There is no more regular feature of the Christmas holidays than the anxious balancing act that is brokered by young couples. Shuttling from family to family to insure that everyone's parents are seen and happy requires face-time, logistical planning, and diplomatic skills. If the same genius and energy could be applied elsewhere, there would be peace in the Middle East by now.
The presence of grandchildren exacerbates the pressures. Dueling grandparents are wired to look for leverage and the stakes are high. Generation after generation of young couples have secretly longed for their progeny to reach the age at which they could declare, "The children really need to be in their own home for Christmas." Of course that never really buys them freedom, because what follows are successive waves of incoming grandparents.
One friend declared, "My favorite lights at Christmas time are the tail lights on their cars." And a young couple characterized the annual round of visitations as "Forced Family Fun."
This is hardly a megatrend in the American Spiritual Landscape, but it is a piece of the Christmas experience. And it has the capacity to destroy any semblance of real celebration at this time of year. So I thought it might be helpful to offer a few observations and recommendations:
One: Christmas is not a "family holiday."
Families—as important as they are—have never risen to the level of deserving a "holy day." Christmas is a religious celebration and we celebrate the coming of God's Son and God's Kingdom. Families just happen to gather at the same time.
Take yourself off the hook and out of the center and take your family with you. Remembering the purpose of Christmas will put everything else into perspective and you will have a richer, deeper celebration.
Second observation: If you have a family to celebrate with at all, be grateful and let that gratitude color your approach to the celebration.
There will be millions of people who journey through this Advent season without the companionship of those they love. Pastoral ministry taught me (as almost nothing else has) that Christmas is anything but lights and tinsel for many more people than we imagine. It's good to be happy. But the "holly, jolly" version can feel like collective denial when you face the celebration in the shadow of great loss.
If that's not where you are forced to live this year, let gratitude be your guide. Don't just be thankful after the fact. Let it shape your approach to the holy day.
Hold on a little less tightly. Make fewer demands on those you love. Enjoy the time you have. Don't grouse about the time you don't have.
Three (and practically): Remember, you don't need to celebrate on the 25th to enjoy the celebration.
In fact, you may enjoy one another a good deal more if you don't try to do it all—along with everyone else—on Christmas day.
It doesn't make sense to plan two or three enormous meals on a single day and then run small families through something that looks more like a gauntlet than a party. Under those circumstances everyone is either late or about to leave. Everyone eats more food than any human being needs. And the ugly truth is our children don't enjoy it.
Look for an alternative date. Offer other plans: breakfast or brunch. Spread the celebration out.
Four: Work openly with your children and avoid gaming them.
There is nothing worse than an approach to the holy days that sends the message, "This is okay. I'm just happy to see you," but has a mouth full of fishing lure buried in it.
Be clear about what you hope to do. Be ready to hear what your children would like to do, what they would enjoy, and what they are able to do. Countless thousands (maybe millions) have used a bait-and-switch approach to Christmas that has left everyone with the taste of Grinch in their mouths. (There just aren't any reliable statistics, because it's the world of the walking wounded.)
Be clear. Be fair. Be prepared to hear what those you love would like to do.
Five: Remember, what you do to your children will find expression in the next generation.
Good, bad, and indifferent, we model behavior for our children. They either repeat our sins or react against them. And, being human, their reactions are almost always a factor of 10 and lurch to the opposite end of the pendulum's swing.
Any approach to the holy days that gives them space and grace is less likely to invite slavish imitation or angry rebellion. When we badger, manipulate, and whine at our children, we set the stage for more of the same.
Finally, treat it all like the holy day it is.
Jesus isn't just coming. He's watching.
Worship. Practice mercy. Wait on the Son of God. And leave your children and those around you with the sense that they have been called to something larger than Forced Family Fun.