WE’VE ALL SEEN enough Norman Rockwell paintings to know what a family holiday dinner is supposed to look like. The ample table is set with gold-rimmed china and laden with a bountiful holiday feast. A rosy-faced grandmother rocks in her favorite chair, while sisters greet each other with tender hugs, men sit by the fire swapping stories, and children play harmoniously together on the floor.
Unfortunately, family reunions aren’t always “peace on earth.” As a member of a close but volatile family, I should know. Although my eldest sister no longer throws my clothes in the middle of the garage floor when she’s angry (as she did when we were young) and my younger sister and I no longer have fist fights, there’s still plenty of room for friction. Our family dinners often resemble a Picasso rather than a Norman Rockwell. You see, in our family, sometimes the Christmas ham burns, tempers flare, feelings become hurt, and voices are raised.
Because of this, I began searching for ways to make my family holiday events more peaceful. And I identified five techniques to help me deal with holiday family conflict—all found in the word peace.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. I have two sisters close to me in age and a third who was born much later. We three older siblings are married with our own homes, while my youngest sister just finished high school.
During holiday dinners, my youngest sister used to be very sensitive, always complaining she was left out of the conversation. My first reaction was impatience. We have an animated family and often have four conversations going on at the table at once. If you want to join it, you have to fend for yourself. But after an in-depth conversation with her once, I caught a glimpse of how it must have felt to always be the youngest and never able to join in on the “big girl” activities.
“Administer true justice,” Zechariah 7:9 instructs, “show mercy and compassion to one another.” To administer true justice, a judge has to listen to both sides of the story. We need to do no less in our family relationships, especially when our personal involvement may cause us to see things askew.
Establish your limits. My family members live minutes from each other—with the exception of my husband and me, who live about three hours away. During the holidays, my family tends to have so many functions to attend that we easily could spend the entire season in the car.
When we were first married, my husband and I tried to attend everything. However, during one particularly hectic holiday, we turned to each other and asked, “Why are we doing this?” The hectic pace and travel only made us frustrated and resentful. We were not enjoying the time with our families, and somewhere among the highway miles, we’d lost the whole purpose of Christmas.
Since then we’ve tried to set limits for what we can reasonably do. Overdoing it during the holidays only invites short tempers and family friction. Consider how much sleep you and your family need, and how you really want to spend the holidays. Set limits and stand by them. Even if your family doesn’t understand at first, your relationships will be better in the long run.
Accept family members and situations as they are. It takes me approximately three minutes to load my dishwasher. I quickly rinse the dishes, then let them take their chances in the racks. If they don’t get clean, I run them through again. But not my mother. For her, loading the dishwasher is an hour-long chore. She scours each dish beforehand and carefully arranges each one in its own assigned location. The dishwasher is not run until she is sure each dish is already clean and in its exact place.
It seems humorous now to think of the friction this small difference has caused at some family reunions. We used to try to change each other’s ways until I finally decided to accept her perfectionism and she my haphazardness.
Some things are harder to accept than annoying kitchen habits, however. But Philippians 4:6 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” That means no matter what difficulties we have in our families, we can entrust them to God.
When we accept our family relationships as they are by releasing them to Christ, we can shift our focus from how we wish our families were to how we should behave—no matter what the situation.
Control your tongue. It’s funny how some arguments start out so innocently. I noticed my mother had a new pair of shoes and asked her where she got them. One of my sisters, who had been in a bad mood all morning, was standing across the room and must not have heard my mother’s answer clearly. “No!” she snapped sharply, “I gave them to you!”
My response was instantaneous. “That’s what she said!” I shot back.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” she retorted. By now our angry voices had attracted the attention of the whole family, and I felt the foolishness of this interchange. How did such an innocent conversation deteriorate so quickly?
“A gentle answer turns away wrath,” Proverbs 15:1 advises, “but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Often at the first sign of conflict, sharp words tumble out my mouth before I think them through. However, these responses are opposite from the reaction God desires from us. James 1:19 says, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Heeding this biblical wisdom does much to dispel conflicts at their inception.
It helps me decide, even before I leave home, to be a blessing to every family member. “Pleasant words,” Proverbs 16:24 says, “are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”
Eliminate pity parties. I felt I’d been wronged again. I wasn’t sure exactly why my sister was angry at me, but her sharp words made it unmistakable that she was. Tears stung my eyes, and I bit my tongue and slipped off to an empty bedroom to nurse my wounds. What had I done now, I fumed. How dare she talk to me like that in front of the other family members!
I’d been there only a few minutes when another sister poked her head into the bedroom. “What’s the matter?” she asked. That was all the invitation I needed to include her in my pity party. A stream of bitter words toward my offending sister escaped my lips, requiring the other sister to take sides in the argument.
“He who covers over an offense,” says Proverbs 17:9, “promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.” Self-pity only promotes more conflict and friction, and thoughtlessly including others in an argument only makes it more difficult to resolve. As soon as you catch yourself sending out invitations to a pity party, do yourself and others a favor—stop immediately. No matter how good they may feel at times, they’re never productive.
Does your family need a little more “peace on earth” this holiday season? No easy solutions to family problems exist, but remembering to practice P-E-A-C-E in your family can help add a little more “joy to your world.”
“For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given … And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6).
This article was written by Teresa Vining and was featured in Marriage Partnership Magazine in 1998.