Making it a Merry Christmas

Dec 23, 2008 |Suzanne Hadley Gosselin

If holidays with your family leave you feeling depressed, it may be time for some new resolutions.

"Hi. My name's Suzanne and I had a lousy Christmas."

It was December 28, and I felt like I needed to join a holiday recovery support group. As I hoisted my suitcase into a friend's trunk, I breathed a sigh of relief to be back on my own turf. With visions of "the great Christmas blow-up" dancing in my head — and trust me, three sisters in tears is not a pretty sight — I collapsed into the front seat.

I soon learned I wasn't alone in my post-holiday depression. Out poured my friend's own tale of holiday woe. And in the weeks that followed, I learned that nearly everyone I knew had experienced holiday unpleasantness in some form — the critical mother, the bad gifts, the boredom, the arguments. We had all gone home looking forward to warm family times and returned in need of therapy.

Santa's Helper

I love my family. I love Christmas. So what's the problem?

I've noticed the enemy seems particularly active this time of year. I'm guessing it's a nasty reminder of his big humiliation. And he'll do whatever it takes to get people to think about anything besides Christ.

Christian carol lyrics ring out on secular airwaves, but people are too caught up in the holiday rush to consider the meaning of their words. The commercial push, starting earlier each year, launches us into a materialistic frenzy. And battles break out over what "holiday" terms are acceptable for use in public settings.

But perhaps the enemy does his best work, not in keeping Christmas out of public venues, but in keeping it out of families.

Naughty List

As I've compared notes with friends, I've observed several common holiday spoilers. These frustrations, when left unchecked, can create holidays as foul as last year's fruitcake (or this year's fruitcake, for that matter).

Spoiler #1 — Family Feuds

All families have issues. And being thrown together with family members for extended periods of time can be a recipe for disaster.

Last year the combination of being cramped in my parent's new, small house and a yearlong build-up of tension between my sisters led to a major family blow-up. Harsh words were spoken, tears were shed, feelings were hurt — Christmas spirit was pulverized.

My friend Will encountered another kind of feud. He intentionally planned to be home for only two days, anticipating his mom's critical comments. Whether delivering snide remarks about his dress or blatantly attacking his life choices, Will's mom took every opportunity to communicate her disapproval.

Spoiler # 2 — Comparison Game

Whether you're comparing your lot to someone else's, or you're being compared, the holidays can be a breeding ground for discontentment.

Last Christmas, my brother and his wife celebrated Christmas with us, not only in wedded bliss, but expecting their first child. As the older sister, I found myself dwelling on the inequity of the situation. While I felt content with my life in Colorado — great church, good friends, fulfilling job — being around the happy couple made me feel left out and somehow inferior.

Even if you're not playing the comparison game, someone will gladly do it for you. "I'm sure the single thing will come up again this year," my friend Josh recently told me. "I'm hoping to distract them with the fact that my uncle is expecting a child and grandchild in the same month."

Not all of us are fortunate enough to have a tabloid-like family event to divert the attention, and it's demoralizing when relatives not-so-subtly imply that something might be wrong with you because you're, in their opinion, behind others your age. ("After all, you're 26 and unmarried. Aren't you afraid people might start to wonder if you're gay?") Like playing a game of life where your opponent already has the wife, the house and six kids, and you have — the empty car — differences become glaring.

Spoiler #3 — Boredom

Going from a busy life of work, ministry and coffee dates with pals to hanging out at Mom's house, can feel like the difference between a big-screen, high-definition TV and a 3- inch black-and-white.

I find myself nearly crawling out of my skin by my second day home. Separated from my wireless Internet and espresso machine, time seems to stand still. Symptoms of holiday boredom may include restlessness, general malaise and sudden urges to jump out a window or run around the block. And the more unproductive I feel, the crankier I get.

One of my friends told of the Christmas she got snowed in with her parents and ended up playing Phase 10 for five hours. "I was going crazy," she says, "I was so desperate, I finally just put on my running clothes and jumped on the treadmill."

Spoiler #4 — Lame Gifts

When you're a kid, you eagerly await Christmas morning, knowing you'll receive the things you long for. When you're an adult, your parents get you things like socks, roadside emergency kits and faux fur-lined parkas.

Several years ago, I opened a box to discover a pair of fleece pants with a hot pink crown, surrounded by sparkly rhinestones, and the word "Princess" embroidered on the right thigh. I quickly shut the lid.

