"I'm not coming if your father is going to be there." Sadly, this is a familiar reply to the Christmas invite in families of divorce. My parents divorced the year of our wedding, so these refrains are familiar territory. They challenge our ability to walk in the fullness of joy that is Christmas.
Often these broken family dynamics are magnified during the holidays. For the first time in 24 years, both of my divorced parents stayed under the same roof of our home for the entire week of Christmas. The verse I meditated on through the season was: "Honor your father and mother," which is the first commandment that comes with a promise: "Then you will live a long, full life. . ." The Lord rewards us as we honor our challenging parents, and he is blessed. This alone is a good enough reason to give it our best this year. After all, he chose them to bring us into this world.
How can you navigate the holidays with your broken family? Here are five things to help us keep it all together for the sake of our faith, our children and our own sanity:
1. Engage your family with depth and creativity. If you host the event, you're responsible for what happens next. You have the emotional edge in setting the tone for what follows, rather than buckling under the pressure of your divorced parents' meltdown. Plan your dinner and keep your guests busy. Load the table with Christmas crackers, sing a carol to start the meal, and ask everyone to go around and share a favorite Christmas memory. Give your children responsibilities so that the focus is on them serving those who might be hurting that day, rather than on themselves.
2. Invite one parent to join in your holiday tradition and another parent to celebrate a different one. My mother celebrates the tree decorating event every year. Reigning from her couch throne, she places hooks on all the ornaments and hands them over to us to hang. My dad is too unpredictable to include in a regular tradition, so we try to do something new with him each year. Include them both separately in the way that works best for your family. Do not let them run your own family Christmas. The day when we were children is over and our family now comes first.
3. Take care of yourself instead of striving for perfection. When Martha Stewart Living was the hot magazine and my in-laws were coming, I spent evenings in my garage dipping white chocolate onto Styrofoam cups for our dessert's perfect presentation. It looked great, but I fell asleep at the dinner table. In order to deal with holiday dysfunction, stick with your exercise program rather than abandoning it. Set a goal to eat healthier than you usually do. Treat yourself to an indulgence you never have time for, like sitting in a whirlpool after a workout. When the tense conversations come, you'll be physically at your best, and you can steer the tone more effectively if you aren't drained.
4. Prepare. As in, prepare the way of the Lord, making his paths straight. He is our way in the wilderness. This is what Advent is all about. Taking care of ourselves can only go so far if we aren't filled by his life-giving Holy Spirit. Otherwise,when the holiday storm hits, we'll get battered. The single most beneficial thing I add to my Advent season each year is an intentional focus on one participant in the Nativity. Get to know the people who brought Jesus to us and witnessed his coming. Read and listen to everything you can about Joseph, and spend time reflecting on how hard his life must have been. This will help minimize the gravity of your own problems. "Joseph's Song" by Michael Card is a helpful accompaniment, and Maria Rilke's poem "Joseph's Suspicion" can lift our hearts in praise. If you choose Mary, read The Life of Mary and Birth of Jesusby Ronald F. Hock, which gives helpful background on Mary's own family. An intimate look at the wise men is depicted in T. S. Eliot's poem "The Journey of the Magi." Some of us have heard the Nativity story so many times that we need artists to breathe new life into the story. When we stop and take in their words and harmonies, we meet those people anew. Spend Advent with one nativity participant and ask the Lord to reveal them through Scripture, music, and literature.
5. Never stop praying. This call in 1 Thessalonians is central to surviving the broken-family Christmas. Despite all of our best-laid plans, we can't do it on our own. The Lord of the manger is waiting to be in the midst of our dinner table conversation and our late-night dish-drying sessions. Don't let evenings go too late with the relatives. People get more emotional when they're tired and disagreements can fly, so say goodnight to your guests and save that space for the Lord at the end the day. Before you put your feet on the floor the next morning, invite him to come and order the thoughts of your mind and meditations of your heart for the new day.
How have you gotten through a difficult holiday season? Let us know in the comment section below!
Margaret Philbrick is an author, gardener, and teacher who desires to plant seeds in hearts. She is the author of the Christmas book, Back to the Manger: A Treasure Hunt for the Nativity which she created with her mother, an oil painter. Margaret is a member of the Redbud Writer's Guild and mentors writers through the Afghan Women's Writing Project. Her first novel, A Minor, will be released in May of 2014 by Koehler Books. You can connect with Margaret at www.margaretphilbrick.com.