I was once invited to a home where they had little wooden folding chairs which might be made in china for a penny. I’m no skinny-Minnie, so I was concerned about where to sit. There was an older lady present who was larger than me. She sat down on one of the chairs and I followed her lead. We not only ate a meal sitting on these little wooden chopsticks, but we also played a card game.
Two hours into the feat, the older lady looked at me with fear in her eyes and said in a low raspy voice, “I can’t feel my feet.” I asked why. She said she had locked her knees and was hanging onto the table for dear life. I was about say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Before I could say it, our 90 lb hostess fell to the floor. She landed on top of her chair which now resembled a stack of kindling. We all had a good laugh and then my chair broke and I fell into a box of bread for the food bank that we’d been sorting. Through it all, the poor dear–the largest lady in the room just hung on with all her might to the sides of that table and never fell.
There were expectations in our family to be like the Waltons. That meant we smiled through our pain and pretended we were a happy family. Emotionally, it was like that woman hanging on to the side of the table. People in recovery call this, “white knuckling,” but the problem with white knuckling is you can only do it for so long before you fall.
I am writing this post so you know you’re not alone. There are thousands of people like you who will be white knuckling through holiday dinners. Some will feel depressed afterward, while others will stay home and drown themselves in the temptation of their choice. But the truth is there’s no reason to freak out—it’s just a meal.
What makes all those commercials with happy families so irritating is it feels like they are lying. Many people do NOT have joyful meals with their relatives no matter what time of the year.
All happy families are alike,
but every unhappy family
is unhappy in its own way.
Perhaps Tolstoy was on to something. Maybe perfect looking families are run by stepford wives creating the appearance of uniform happiness. I appreciate the fact that unhappy people are honest enough to admit life sucks. As far as I can tell there are three reasons why holiday meals with the family are so painful—expectations, expectations and expectations.
1. Expectations to Have the Best Holiday Ever
You wanna know what killed the American dream? Expectations. And the expectations are even higher if you are the host or hostess, then you need to make sure you have the perfect food on the perfectly set table with the perfect children and the perfect guests so everyone can have a perfectly boring and stressful time. If we could just lower our standards say to “Let’s grab a bite to eat and have fun,” then the holiday meal might mean something. Comparing success notes with each other steals our gratitude and sets us up for failure.
2. Expectations to Get Along with Everyone
It’s not possible. The only people who will have fun this holiday are those who have already been hanging out with their family on a regular basis. Seeing people once a year does not a relationship make–it just sets everyone up for all kinds of rude awakenings.
Not everyone wants to try Aunt Matilda’s homemade bread with slices of peach and green beans in it. I refused it and I am not sure if I was ever forgiven, but at least she is dead now and can’t read this. There are people who will go shopping by dawn’s early light and people who will sleep until the relatives leave. Some people hate Christmas music while others will force their favorite tunes on everyone else.
The biggest problem with such family gatherings is they require a bunch of people to hang out who do not have anything in common except a bloodline. Whoever said blood is thicker than water forgot that thickened blood can cause strokes.
3. Expectations to Pretend Sucky Lives are Great
If you were molested as a child and must now eat dinner and act happy in the presence of the abuser—you have few choices—speak up, leave or numb out. The majority of people will just numb out. It’s also hard to smile if there’s been a family brawl and you are wearing bruises on your heart. Minor details like people who come half way through the meal, get drunk or rudely tell others off ruin the ambiance of the occasion. For some of people, it’s like dinner with the Munsters–but let’s face it, at least the Munsters were funny–and make believe. Most family gatherings make the Munsters look like Thanksgiving on Plum Creek.
It’s hard to pretend you are happy in the middle of a divorce or if you just lost your job. The expectations for people to never share what’s on their hearts is why so many people shun their families during the holidays. Which is weird because sharing our hearts and breaking bread together is what Jesus taught us to do.
Think about Jesus. He was going to be arrested, given an unfair trial and would die within a few hours, yet He didn’t hide his pain. He shared as much as He thought they could take. He knew Judas was going to betray Him, but He still washed Judas’s feet and served him the truth. He served the truth to Peter too. No one ran screaming from the table because Jesus was shared what was on His heart.
To be honest with you, I am not sure how to reconcile with family members who lie about me. Or how to combine our meals and keep the peace between the turkey eaters and the vegans. Or how to have a conversation with people while religious programming blares away on the TV. I love my family and I would love to have holiday dinners with my family, but it’s been a bad run and I don’t see it changing.
Probably the worst part is when people paste smiles on for the new generation and lie through their whipped cream that they’ve never minded dairy or turkey or Amy Grant Christmas music. Yeah, it’s like my former life exists in a time warp that no one can remember but me. But I no longer wish to emulate the Waltons–if we can’t embrace each other with grit and apply a lot of grace, it’s just a waste of time.