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“Janet” drives ten hours with her three children and dog to visit her parents-in-law and husband’s siblings for Christmas holidays. Her husband cannot get off work until later in the week, so she undertakes the drive herself. Exhausted upon arrival, they are immediately put through an obstacle course of second cousins and great aunts and neighbors they see once a year or less. The kids are overwhelmed by all the new faces, out of sorts through lack of sleep, and bored. Uncle Arnold has a habit of tickling the kids until they cry. Yet Janet is anxious that they make a “good impression” and feels she must reprimand them when they begin showing signs of crankiness. The baby is passed from stranger to stranger, and by bedtime is so wound up that he cannot fall asleep. The dog, who got hold of some fast food en route, throws up on the in-law’s newly cleaned carpet. The in-laws begin whispering that Janet is “spoiling” the children. By the time Brad arrives, Janet is miserable.

Janet and Brad do this every year. And they are not alone. Today, many families across the country undertake difficult trips such as the one I have described, at one of the most stressful times of the year—Christmas holidays. Some families drive or fly from one state to another, stretching Christmas traditions to encompass widely flung relations. Other families need to visit separated parents who reside in different locations, hustling the children from Christmas Eve at one location to Christmas Day at another, and Christmas supper at yet a third location. For some families, aging relatives urgently wish to see the youngest grandkids and grand babies. For others, the fear of offending in-laws or nostalgia for childhood Christmases creates a Christmas holiday worthy of The Amazing Race reality show. Christmas becomes a stressful chore rather than a joyous and holy family celebration.

Because of Original Sin, we all have a tendency to be attached to something that is not good for us. Even after Baptism makes us a “new creation,” certain consequences of sin remain: suffering, illness, death and the inclination to sin that is called concupiscence.[1] Or, for some people: visiting the in-laws during the Christmas season.

For Janet, her attachment to wanting to please everyone contributed to further anxiety and stress for herself and her family. She fears speaking up and setting some acceptable boundaries. My friend Barbara, however, takes the opposite approach. Rather than attempting to please everyone, she makes it known how everyone is letting her down.

Barbara insists on setting her elderly father straight when he comes to visit her family for Christmas. She corrects him when he trots out some antiquated parenting concept from his generation or callously makes an insensitive ethnic joke. Barbara believes it “upsets” the children and her husband. She worries about the effects of a few random remarks (that would probably go right over the heads of her small children) and reverts to her childhood feelings of being rejected or unloved. She wants to set her father straight, now that she is a grown-up.

But the cost on one particular Christmas was too high: Barbara spent the whole visit fretting and reviving sad feelings from her childhood, reprimanding her father, stirring up discomfort among all the family members, and generally creating a bad time. The biggest mistake, however, was falling prey to pride. Thinking: It’s all about me.

She was wrong. It was also about her dad, who was raised during a time when men were not supposed to openly express affection and when their conversation included manly debates and slightly off-color jokes. It was also about her mom, who felt torn between defending her husband and empathizing with her daughter. It was also about her husband, who was exhausted from having to listen to Barbara’s rants. It was also about the kids, who just wanted to go with Grandpa to the park.

We all have a tendency to “activating our faults” when we are in stressful situations– trying to impress old friends and relatives, re-create familial harmony and traditional Christmases past, or avoid stepping on anyone’s toes. A gathering of old friends and relatives during December is the sort of situation that can bring out the worst in us—just when we most want to be good! We are trying to live the season of Advent as a holy time of preparation for the birth of our lord…and then we run into Aunt Sally, whose very presence makes us want to scream and run away—thereby losing the opportunity to grow in our spiritual lives.

Sometimes the temptation to spend the holidays alone (perhaps take off to go skiing or refuse all invitations to Christmas parties on religious grounds) is overwhelming. But, though you might not encounter any temptations this way, you also will not grow in holiness. There is no escaping the fact that God wants us to grow in holiness by way of other people. As Our Lord tells Saint Catherine of Siena: “Every virtue is obtained by means of thy neighbor, and likewise, every defect.” [2]


Close Encounters

So, how can we prepare ourselves for these close encounters of a holiness-making kind?

