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4 Tips for Surviving Family Gatherings During the Holidays

4 tips for surviving holidays at family gatherings

Well, it has been quite a year since the election, hasn’t it? (Yeah, it was only a year ago. I can’t believe it either.) And you know what else is coming, whether we are ready or not? #theHolidays. And with that means running into the family you may not love a whole lot, but you have to love them because they are family.

So how do we do this without losing our minds? (It’s not easy, but here are some ideas.)

But even with all that strife and all these differences, it doesn’t mean we can’t have honest, intelligent, and civil dialogue. I’d say now, more than ever, it’s important to talk to our families about what’s happening in our country and ways we can be better.

But how do we do that? How do we press into that uncomfortable space of differences? How do we avoid World War III at the dinner table?

It starts with you choosing to be the peacemaker. And that is super unsexy. But Jesus did call peacemakers blessed. So why not try engaging in the #blessed life this holiday season.

Here are 4 tips for surviving your family gatherings during the holidays:

1. Set your intention before you walk into the space.

If you’re walking in with your fists up, ready to defend yourself, of course, your family is going to put up their dukes, too. Before you know it, you’re in a brawl of words (or maybe fists, too, depending on how expressive your family is).

Yes, you could be exactly what your family thinks you are: the crazy liberal who has too much to say/drink and is always trying to stir up trouble. Or you could flip the whole thing on its head.

You could be the one who is there for family and good food and good times (and good wine). If you choose to walk into that space with the intention of making it a positive interaction, a time of love and joy and all those holiday-ish things we say, everything can change. Your attitude can affect the atmosphere in the room, and by giving the benefit of the doubt to your loved ones from the get-go, you are more likely to have the grace you need for them.

Don’t go into it thinking you’re walking into a fight. Walk in with your hands open. Stay soft. Go in believing the best for the people you are with. If you give them the opportunity, it’s possible they can surprise you.

And as the day goes on, stick to your intention. Even if your family begins to go off the rails, saying the worst kinds of stuff, your intention is to love them well and to have a pleasant day. Let the shit fly, and don’t catch any of it.

2. Humanize everything.

It can be so easy to fire back and tell someone why they are wrong. Be it about guns, immigrants, LGBT issues, the circus that is our government, or even theological discussions; we love being right. But there is a way to have a conversation without telling someone they are flat-out wrong.

Start by asking a question. (I know, revolutionary idea, right?)

For example, say your somewhat racist uncle goes off about Black Lives Matter and how they are disrupting everything and should be quiet. Ask him how his black friends feel when he says something like that.

If your aunt goes on the rant about “the liberal gay agenda,” ask her how her LGBT friends feel when she talks about them in that manner.

If your cousin starts talking about “those Muslims,” ask them how their Muslim friends feel when they are unfairly characterized. 

If your parent says something about the election or making America great again, ask them how bad it was before and why they voted the way they did. 

See what I’m getting at?

We’re asking them about their beliefs and policies. And behind every personal policy, there needs to be a practical connection to a person.

Behind every personal policy, there needs to be a practical connection to a person. Click To Tweet

If we have a belief about something, we need to be engaging in those places and with those people. By asking your family about the people connected to their policies, it lovingly disarms their hate or disgust towards a group that they have unintentionally othered.

And I say “unintentionally” because I believe, most of the time, people aren’t trying to be outright racist or bigoted. Again, it’s that benefit of the doubt we need to have towards those we love.

This isn’t a way to shame them, or a tool to continually cut them down, but a way to genuinely engage with the hearts of our families. And if you are seeking that they be more open and to help change their minds, you have to go into with that in mind. Again, open hands, not fists, are needed.

3. Be ready to ask even more questions.

When people say things we feel are straight up foolish, it is easy to just write them off as idiots, bigots, racists, etc. However, it’s easy to dehumanize those who are different from us, and the way of Jesus, I think, asks us to see the humanity in them even if they can’t or refuse to see it in us.

Now granted, I’m not saying that we should sit around and sing Kumbaya and pretend that there isn’t injustice. However, we must remember that these people are our family, and if we intend to love them, the way to approach these conversations is a bit more nuanced.

There’s a way to present issues to people in a way that gets to the “why” behind their topics. If you can address the “why,” if you can get to their heart, it’s easier move them from a where they are to seeing the flaws in their logic or to introduce them to a different narrative.

So if your family starts in on something controversial, you feel the room getting charged, and you know you are on the verge of something catastrophic, ask a question instead:

“That’s interesting. How did you arrive at that?”
“What specific policy are you talking about?”
“Are their specific politicians or thought leaders that have helped shape this personal belief of yours?”

When we ask questions, we get past the “them vs. us” mentality a lot faster.

When we ask questions, we get past the “them vs. us” mentality a lot faster. Click To Tweet

When we ask questions, we circumvent the tribal language we are so used to, and pretty soon we are beyond policy. Now we’re talking story. We’re uncovering the humanity of the people who drive us nuts and, all of a sudden, they aren’t driving us so crazy because we finally understand why they are the way they are.

What’s even better is that when you allow someone to tell you why they think the way they do, more of than not, they want to know your perspective, too. This is healthy and good and allows us to be the diverse people that we are. It allows your family, and the family of God, to be opened up further, wider, and become more beautiful.

4. If all else fails, grab the wine and chill. (Or bourbon.)

I mean, if we are honest, sometimes it’s easier just to say nothing, to keep your head down and just enjoy the tomfoolery that is our family.  Sincerely, I don’t advise trying to navigate batshit crazy. So if it all is just crashing down, grab your glass of wine and livetweet the mess out of your holiday gathering! Laugh it off later with a friend, and know that you are certainly not alone.

Happy Holidays, everyone. Hope your day is merry and bright.


How do you navigate the holiday season with your family? Got any additional tips? Let’s get some more together down in the comment section.

(Also, shout out to Rob Bell’s podcast on Politics and Guns, which you can download in the iTunes store, for some of these great tips.)

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  • JBReiter

    Sounds like wise advice. If there are any especially personal or triggering topics that might come up at a family gathering (e.g. your right to exist as a queer person), might it also be helpful to discuss boundaries beforehand in one-on-one conversations with some family members? People may be more receptive when they’re not under pressure to create a Hallmark moment. A lot of families are invested in this idea of the perfect harmonious holiday gathering, and some folks get defensive if they feel you’re “ruining” it with confrontation, but would be receptive to the same call-out in a private chat.

  • John Westphalen

    This was a really great piece on keeping the peace. Living in a rural, small town in Appalachia, the main flaw I see with it is that there is a fairly significant lack of diversity here, and often very little mixing. Example: the overwhelming number of churches in this area are white, black or Hispanic; NOT white, black, AND Hispanic. Get my drift? When you ask a relative, “How does your (black, LGBT, Muslim, etc.) friend feel about that?”, most-likely, you’ll get the blank (Baw, whut thee HALE is WRONG with yewww?) stare, or the blatantly bigoted, “I don’t have no (ni—er/fag/towel-head) friends!” Of course, this is where point #4 comes in, because obviously the pastor of their lily-white Christian church has yet to get through to them on that annoying little concept of love, and then alcohol and Trump-eting, er, tweeting are certainly in order. Anyway, I love the content and spirit of this post, Kevin. God bless and have a fantastic holiday season!