A messy, broken family Christmas

I love Christmas, but I always love running away.

There are a lot of things I love about this time of year: the tree, the decorations, the music, the present buying, the present wrapping, the remembrance of Jesus’ birth, and the joy of giving and receiving. But let me be clear: I do not love the family juggle.

Thanks to my parents’ divorce and their subsequent long-term relationships, I have multiple sets of parents and stepparents and adopted parents. There are some strained relationships in there, some not. This is not even considering brothers, sisters, stepsisters, nieces, nephews, grandparents, and extended families (both my parents are the eldest of five kids). I’ll be lucky to make it through Christmas with less than eight events to attend, not counting work and friends. And there’s already been a lot of to and fro over the dates and locations of all the various events.

Honestly, lots of them I don’t particularly want to attend. Some of them will remind me of just how bad the relationships are, others will be 4-6 hours of awkward conversation with people I hardly know anymore about what I’m doing now, whether I like it, and where I see myself in 5 years, ad nauseum. Yet others will see me trying to hold back the tears as I imagine the people who should be there, but aren’t, for any number of reasons. Still others will be devastating as I watch my Grandma slip in and out of consciousness and awareness with her dementia. And still others will be lovely.

I have become such a cynic about family Christmas that the good ones always take me by surprise. I usually don’t realise until after the fact that it wasn’t completely hideous.

The bad ones are usually predictably bad, but that doesn’t give me a free pass to not go. In fact, the guilt works on me in the opposite direction. Because I avoid those people as much as possible during the year (not always intentionally, and I tell myself a quite convincing narrative that I’m very busy so I can’t go), to me it feels like Christmas is when I should get out my steely resolve and go see them.

Whether or not going is the right thing to do, I’m not sure. All I know is that I don’t feel like I can just check out of my family, regardless of how some of them have hurt me over and over again. I know people who have done that, and it’s not (and shouldn’t be) an easy decision.

Add into this that I’m single and it’s the perfect recipe for the Christmas Grinch. I really do love Christmas, but if I get shafted out of the bedroom to the couch one more time so that my sister and her husband have somewhere to sleep, I think I’m going to crack. Is it too much to ask that I get a good nights sleep too? Or if I’m forced to share a bedroom with my 5 and 7-year-old nieces, I think I’ll cry. I like them, but I don’t really want to go to bed at 8pm, or wake up at 4.30am.

I used to think that my experience of Christmas with my family was normal; I now realise it’s not. It’s too common for my liking, but it’s not normal. And navigating all those complicated relationships is hard work. It’s not uncommon for me to walk away from Christmas feeling like I need a holiday, because Christmas itself is not relaxing for me. Lots of people feel like this. It’s common, but it’s not normal.

So, I plan to be overseas every second or third Christmas. I need a rest from the family Christmas mania. I used to feel guilty about doing this, but now I just think it’s wise. I do not possess the ability to back up year after year to the craziness that is Christmas in my family. To put myself in that situation year after year only strips me of all my energy.

I know not everyone can afford to jump on a plane and leave the mania behind. But we all have our own ways of running away from difficult situations. Perhaps you hide the pain and stress in a few too many drinks? Perhaps you snap at that one family member you actually like? Perhaps you sit in the corner all day with your arms folded issuing “don’t even think about it” stares to anyone who considers approaching you? All of these things are common – too common – but they’re not normal.

I do want to love them. I want to show them the real meaning of Christmas. I want to model to them that at Christmas time we remember a God who sent Jesus to the world because he loved us. But running away doesn’t change that God sent Jesus.

I want to run away, but I wish I didn’t want to. I think part of the pain of it all is that the Christmas gospel is a message of reconciliation. It’s a message of God giving his most precious son to bring people to him. It’s a message of hope, a promise of a better future. It grates so much with my lived experience in my family – a story of hurt upon hurt and no repentance. A story of some people not doing all that they could to make me feel safe and secure when I was a child. A story of people running away (don’t worry, the irony is not lost on me). I don’t have any hope that my family situation will be better in the future.

I can’t get away from the idea that if we lived faithfully with one another; if we actually practiced repentance and forgiveness; then many lives would be better. And many lives would be better at Christmas.

But even if that’s true, it’s hard to practice those things when the other party is not equally committed to the idea. I long for a better future, but am constantly met with the mediocre family relationships that I’ve been given. So, I don’t go to family Christmas every year. I leave the country, so I can’t go. I think we all appreciate the little white lie that I’m not able to go, instead of simply choosing not to go. Maybe that’s the next battle: telling them how I really feel.

I won’t lie: when I run away, it’s a relief to not be around. I wish it wasn’t. One day those relationships won’t be marked by pain and grief. One day. There will be transforming forgiveness. Jesus will come and heal the deep deep wounds. One day. And on that day, I promise I won’t run away.