Know ourselves first. Know our own weaknesses—both on a human and spiritual level. For example, humanly, we want to be alert to those times when we are most vulnerable, perhaps through lack of sleep (for example, driving ten hours straight through the cornfields to see Great Grandma in Chicago) or emotional stress (e.g. getting together with extended family for the first time in many years). We can know our own tendency to becoming overwhelmed or emotionally overwrought or angry. We can take a hard look at our own boundaries: Am I too isolated or inflexible? Or am I overly diffuse, going in every direction until I am worn out and resentful? We can also look at our spiritual defects, whether we are prone to vanity, envy, sensuality, or pride.

Generally speaking, however, we all are prone to self-love, to thinking that our perspective on things is the only possible perspective. We want things our way, we want others to recognize this fact, and we want everything to be perfect—especially this time of the year. We are all prone to this self-love which is ultimately what keeps us from being truly happy. God’s grace can overcome our self-love and move our hearts toward him. But there is one major obstacle: our pride. We can become so prideful, so inordinately full of ourselves, that even God cannot move our hearts.

Think of all the miracles where Christ healed the sick and forgave the sinners. He dined with the chief tax collector Zacchaeus, healed the lepers, and forgave the prostitutes. He allowed the woman cured of seven demons to lavish attention on him. But he was angry with the Pharisees and he remained silent with Pilate. In Nazareth Jesus was unable to perform any mighty deed (Mk 6:1-6).

Even God’s infinite power cannot penetrate where pride has barred the door. Pride is the root of all evil, from large scale holocausts and schemes of world domination to the insidious evil that strikes at the heart of a family, tearing loved ones apart and crushing the innocent. Father Eugene Boylan, a Trappist monk, quotes Tanquerey’s definition of pride: “an inordinate love of self, which causes us to consider ourselves, explicitly or implicitly, as our first beginning and our last end.” Father Boylan goes on to explain that pride not only causes me to imagine that I am greater than I really am, or to despise others to exalt myself, but also makes me think that my life is my own, and I live my life for my own sake.[3]


Xtreme self-love

Pride is the ultimate form of self-love, “which destroys charity and affection towards the neighbour, is the principle and foundation of every evil. All scandals, hatred, cruelty, and every sort of trouble proceed from this perverse root of self-love, which has poisoned the entire world and weakened the mystical body…” as Saint Catherine reports. [4] It was, after all, pride that caused Lucifer to fall and Adam and Eve to rebel against God’s goodness.

Pride encourages us to be attached to our own perspective, our own pet theories, our understanding of the truth. “You will be like gods who know!” (Gen 3: 5) Does it really matter that everyone understands that you are right? How many times have you heard someone say (after you have presented your arguments), “Oh, now I get it! We Protestants have falsely accused you Catholics all along about worshipping Mary! Thank you so much for explaining it to me!” or “Wow! I never understood until just now when you explained it to me, how unfounded the concept of global warming is!”

If we can humbly admit to the fault of pride, we have taken the first step toward improving all our relationships—with God and with those near me. Humility will admit that we cannot change anyone else, but can certainly work to improve ourselves. We may begin to eradicate divisions (whether great or small) that threaten to usurp our joy during this blessed season. When we cease seeing ourselves as the central attraction, the one whom it is all about, and instead focus on the One whom it is all about, we will become more willing to listen to that boring monologue by Uncle Sid and we might spend a little more time talking to that loser cousin who can’t seem to hold down a job for more than three weeks. We will have more patience with the elderly grandmother who frets about everything. And we will not see the need to argue every little point as though we are the only ones who have the truth, the correct perspective, the latest news feed from Reuters.


Know yourself, but also know others.

Each of the four temperaments will have a tendency to be attached to certain ways of interacting with other people that can get us into hot water (if not directly lead us into sin). The choleric is attached to being right, the sanguine is attached to being the center of attention, the melancholic is attached to being perfect, and the phlegmatic is attached to pleasing people. Our attachments keep us fettered; we are not completely free until we can free ourselves from our inordinate attachments.

With apologies to Charles Dickens, let’s take a look at some helpful ways of dealing with some of the more difficult types of people we may encounter this Christmas season.

This type is obvious. The Scrooge is, well, a scrooge. As Dickens put it, Scrooge was “secret, self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” We all know someone who is, if not an actual financial miser, an emotional miser– a tightwad with forgiveness, with his love and generosity, with himself. He calculates the cost of everything: the amount of time he has to wait in line, the amount of attention he has to give his co-workers or his children, the amount of time he has to spend massaging other people’s egos and personalities. It’s my way or the highway; anything else will engender critical opposition if not outright anger. He is the master of barely disguised impatience in answering questions, the condescending nod or aloof correction, the grudging acceptance of invitations. He always makes sure to put you in your place. He controls not only his business and his life, but everyone within his reach. He would like to control his children’s vocation, were it possible. His spouse and family are always walking on eggshells, hoping to avoid inadvertently igniting the simmering volcano that could erupt at any moment through a minor provocation. Scrooges are not always men; the female version rules the roost with an iron fist and can make everyone quake in their boots as easily as her male countertype. She is the Queen of the home, and everyone fears upsetting or crossing her.


