the family home can be occasions of practicing the spiritual works of mercy. And, honestly, sometimes we are more inclined “to admonish sinners” rather than “to bear wrongs patiently” and “to forgive offenses willingly.” I recall one student who said she dreamed of yelling Psalm 69:9 (“For the zeal of thy house hath eaten me up: and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me”) and overturning tables. I told her that, barring a divine revelation to the contrary, she would be better quoting 1 Peter 3:15-16 (“Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame”), and then act accordingly. The goal of Christian witness is to glorify God and win souls, not humiliate adversaries and win fights. Also, if you are going to stand up for the Lord’s truth and the Church’s honor, be sure that you know what you are talking about first. Dave Armstrong’s “The One-Minute Apologist” is a good place to start.

Where I serve, the Mass is always offered reverently and according to the mind of the Church. Sadly, not everyone can make that claim. Even so, at every Mass the Holy Sacrifice is offered, and the matchless graces of the Eucharist are available. At your parish, ask God for the graces always available at every Mass, and give thanks for the infinite humility of our Lord Who comes to us whenever we call upon Him, even as we offer imperfectly to Him our imperfect love and reverence.

I’ve had dispirited students and exhausted friends ask me, “Why do we even bother with Christmas? It never lives up to our expectations, we spend too much, we eat too much, we drink too much and we end it all more tired, more broke and more fat than when we started.” I’ve told them, and I will tell my anxious students this semester that we “bother” with Christmas because we wish to recall and to receive anew the amazing gift that our Heavenly Father has given us. The best thing that our Heavenly Father can give to us, the words that only He can say to us, are in fact what we most need to hear, but it is something that we could never have dreamed of asking for. Only our Heavenly Father can say these words to us: “You are worth my Son.” Only our Heavenly Father can say that, and only He can prove it.

Our Heavenly Father proves that amazing declaration to us by speaking His Word, His Son to us, so that His only-begotten Son becomes the Word-made-Flesh. The Son of God becomes the Son of Mary—He is the Christ of God, Who is become man for us.

And Our Heavenly Father proves that amazing declaration—“You are worth my Son”—by accepting the sacrifice of His Son upon the cross, for only the shed Blood of Jesus can wash away the stain of our sin. Our Heavenly Father allows us to heap upon His Son all of the malice, betrayal and wickedness that must be dredged up out of the human condition—up to and including even death itself. And our Heavenly Father amazes us yet again by overcoming evil and death by raising His Son from the dead, and then, amazes us even more by offering us a share in that victory.

By the Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of His Son, our Heavenly Father declares to us, His adopted children, “You are worth my Son.” Through the proclamation of the Word, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, through the life of the Church, through the power of the sacraments and above all, through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, our Heavenly Father declares to us, “You are worth my son.” With tenderness and fierceness, as both lamb and lion, through whisper and through thunder, our Heavenly Father declares to us, “You are worth my Son.”

So, if you can, go home this Christmas. Be wary of trying to “solve” anything or “fix” anyone. Instead, as you go home, keep these words of Jesus in mind: “Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.” (Mark 5: 19)

When I write next, I will speak of meditations to make before Midnight Mass. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.  A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.

Tags:
CatholicismChristmasFamilyJesus ChristParenting
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