It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

Holidays with family can be stressful — Here's how to survive

The holidays are fast approaching; don’t wait until it’s too late. No, I’m not talking about shopping. I’m talking about dealing with family and friends (especially family) during what has often been dubbed “the most wonderful time of the year.”

How will you know it’s too late? You’ll know it’s too late when you’re beaned in the middle of the forehead by a brown-and-serve biscuit while guzzling down your third glass of Merlot during Christmas dinner. Believe me, I’ve been there.

The holidays change a lot when you become an adult. Gone are the days of childhood, when Christmas’ sole worth was based entirely on what was under the tree: If I got the Legos and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures I wanted, Christmas was pretty much golden, as far as I was concerned. When we grow up, Christmas gets a little more complicated.

Though we may no longer actually sit down and write out our Christmas “wish list” as an adult, we do, for all intents and purposes, still have it, except now it’s called “expectations.” And just as children will make it abundantly clear when Santa’s dropped the ball, as it were, in the gift department, so too do we let it be known when our expectations for the holiday are not met. However, instead of shouting and pouting when we don’t get what we want, we let our disappointment manifest in other ways, usually beginning with a passive-aggressive comment during hors d’oeuvres and frequently culminating with the aforementioned brown-and-serve biscuit to the forehead after dinner.

It’s been said many times, many ways (as the song goes): Holidays with family can be really stressful. Really, really stressful. Usually, the stress is rooted in the same unifying desire: to make this Christmas the best Christmas ever. Every year, we gather with our families for Christmas in the hope that this year will be the one remembered for a lifetime. The Christmas like a Christmas card where the food, gifts, and family are all perfect — a Christmas for the ages. Ironic, when we consider the first one, by all accounts, took place in a barn, with our newborn Lord forced to sleep in a feeding trough. Still, we want Christmas to be perfect and we usually have very specific ideas as to how that can be accomplished. Unfortunately, so does the rest of our family; rarely do these ideas ever completely match up. But it’s good to remember that all of you want the same thing and no one in your family is intentionally trying to ruin Christmas.


Of course, the Jesuit tells you to pray, right? But there is something to it, as we do frequently forget what the season is all about, and practically speaking, prayer is a great way to recalibrate our minds and spirit. And don’t wait to start praying until you’re on the verge of saying that comment you’re going to regret.Recognizing that you and your family are all on the same side when it comes to wanting the holidays to be wonderful is a great first step toward having a healthy, relatively stress-free and — dare I say happy? — holiday season. Here are a couple of tried-and-true practical reminders that will help you to get more out of your holidays.

Remember, prayer is more than just reciting Our Fathers and Hail Marys ad nauseum; our faith has a wonderfully rich contemplative tradition that can be accessed by anyone at any time. Why not take 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning of your day to read some scripture — the daily readings from the lectionary always work — while sipping your coffee? You might want to consider reading some passages from the Gospel (the Luke infancy narratives would be great during this time of year) and imagine yourself “in the scene.” Don’t be afraid to talk to Jesus, tell him what’s going on, ask for advice and, most importantly, wait for him to answer.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, perhaps try reading some inspirational writing, either from one of the saints or someone more contemporary like Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa or Henri Nouwen. Whichever method you choose, take time at the beginning of your day for the Spirit to work within you and ensure that Christ is front and center as you go out to meet the world… or your family.

But prayer and meditation don’t have to be just morning things. If you feel yourself getting a bit out of whack in the midst of tree trimming, carol singing or eating too much of Aunt Kathy’s fudge, take time for a 10-minute “mini-retreat” and find a place where you can be alone to cool your jets and rejuvenate your soul. Taking a few minutes to breathe, talk to God, perhaps read a little scripture, or even just clear your mind can be just the thing to diffuse any sort of tension that you feel building up within.

Be of service

It’s easy to get caught up in our own expectations. A simple way out of the expectations trap is to focus on how we can make the holidays better for others. If we’re at a holiday party, we can make sure we’re available to the host and hostess for any sort of help needed throughout the event — be it helping to set up, serving food or cleaning up afterward. Even if we can’t help in that way, look around and see if anyone’s alone or unhappy and reach out to them. Instead of hoping the holidays will live up to your expectations, see how you can make them live up to someone else’s.

Of course, service is never limited to family and friends; reach out to those in need in your community. Again, try to focus on making someone else’s Christmas better. We all know the drill for this: food pantries, homeless shelters, nursing homes. There are plenty of people in need, and heading out to help others will provide you with a little time away from what can see at times like a suffocating amount of time with family and friends.

Neither of these suggestions is groundbreaking, but if they didn’t work, people like myself wouldn’t continue to use them in articles about living healthier, happier and of course, holier lives. Christmas should be a time of mystery and wonder, but it’s important to remember that God is responsible for providing for most of that; all we are expected to do is to make ourselves open to it, allow ourselves to be witnesses to the miracle of the Incarnation, and let our loving God love us. We, in turn, share that love with those around us.

(Originally published December 2013)