Surviving the Divided Family Christmas

“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 which is Christmas. Often these broken family dynamics are magnified during the holidays. How do we keep it all together for the sake of our faith, our children and our own sanity? One year my father showed up unexpectedly at my mother’s Christmas dinner. “Surprise!” He exclaimed with joy, bursting into the living room toting an enormous gift box. Our children jumped up and down with delight, hugging him, clinging to his stuffed, down parka. My mother’s face fell more quickly than her ruined chocolate soufflé. Our children’s joy lasted about ten minutes, until they opened the gift and realized what lay beneath all that popcorn packing, about thirty Idaho baking potatoes. “I want you kids to experience what it is to be thankful for a gift you may not think is so special, but for starving children in another country, it would be a feast.” Hmm. How do we respond to these well intended, uninvited Christmas surprises?

1. Run away – Although you may feel like it, this is not an option. Instead, engage your family with depth and creativity. If you host the event, surprises like my father’s potatoes are not as stressful because you are 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 parent’s meltdown. Plan your dinner and keep your guests busy. Load the table with Christmas Crackers, sing a carol to start the meal, 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. Pretend Christmas isn’t happening – This doesn’t work. Our children want all the traditions in full view. They call them “decks,” as in decking the halls. “When are we going to get the decks going?” They say, the day after Thanksgiving, usually right after we’ve had our first leftover turkey sandwiches and are still reveling in the glow of the candlelit cranberries we feasted on the night before.  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 comes first.

3. Strive for perfection – This is your recipe for disaster. When Martha Stewart’s “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 and I fell asleep at the dinner table. In order to deal with holiday dysfunction, take care of yourself. Stick with your exercise program, rather than abandon it. Set a goal to eat healthier than you usually do. Treat yourself to an indulgence you don’t ever have time for, like sitting in a whirlpool after a workout. When the tense conversations come, you’ll be physically at your best and can steer the tone more effectively if you aren’t drained.

4.  Prepare – As in prepare the way of the Lord, make 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, when the holiday storm hits, we’ll get battered.  The single most beneficial thing I add to my Advent each year is an intentional focus on one participant in the nativity. Get to know these 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 Jesus by 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, we need artists to breathe new life into their story. When we stop and take in their words and harmonies, we meet these people anew.  Spend Advent with one nativity participant and ask the Lord to reveal them through scripture, music and literature.

5. Pray without ceasing – This call in 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.

For the first time in twenty four years, both of my divorced parents will be staying under the same roof of our home for the entire week of Christmas. What might my father surprise us with this year? Perhaps he will bestow an enormous hook rug or velvet painting of a Santa Fe cowboy to hang nicely on the wall of our French country home. “Honor your father and mother” is the first commandment that comes with a promise, “and you will live a long 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.

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The People Who Bring Us Christmas

On a boring, grey Monday morning, we saw it. The white semi truck backed into the Cosley Zoo with hordes of men in flannel, hauling nettled bundles down the ramp, stacking them against a sea of tilted wooden crosses. “The Christmas trees are here!” My son screamed as we rushed by to try and get him to school before the bell rang in his Chemistry class. In that moment all the grey of November was erased by the hope of what lies ahead. Our hearts lifted up. The day became brighter. We began dreaming about snow and colored lights and “sneak-a-deeks.”

Every year we pilgrimage to the Cosley Zoo’s Christmas tree fundraiser and our kids play the game they invented, “sneak-a-deeks.” They pack themselves with snowballs and hide between the trees, waiting to ambush another family member. While we search for the, “prettiest tree we’ve ever had,” they are running all over the lot creating chaos. We try to ignore them, especially if they blast another customer in the face mistakenly. One year our son broke a bone in his foot and his best friend put him in the tree cart and wheeled him around the lot at top speed while he pelted us all with an arsenal of snowballs nestled beside him. His broken foot became an advantage.

These joyous memories filled me up as I made my way back home to grade papers and do  laundry, but instead of going home, I did a u-turn, camera in hand, and set out to learn more about these people who bring Christmas to us. I met Sue Whalgren, director of Cosley Zoo who has been selling trees there for thirty years. “I remember when we first started out, there were nights when I sat in a small room waiting for people to show up. Some nights no one came.” Now they sell all the trees they have, over 2,200 trees each season. It is Cosley’s biggest fundraiser and Fraser Firs are their biggest seller, “By far,” Sue said.  The Wheaton Park District has been ordering their trees from Badger Nursery in Michigan for years because, “They are able to cut theirs later so we get fresher, higher quality trees.

Andy Burgess works for Allegan Trucking and he hauls the trees in from Michigan. He taught me that it takes four trips for him to bring in about 500 trees a day and it takes ten years to grow the eight foot tree that we display in our living room. When Andy isn’t trucking trees, he’s bringing in fall pumpkins or summer flowers. He does it because he, “likes the open road.” However, he doesn’t like the increasing traffic and regulations which slow him down. The best part of his job is the pine smell of his truck as the delivery is being unloaded.

Who brings Christmas to you?  Take a favorite holiday memory and wonder for a moment, who was behind it.? If you have the chance to meet and thank them, you’ll be blessed.

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