“I’m not coming if your father is going to be there.”
Sadly, this is a familiar reply to the Christmas invite in families of divorce. My parents divorced the year of my wedding, so these refrains are familiar territory. They challenge our ability to walk in the joy and meaning of Christmas.
One year my father showed up unexpectedly at my mother’s Christmas dinner. “Surprise!” He exclaimed with joy, bursting into the living room toting an enormous gift box. Our children jumped up and down with delight, hugging him, clinging to his stuffed, down parka. My mother’s face fell more quickly than her ruined chocolate soufflé.
When my parents’ paths cross, things get uncomfortable pretty quickly. And this year, for the first time in 24 years, both of my divorced parents will be staying under the same roof of our home for the entire week of Christmas.
Maybe you are experiencing something similar, whether it’s the effects of divorce, an estranged sibling or other tensions within your family. How can we keep it all together for the sake of our faith, our children and our own sanity? Here are a few tips:
Don’t run away
Although you may feel like it, running away is not an option. Instead, engage your family with depth and creativity. If you host the event, surprises like my father’s potatoes are not as stressful because you are responsible for what happens next. You have the emotional edge in setting the tone for what follows rather than politely respecting and dealing with your divorced parent’s meltdown.
Plan your dinner and keep your guests busy. Load the table with Christmas Crackers, sing a carol to start the meal, ask everyone to go around and share a favorite Christmas memory. Give your children responsibilities so that the focus is on them serving others rather than on themselves.
Don’t pretend Christmas isn’t happening
This doesn’t work. Our children want all the traditions in full view. They call them “decks,” as in decking the halls. “When are we going to get the decks going?” They say, the day after Thanksgiving, usually right after we’ve had our first leftover turkey sandwiches and are still reveling in the glow of the candlelit cranberries we feasted on the night before.
Invite one parent to join in your holiday tradition and another parent to celebrate a different one. My mother celebrates the tree decorating event every year. Reigning from her couch throne, she places hooks on all the ornaments and hands them over to us to hang. My dad is too unpredictable to include in a regular tradition so we try to do something new with him each year. Include them both separately in the way that works best for your family. Do not let them run your own family Christmas. The day when we were children is over and our family comes first.
Don’t strive for perfection
Trying to make everything just right is a recipe for disaster. When Martha Stewart Living was the hot magazine and my in-laws were coming, I spent evenings in my garage dipping white chocolate onto styrofoam cups for our dessert’s perfect presentation. It looked great, but I fell asleep at the dinner table.
In order to deal with holiday dysfunction, take care of yourself. Stick with your exercise program, rather than abandon it. Set a goal to eat healthier than you usually do. Treat yourself to an indulgence you don’t ever have time for, like a manicure. When the tense conversations come you’ll be physically at your best and can steer the tone more effectively if you aren’t drained.
As in prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. He is our way in the wilderness. This is what Advent is all about. We can get manicures and enjoy exhilarating trail runs, but if we aren’t filled by His life-giving Holy Spirit, when the holiday storm hits, we’ll get battered.
The single most beneficial thing I add to my Advent each year is an intentional focus on one participant in the nativity. Get to know these people who brought Jesus to us and witnessed his coming. Read and listen to everything you can about Joseph and spend time reflecting on how hard his life must have been. “Joseph’s Song” by Michael Card is a helpful accompaniment and Maria Rilke’s poem, “Joseph’s Suspicion” can lift our hearts in praise.
If you choose Mary, read The Life of Mary and Birth of Jesus by Ronald F. Hock which gives helpful background on Mary’s own family. If the Kings, meditate on T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Journey of the Magi” and walk out their journey to Christ anew. Spend time with one of these people and ask the Lord to bring them alive to you in scripture, music and literature.
Pray without ceasing
This call in Thessalonians is central to surviving the broken family Christmas. Despite all of our best plans, we can’t do it on our own. The Lord of the manger is waiting to be in the midst of our dinner table conversation and our late night dish drying sessions.
Don’t let evenings go too late with the relatives. People get more emotional when they’re tired and disagreements can fly, so say goodnight to your guests and save that space for the Lord at the end the day. Before you put your feet on the floor the next morning, invite Him to come and order the thoughts of your mind and meditations of your heart for the new day.
As my parents both visit this year, please pray I can live out my faith in a manner which honors them. “Honor your father and mother,” is the first commandment that comes with a promise, “and you will live a long life.” The Lord rewards us as we honor our challenging parents and He is blessed. He chose them to bring us into this world.
Now, my brother is an entirely different story. He is estranged from my mother right now so I will need to creatively come up with a way to bring Christmas to his neon lit condo in the sky.
One family challenge at a time, but with God all things are possible. A blessed Christmas to you all.
Margaret Philbrick is a contributing editor of the collection, Everbloom - Stories of Deeply Rooted and Transformed Lives. You can follow her writing at www.margaretphilbrick.com