Getting along with the Scrooge.

Many prefer to simply let him (or her) have his way (the phlegmatic response), as this creates the least anxiety. Standing up to him risks igniting his anger. Nobody should suffer abuse at the hand of an intractable Scrooge, nor should you feel that Christian charity requires you to be a doormat. The Lord tells us, "If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that 'every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (Mt18:15-17).

Unfortunately, you can’t treat your relatives as though they were tax collectors—especially when the entire family is gathered for a Christmas reunion! Once you have admonished him in a responsible and loving way (much the way Scrooge’s nephew Fred dealt with his cranky uncle) there is not much else you can do. It is not likely that you will have enough time over the Christmas holidays to prompt a sincere conversion of the Scrooge’s heart (barring miraculous midnight visitors). Therefore, it would seem that diversionary or peace-making tactics might be in order. Give the Scrooge something to be in charge of, to keep him occupied and out of the way of small children and animals. Give him a significant project, worthy of his attention: researching Christmas customs of yesteryear, organizing Christmas caroling, orchestrating the Christmas supper, planning a museum outing for all the grandkids. Sometimes his gruff exterior hides an unspoken plea for affection. Though he appears not to need or want it, try to let him know how much you appreciate his presence and his contribution to the family or to the business. If all else fails, offer it up.


The Fezziwig

Here is the joyous, magnanimous, ebullient individual who orchestrates the big events—the parties, the gatherings, the reunions, the multi-family dinner gatherings. In his big-hearted love for the season and for family, he brings everyone together and initiates games, dancing, frivolities. If you tend to be quiet and serious, you may feel intimidated or overwhelmed by the brash Fezziwig, and you may be tempted to retreat behind a show of aloof superiority. But this often is mere envy or resentment, resulting from your failure to properly express your own thoughts or feelings. You know the goodness of his heart, but sometimes you can’t help it, you are annoyed by his good cheer. Resist this urge to be aloof, superior and ultimately alone. In other words, don’t be a Scrooge. Appreciate the Fezziwiggian charm and enthusiasm, and don’t stifle your own personality. A friend of mine was always in awe of and intimidated by her own mom, who was very capable and outgoing and loved to take charge. Her mom would steamroll into town, and start rearranging Amy’s house and her schedule, too. Once she organized a surprise birthday party—complete with a seven course dinner—for Amy’s husband! Amy was left feeling useless and ineffectual. She began to resent her mom, instead of appreciating her mom’s organizational and leadership talent. She finally had to speak up, “I really appreciate how you can pull a party together at the drop of a hat, but since you are doing it in my home, I wish that you would first ask me if this is what I want to do for Bob.” Once she felt that her own needs were acknowledged, she became more capable of appreciating her mother’s formidable talents.


Getting Along with the Fezziwig

Appreciate this person for their considerable talents in socializing, getting folks together, and putting on the big events. If you are feeling resentful, annoyed by their interference, or suspicious of their charm, ask yourself: what is going on with me, that I am resentful of someone else being the center of attention, taking charge, or running the show? Oftentimes, it is most difficult for two equally take-charge individuals to get along—primarily because they both want to take charge! This is the time to focus on the fact that we are all members of the mystical body of Christ. Nobody is perfect. We are all called to holiness, called to friendship with Christ. Let’s not waste our time being annoyed by the gifts God has given certain members. Take advantage of the Fezziwig’s considerable energy and social talent! If they are not busy enough, you will find them annoyingly underfoot, making many unwanted “why don’t you do things my way” comments. If you need to work closely with a Fezziwig, give him or her plenty to do—but do not give them trivial or boring tasks! They like the big picture, the important tasks, and the socializing. And, they don’t need to have experience. One Fezziwig I know has always been the team mom for our school swim team. But supplying snacks before meets and keeping track of the team apparel for 80 kids is not enough for someone who has her capacity for running things. She applied for a bus drivers’ license so she can drive the team bus, and now she is an assistant coach as well (without ever having swum a lap). She could probably run the meets, as well. Give these highly capable Fezziwigs sufficiently challenging opportunities to use their managerial strengths.


