How to survive Christmas with “the family”

Holidays with family always sound nicer on paper than they are in real life. There, I said it! It’s all fun and games when it’s winter and you’re desperate for a change of scenery and that family WhatsApp group brings all the feels and all the ideas. But come December, once you’ve had to deal with a thousand more WhatsApp’s on dietary requirements, gotten offended at your aunts’ refusal to get on board with the “no gifts for the kids over R100” idea, and rolled your eyes at you’re a-type sisters’ insistence on capturing it all (yes all of it!) in Excel, it’s all about as fun as a visit to the dentist (no offence dentists!). And your daydreams of bonding with your sibs and your resolve to not allow that one disruptive personality to ruin.absolutely.everything seeps out of you like your confidence on the eve of your 20 year high school reunion.

Oh, and did I mention no one is every happy about where they are sleeping, the dustbin is always too small and every “look at our perfect huge extended family Christmas” post you read on Facebook (and there will be many) is going to make you feel like a failure. Maybe you can identify with this? Or maybe you’re thinking “Family holiday? Don’t be crazy! I don’t know if I’ll survive Christmas lunch!” I see you girl!  There’s no judgement here. But here are my tips on how to survive Christmas with “the family”:

Keep your expectations in check:

This is a HUGE one. Expectations ruin relationships. Let me repeat that again for those of you in the back:

Expectations ruin relationships

I’ve seen and experienced this time and time again, and never more so than with family. Expectations set you up to be offended because if you are going to for example expect everyone to happily spend each day together and 1 or 2 people would rather do their own thing, you are going to be offended. Not because it’s wrong for people to want to do their own thing, but because your unmet expectations lead you to feel hurts and offended. When we build up a future scenario in our heads that looks like a very specific thing and we arrive and get something that is even just slightly different often the experience loses all possibility, meaning and joy. Blame that on your expectations! You are better off going with an open heart and mind and letting the time together be what it is. 

How to survive Christmas with "the family"Keep it short:

You can get through anything if you know it’s going to end. Most of us have jobs and our time off is precious, so yes, make time to see your family but make sure you don’t get stuck in a situation where you get robbed of your rest. Family visiting is like fish in the fridge, it’s fine for about 3 days, after that it starts to stink. Don’t hurt your family by deciding halfway through the holiday that you can’t do it anymore. Commit to a time that seems reasonable and realistic to you and make that commitment count. Three days of being willing, present, connected and available are better than 7 days where you can’t wait for it to be over.  

Keep it to yourself:

Maybe your nephew only eats white bread and tomato sauce and spend most of his time playing Minecraft and your sister seems totally fine with it – to your absolute shock and dismay. Maybe your aunt would be a great object lesson if you had to explain the phrase “Mutton dressed as lamb” to your 10yo. Maybe your oldest nephew arrives with his new girlfriend without telling anyone (millennials am I right?) and you spend the whole afternoon scrambling to reorganize the Christmas table so she has a place setting to enjoy some Karoo lamb when she loudly (and with no shortage of pride) announces that she’s vegan. Of course she is.

Yes, these are inane examples, I realise that. But I bet you have a whole list of examples and situations from the last holiday you spent with your family that shocked or surprised you, that even hurt and concerned you. And because it’s family, we think we automatically have permission to speak some “helpful truths” into the situation. But unless someone has asked you to speak into their life and situation, i.e have actually given you permission, you really, really shouldn’t. Keep it to yourself.

Let me share a tip with you that has really helped me: People make decisions based on their values. And yes, even in one family, values can differ. Once we grasp that even the most simple decision was born out of a value that person holds dear, the decision might still hurt us, shock us, annoy us, but it can no longer offend us, because we simply don’t get to be offended by the values around which another structures their life and decisions. If you’re hurt or shocked, you need to let it go. 

Keep the kids in mind:

This might sound strange, but there is great value in allowing our kids to develop their own relationships with their aunts and uncles. Because mark my words, there will come a time when your kid might need to hear a voice of reason, but they may have stopped listening to yours. They might need some strong wisdom from a grownup and he/ she WILL NOT want to hear it from you. Allow people you trust in the lives of your kids is priceless and your investment in the lives of your nieces and nephews is bound to be priceless for them (and for their parents!). Be intentional about investing in those relationships!

The other reason to keep the kids in mind is of course because our children are listening to us and understanding from us how family should be treated, spoken of, valued. And since we are all raising someone’s future wife, daughter in law, husband and son in law this is something we should not lose sight of. How do I want my kids to think about family? Because their beliefs will be based on my own actions, because my actions reflect what I value. 

Always, always value people. This is never ever something you will regret.

Keep leaning into grace:

People are disappointing sometimes. Mostly because people are selfish. But you know what that means? It means you and I are disappointing and selfish. 

So, what we all need is grace, grace and more grace. An anecdote to expectation, more than effort or planning or intentionality, grace will hold your family relationships together. Grace with grumpiness, differences, indifference and difficulty. Because grace is accepting when you could reject, serving when you could instead demand selfishly, forgiving when you could stand on your rights. Grace, more than blood, more than shared values, more than anything, is the glue that holds relationships together. You CAN choose grace over judgement and if you’re on holiday with your family, you SHOULD!

Don’t let God’s grace to you through Christ be wasted on you, rather let it be reflected in your most challenging situations and relationships.

Keep opportunities in mind:

Jesus’s example shows us that the path down is the path up. That it is in serving others, in being inconvenienced, in giving up agendas or positions, that we are truly learning to love. Because in all of that it stops being about us – and that is what love looks like. That is what love actually is. But how often in a family get together scenario do we do that? Do we willingly set aside our comfort, our agendas, or positions in order to love and serve? I can tell you truthfully and shamefully that I have seldom done that, and certainly didn’t do it when I should’ve.

But our time with family, with others, is not just an opportunity to learn to love others well, the way Jesus did, through service and sacrifice, but actually that same opportunity benefits us as well. Life in community makes us better people. The more isolated you live, the harder you are to be around. Other people, especially family, are there to knock the edges off us. Don’t avoid that growth opportunity! These couple of days (or hours) could be something you have to white knuckle through, or it could be the very thing God is presenting you with to help you become the mature, loving person you actually really want to be. 

You might be reading this and thanking the Good Lord that you love spending time with your family and patting yourself on the back about what an exception to the rule ya’ll are. Good for you. You should thank Him! I am pretty sure you might be the exception! Maybe your people make a gorgeous “House & Home worthy” Christmas card, or maybe they put the fun into dysfunctional. Either way family can be hard, complicated, and time together often brings up many more hurt and frustration than it should. I feel ya! And I hope this will help you grow in love for your people while you are with your people, whether it be for 3 hours or 3 days (or 3 weeks for those brave souls out there who insist on embracing the triumph of hope over experience!).  

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