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.