The Jacob Marley

Doom and gloom. The ultimate pessimist and wet blanket. In A Christmas Carol, Jacob Marley deserved the punishment he received. He was doomed to carry in the afterlife the chain he forged out of missed opportunities, grace refused, and joy denied. His mission was to warn others not to lose their souls as he had done. For our purposes, the Jacob Marley will be the one whose negativity or constant criticism eventually puts a damper on every occasion. Oftentimes these folks are actually correct in their disparaging comments and dire predictions (about the state of the world, the family, the business woes, the economy, the war, the Church, and so on). These noble individuals may have the sincere intention to hold everyone to a high standard, by making you aware of how far our country, Church, or culture (take your pick) has fallen from its original greatness. But their constant kvetching gets you down. It can also become uncharitable. A priest friend of ours said that when he was growing up, he had been inspired by his parents’ example of charity loyalty to the Church. During the seventies when many goofy activities supplanted authentic formation and true reverence, his parents always tried to point out whatever good they could find. Instead of wallowing in negativity, his parents offered to teach CCD classes, never stooping to bad mouthing the priests or bishop. His parents had instead focused on the mystical body of Christ, the Church, which, though formed of sinners, is nonetheless the one, true, Church.


Getting along with the Marley

Don’t be put off by his gruff exterior or his tendency to being a gadfly. He often has good intentions, but becomes overwhelmed by the potential problems he foresees. He cannot help but note (and yes, he does have a tendency to lecture) that Cousin Jeff’s financial problems will only become worse if he insists on running up his credit card, and the housing market is going down the tubes, tipping our whole country into a recession. Remind yourself that he is, by nature, pessimistic. After fortifying yourself with a stiff eggnog, you can try to lighten the situation with humor (but not at his expense), or agree with him and then change the subject. Sometimes a deep insecurity possesses these pessimistic folks, and the knowledge that you really do care about them and value their opinions is a necessary first step.


The Nephew (Fred Scrooge)

Admit it, you had forgotten Fred’s name. You vaguely remember that Scrooge had a pleasant nephew, but that is about it. That is the nature of this personality. Fred is forgiving, amiable, and optimistic. But he also gets the least amount of credit. You might have forgotten that he was at that big family reunion where Uncle Jack’s drinking got out of hand, and everyone left except Fred, who stayed to make sure Uncle Jack went to bed. Fred is the quiet one who makes the best out of any situation and never calls undue attention to himself. Fred sees the best in everyone, even Uncle Scrooge. He is easy to get along with, cooperative, makes peace among all the disparate friends or relatives, and joins in without making a fuss or causing a stir—whether it is helping out in the kitchen, entertaining the younger children, or going along with the activity du jour. He or she does not have to be the star of the show, the center of attention, create a sensation or stir up a melodrama. They contribute to every gathering being a success—though others may not be aware of it.


Getting along with the Fred

You don’t have trouble getting along with Fred, but you may overlook him. You might take him for granted that and fail to express your gratitude for his peaceful and easy-going nature. He will not tell you this, but he sometimes feels unappreciated. He can be quiet and easily overlooked, so go out of your way to strike up a conversation with him, ask him about his life and his goals, and be enthusiastically supportive. Encourage (without pressuring) him to speak up about his own thoughts and feelings. The Fred is so amiable and willing to sacrifice his own interests, that his good ideas and his sweet personality can be overlooked.

A Christmas Carol ends happily. Scrooge learns his lesson, and reforms his life. He becomes a second father to Tiny Tim, a generous friend and employer, and a beloved uncle. Fred was finally able to bring his whole family together. Although Jacob Marley had bemoaned from beyond the grave, “No space of regrets can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused,” we learned the lesson that it is never too late. This Christmas, we can resolve to take advantage of life’s opportunities—whether it is a cheerful smile for a neighbor, a charitable gift, or a gentle word diffusing an argument. Charles Dickens writes: “It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.”

The central point of Christmas (and of life) is love. When Saint John the Evangelist neared the end of his life, he preached but one message–love. “Little children, love one another.” And when viewed through the eyes of love, all things are possible. Even loving the Scrooge, the Jacob Marley, the Fezziwig, and Fred.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Patrick-56466 December 3, 2007

    Great article, Laraine! I think we all have a little extra drama in our families this time of year and I know your article will be very helpful!

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