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Many of us grew up with warm feelings about the upcoming season. Songs like, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” were reminders of a tender time with the ones we loved – and those with whom we shared the fondest memories.
I can’t help but wonder if this year, the anticipation of those holiday gatherings might bring very different feelings for many.
Almost everyone has been at least a bit traumatized over the past two years as we’ve grown weary of hearing about “unprecedented” events. Even more, at every turn, from the pandemic to the election, to racial tensions to COVID treatments, these events have stoked disagreements among many – including those (and sometimes especially those) in our families.
Different ideologies aren’t only age or political party-specific, either; they’re also often geographically diverse. Lockdowns and masking rules were different around the country, so families may travel to gatherings from places with very different experiences and perspectives about the past few months.
I am the pastor of a church that places immense value in two areas: compassion for others and building healthy families. These themes will be tested for many in the coming weeks, and unfortunately, some will just avoid the connections altogether – robbing them of the opportunity to cultivate these priorities.
But bringing these two core values together, I believe, is the secret to keeping joy in the gatherings ahead – here are some ways to do just that:
Establish Core Principles Before You Gather.
It’s tempting to say that you’ll need ground rules for gatherings, but I’d steer clear of such terms. Rules may just start the arguments earlier than expected: what are the maximum number of people allowed? Will some expect testing or vaccinations or masks before arrival? Perhaps. But why not find ways to accommodate differing opinions – perhaps by moving the meals outdoors, or finding a larger venue or park pavilion to meet?
In my family’s Christian traditions, the heart of the Christmas story is a loving God who assumes the pain of the world to bring hope and healing.
At Kingsland Baptist Church in Katy, Texas, where I serve as pastor, we’ve had one theme throughout the pandemic to guide our decisions: “Common Sense, and Common Courtesy.” We’ve imposed relatively few rules throughout this time because these principles are such a clear guide to loving and respecting those around us.
Why not propose those principles to family members before you gather – and even more, why not use those principles on your own before and during those times?
Welcome Outside Guests.
While you may be gathering this year with family, it’s likely that others around you won’t yet be able to look forward to such reunions. For many of our international neighbors, travel home is still difficult or restricted. Inviting their family to join yours would not only be a wonderful way to show kindness, but may also heighten the sensitivity of your own family members to the varying opinions around them. For many of us, this may soften potentially inflammatory comments or awkward conversations that would have been more uninhibited with only relatives present.
Choose an Activity to Enjoy Together.
There are plenty of fun activities around the community to take advantage of throughout the coming weeks: from a local holiday market to musical performances and even ice skating in the park. Or create new traditions with activities that build camaraderie. Board game tournaments, flag football, or even treasure hunts have created fun memories in our family through the years. Even better, you could add prizes to these activities, or a pool of money that will be given to the charity chosen by the winner.
Focus on the Needs of Others. In my family’s Christian traditions, the heart of the Christmas story is a loving God who assumes the pain of the world to bring hope and healing.
I have a loved one who went through a difficult divorce a few years ago that has made holidays more challenging. It would have been easy for her to think mostly of heartache and loss this time of year. Instead, she and her family have used this season as an opportunity to look outward at the needs around them. Every Thanksgiving for several years, they have delivered meals to those serving their community at the local fire station.
With the challenges of our current climate, the needs around all of us have certainly not gone away. There is no shortage of opportunities to move in the direction of the hurting, lonely or needy this holiday season. Nothing overcomes petty conversations like compassion and gratitude.
This holiday season may be the most challenging in recent memory, but it also has the potential to be among the most meaningful. Since the dawn of time, the home has been designed to be a place of hope and love – and we’ve never needed such safe havens more.
Why can’t your family gathering become a catalyst for such things in the days ahead? The world is desperate for news of peace, kindness and goodwill. That’s something we can all agree on.