Too much alcohol can be a trigger for Christmas tensions and arguments.
When we think of Christmas, most of us think of the Hallmark version of it: the loving, happy, laughing family around the Christmas tree.
But then there is reality. Sometimes a loud, obnoxious guest who has to have the last word or a political argument that no one wants to lose can ruin a Christmas celebration.
How can families avoid or overcome tensions and conflicts that sometimes overflow at Christmas time?
For some, the key survival strategy for the Christmas holidays is flexibility and a spiritual focus.
“That’s always my perspective,” says Father Paul Terrio, the archdiocesan director of vocations and pastor of Holy Trinity Parish.
“I would be a little proactive. If we have somebody who is really aggressive with his political or whatever views, then I think it’s worthwhile to do the difficult thing and speak to them beforehand,” Terrio suggests.
“Certainly the final word is charity. If it has to be an imperfect thing (Christmas celebration), well then we all as a group should try to deal with this person who can’t shut up. Your biblical question is to be as wise as a serpent but as mild and gentle as the dove. I think we have to combine the two at these social things.”
Carolyn Donnelly, a St. Albert chartered psychologist, says some key ingredients for a more peaceful Christmas include prayer and limits on alcohol.
“We have to pray for patience and kindness and gentleness and forgiveness,” Donnelly said. “So often with the busyness of Christmas people get away from their prayer life and their reading and they go into these (social) situations maybe not as connected to their spiritual help.”
In Donnelly’s experience, it’s unrealistic not to expect some kind of tension at Christmas. “Things are not magically going to change just for Christmas,” she said, noting that whenever people get together the potential for conflict exists.
“Normally throughout the year you can kind of limit contact with some family members you don’t get along with but then these holidays come and that’s when family conflict often erupts,” Donnelly said.
“The problems (between them) haven’t been solved and the resentments are still there and what they have been able to avoid they can’t avoid anymore.”
However, people can do a lot to mitigate conflict. “Dealing with stress and limiting alcohol is a big thing,” Donnelly stressed. “Keep your stress in check because when people are stressed they are less patient, less tolerant and are more likely to resort to angry words.”
“When conflict does erupt, try to attempt to repair, such as ‘I’m sorry I said that. I’m sorry I upset you.’ It may not be accepted but I think it’s important to try make those repair attempts when conflict erupts.”
Paul Quist and his wife Carol, who do marriage and family ministry at Holy Trinity Parish, say the key is to keep the celebrations simple.
“Christmas is supposed to be the happiest time of the year and we are putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to make it that way,” Carol says. “We are kind of idealizing this time of the year.”
Look to Bethlehem
She said one of the most important things we can do is to “keep things simple and not have high expectations of ourselves and others; not be so extravagant. “If we look to Bethlehem more, we will keep things simpler.”
Her husband Paul agreed saying, “The first Christmas was a very simple affair.”
The couple encourages people “to start new traditions that are much easier on ourselves and our families where the expectations aren’t so high.”
For instance, when Paul was a Lutheran pastor, the Quists were busy at Christmas because he had a couple of services to lead on Christmas Eve and a couple more on Christmas Day.
“Because he was running back and forth we found that the easiest thing to do was to order Chinese food on Christmas Eve. Then we would have a big meal with turkey and stuff on Christmas Day,” Carol recalled.
“We need to do what works best for our families and we need to start traditions that are easy on ourselves and on our families.”
The Quists also recommend trying to avoid fixing other people’s problems or our own problems at Christmastime.
“It’s important at Christmas to listen a lot more than to speak. We are going to get into less trouble if we can practise that,” Paul said.
Carol said people should spend more time in prayer “because that’s going to help us aim for Bethlehem more and it’s going to help us to be calmer and gentler with ourselves and others.”
If somebody brings a divisive topic to the dinner table, “we should gently steer the conversation away,” she suggested.
Added Paul: “Irritations and conflicts likely will arise around every table at Christmas this year. But if we have a charitable, generous and forgiving attitude, we can rise above those and we can still have a successful family gathering, even though somebody said something irritating.”
Father Jim Corrigan of St. Theresa Parish says Christmas should be a time of peace, despite tension and conflict.
“When I think about Christmas, I think about peace on earth and goodwill to all people,” he said. “If there is any time of year where we should probably let go of our perceptions and even resentments, Christmas is the time. That’s why Jesus came — to bring peace on earth.”
Corrigan said tensions are going to be there and as a Christian host one has to be able to deal with them.
“If we celebrate Christmas, the coming of the Saviour of the world who came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it with the law of love, then we need to try and practise it,” he said. “Unfortunately this is easier said than done.”
Why do we have problems with others? “Because we are too busy judging them, aren’t we? Corrigan said.
“When we anticipate potential problems or personality disagreements, we need to pray for the individuals we anticipate issues with.
“That may not change that person’s heart but it will change our hearts to be able to accept them complete with their faults and their graces.”