The monks at a remote monastery deep in the woods followed a rigid vow of silence. Their vow could only be broken once a year—on Christmas—by one monk. That monk could speak only one sentence. One Christmas, Brother Thomas had his turn to speak and said, "I love the delightful mashed potatoes we have every year with the Christmas roast!" Then he sat down. Silence ensued for 365 days.
The next Christmas, Brother Michael got his turn and said, "I think the mashed potatoes are lumpy, and I truly despise them!" Once again, silence ensued for 365 days.
The following Christmas, Brother Paul rose and said, "I am fed up with this constant bickering!"
There's something about this time of year that can bring out the worst in us even when we want to be our best—especially within our families. "The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree," said Burton Hillis, "is the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other." Okay. Sure. But that's easier said than done, for many of us.
You don't have to be related to Mr. Scrooge for a little apprehension to make its way into your thinking about the family uniting in hopes of some Christmas cheer. After all, this season comes prepackaged with a certain level of stress. Why?
Because of some pretty high hopes and steep expectations. Not to mention, there's shopping to do, cards to be sent, meals to prepare, events to attend, fattening foods to avoid, and money worries to manage. It's enough to turn our hopes for happiness and joy with our family into anxiety and worry. Literally. Professionals call it "seasonal emotional disturbance."
"Oh, great!" you may be saying, "On top of all my holiday stress I now have to worry about having a holiday disorder?"
You're right. So let's set the psychobabble aside and do two things: Identify a couple of important reasons why Christmas can become so stressful, and a couple of things you can do to minimize it.
Family misunderstandings top the list of Christmas stress for most people. Conflicts often come to the surface this time of the year because getting the whole family together means adjusting plans or managing disappointments when schedules don't work or some members decide to spend Christmas someplace else.
When families do reunite, old roles reemerge—roles that were developed when they were children in the family.
And when people regress to their childhood roles (usually without knowing it) other people pay the price. "Why is Tim being so lazy?" his wife may ask. Or, "Does it seem like Sara is really selfish to you?" a twentysomething sister asks her mom.
When you place all of this on top of the experience of shopping for the perfect gifts for one another and not receiving the hoped for response when they open it, or a critical comment is made about some decorations, or somebody neglects a promise to shovel the sidewalk, happiness is bound to plummet.
Another high-ranking stressor has to do with the emotional and physical drain we experience. Because we're thinking about the excitement of the season, we often don't see this stressor coming. After all, Christmas is a time to relax and unwind. We have an image in mind of curling up and relaxing by the fire with family.
But what we don't always consider is how much we're attempting to do in such an intense period of time (and often on little sleep). Even when the activities are basically pleasant, they are not part of our routine and they push us to do more than we anticipated. Why? Because we want Christmas to be happy, meaningful, and, yes, restful.
So what can we do to improve our chances for making this important season everything we hope for?
First of all, we need to carefully examine what we're hoping for. It's true. Our expectations, if we're not careful, set us up for disappointment. So begin by asking yourself what you're really wanting from your family time together this year. Be as specific as you can and then question how realistic your hope is.
For example, if you are hoping this is the year when your feuding family members make amends around the Christmas dinner table, you're likely to be let down. In fact, this particular time of the year can even intensify relational fissures. You get the point. So take a close look at your expectations.
Now what we are about to also suggest may sound trite, but it's not meant to be. You've probably seen it on a sign outside a local church: "Remember the reason for the season." With all the commercial hype it's easy to lose sight of what we're celebrating. The birth of God's son enfolds us in the warm glow of His mercy.
Wrapped in the swaddling clothes of God's grace, Jesus' incarnation brings hope and peace.
Our awe at Advent is that He came, and our amazement increases with the knowledge that He would one day be crucified.
When we keep these truths in mind, the stress of the holiday can't help but dissipate.
If your Christmas is to be a happy one, it won't be because of perfect meals, perfect weather, perfect gifts, or perfect connections. The perfect family Christmas celebration simply does not happen. It will be because we remember the reason for the season, adjust any unreasonable hopes, and decide to be in the moment and a blessing to everyone as best we can.
Les and Leslie Parrott are founders of RealRelationships.com and co-directors of the Center for Relationship at Seattle Pacific University. Their books include Saving Your Marriage before It Starts, The Complete Guide to Marriage Mentoring, Love Talk, and just recently, The Hour That Matters Most.
Holiness Today, Nov/Dec 2011
Please note: This article was originally published in 2011. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.