This is the time of year when the harsh reality of family estrangement hits the hardest. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression rates spike during the holiday season when family stress collides with hopes for Christmas peace. This when we feel the pressure to present the image of a happy family to others in our Christmas cards, letters, and Facebook posts. This is when family gatherings bring together people who don’t get along during the rest of the year, with relatives trying to be on their best behavior. Despite family dysfunction, many of us hope that somehow, Christmas magic will solve our family’s problems. But we can’t sugarcoat our fractured families as easily as icing a broken Christmas cookie.
It’s time to stop magical thinking and start pursuing Christmas peace — peace within ourselves, with our family members, and with God — in the midst of dysfunction.
Ever since I was a girl, I’ve dreaded Christmas even as I’ve looked forward to it, because of the tension in my family. My parents divorced when I was 7 years old, setting in motion a stressful lifestyle for me that included listening to arguments and shuttling between houses. The Christmas season, while full of fun, exacerbated that stress by intensifying the arguments and complicating an already complex schedule. Figuring out who I would visit for Christmas, and when, became a tug of war in which I felt like a rope being pulled too hard. Eating copious amounts of chocolate Santas and singing along to Christmas carols on the radio distracted me somewhat from the stress. But no amount of Christmas magic could dissolve the sadness that settled in my soul like a black lump of coal in a stocking.
Now my family has new fractures in it, from a wide variety of misunderstandings, conflicts, and grudges. So as an adult, I still have never experienced the elusive magical family Christmas I’ve dreamed about experiencing. At least now I can see the situation through the eyes of grace. As an adult, I’ve learned that everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes all of us mess up even when we’re doing the best we can. Sometimes others hurt us so deeply that it’s hard to forgive. Yet still, I’ve continued to fall into magical thinking, naively believing every year when the holiday season hits that the stress will stop and forgiveness will prevail. Then I’m disappointed and frustrated when that doesn’t happen.
No more. This year, I’m giving up unrealistic expectations. I’m accepting that my Christmas experience will likely contain some pain that I simply can’t do anything to change. But that’s not a resignation; that’s a relief. I’m able to relax, having turned off the pressure of trying to make the family that I want happen, or of trying to pretend that it exists, at Christmas. I can finally enjoy peace at Christmas, despite family conflicts.
Families are complicated because people are complicated. People are complicated because they make a tangled mess of good and bad decisions, which God has given humanity free will to do. But we celebrate Christmas because God decided to live among us with unconditional love. That’s the true source of peace. No matter how our family members fail to love us and we fail to love them, we can live in peace because nothing can ever separate us from God’s love, as Romans 8:38-39 promises.
So this Christmas, don’t worry about the dysfunction in your family. God’s love is big enough to cover it all with a beautiful blanket of peace.