"Mom," I whispered, "I think you mixed up one of my presents with Bekah's." I was sure a gift intended for my 14- year-old sister had accidentally found its way into my hands.

"Nope, those are for you!" she said, obviously proud that she had gotten me something so young and hip.

As childish as it sounds, I get bummed out when I receive such unfitting presents. It goes deeper than ending up with items I plan to re-gift next year. Bad gifts send the message that my family member doesn't know me or didn't care enough to get me something meaningful.

Spoiler #5 — Disappointed Expectations

Last year Katy went home expecting to celebrate a joyful Christmas with her parents and younger brother as she had since she was 2. Instead, her brother's new, yet serious, girlfriend, Andrea, participated in every family event.

"My expectation was that things would be the same as they'd always been," Katy says. "And I didn't know how to handle it."

The fact that the girlfriend was not a believer and five years younger than Katy's brother, added to Katy's displeasure. The night before she flew home the dam broke. "There was lots of crying and hurt feelings," she says.

Whether Christmas traditions are lagging, your family has a new member or your parents have moved into a new house, Christmas may feel different than it used to.

Cultivating Christmas

Last year I realized too late that something was wrong. Instead of treasuring the time I had with my family, I had wasted it feeling like a victim. This year I'm making a few Christmas resolutions.

Resolution #1 — I will remember who I am.

When I considered the source of last year's post-holiday blues, I realized I was letting other people's comments and actions, instead of my position in Christ, inform how I felt about myself. This shouldn't have surprised me. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I didn't have a single quiet time while I was home. I got out of my spiritual routine and became an easy target for Satan's lies.

This year I plan to spend time with the Lord each day to saturate my mind with truth. I have asked a couple of friends to pray for me. And I will remind myself daily that I am Christ's ambassador. He has placed me in this family, and I need to take every opportunity to share His peace and joy.

Resolution #2 — I will put others before myself.

Many of my holiday disappointments have stemmed from selfishness. Things don't go the way I had hoped, and I start feeling sorry for myself. Instead of thinking about how to secure the perfect gift that would make Mom's life easier, I grumble about the ugly pajamas I receive.

Putting others first, with no thought of what you'll get in return, is a rewarding experience. Several of my friends have married and started their families. I've noticed that parents seem to have a renewed excitement for Christmas. And the thrill doesn't come from finding the latest high-tech gadget under the tree. It comes from watching their children's joy.

I have decided to translate this concept into my own holiday project. Each day I will look for little ways I can bless and serve my parents, brother and sisters — waking up early for coffee with my dad, helping Mom around the house, writing notes of love to my sisters. I suspect that as I look for ways to make their holidays special, I will discover some joy of my own.

Resolution #3 — I will plan ahead.

Last year the basic running of the household exacerbated family conflict. Dishes piling up, poor timing and conflicting schedules became the catalyst for numerous family spats.

When I made a surprise visit home this year for Thanksgiving, however, we all focused on keeping the dishes done, helping to get meals on the table and planning family events at convenient times. I found myself enjoying moments at the sink (my parents don't have a dishwasher!), talking with my mom and sisters. Our cooperation minimized friction.

Planning ahead can also combat boredom. My friend Sarah often plans to do "projects" for her parents when she's home. One year she put old photos into albums for her mom. Another year, she cleaned and decorated the guest room. In anticipation of potentially monotonous hours, I am planning to revive some lagging family traditions and organize at least one memorable family event.

Resolution #4 — I will choose to love.

Some relationships will always be difficult, but just as God loves me and accepts me into His family, I am called to love my family.

This summer Katy learned that her brother's girlfriend was expecting a baby. The news was devastating. "I expected my family to be a certain way and that changed drastically," she says. "I expected going home for Christmas this year would be worse than last year."

But during a visit home in the fall, Katy made a choice. "I decided I needed to love them as Jesus loves them, get past the junk and move on." The decision took a lot of humility, Katy admits, but when she started making an effort to relate to Andrea in love, things started to change. At the end of the visit, Andrea offered to pick Katy up at the airport when she comes home for Christmas.

Resolution #5 — I will cherish my family.

I won't always have my family. God has put them in my life for a time. No matter what challenges fill this Christmas season, I want to remember that spending it with my family is a gift. And it's up to me to use that gift wisely.

Copyright 2005 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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