“My parents are splitting up.”
When these words flung from my cousin’s mouth one Sunday morning at church, I was stunned.
Oh, how my heart ached for her! I knew at the young age of 12 that this new reality would bring plenty of pain.
But I did not anticipate the changes it would force into our family gatherings.
Christmas has not looked the same since that divorce. Before that year, my sister and I looked forward to the long Christmas afternoon to play with our cousins. We could always count on enjoying Grandma’s traditional dinner with a full table of relatives.
Now each year as we approach Christmas, we ask the annual question: “Who will be there?” The guests ebb and flow each year as new boyfriends and spouses come in tow or family members make other plans. The group’s energy level is also affected by what festivities the cousins already enjoyed with their dad.
Tradition is something I can no longer depend on. Even though I have not had to live with this altered reality on a daily basis as my cousins have, I have still been impacted by the broken marriage.
Many of you could relate. Similar experiences have become common in today’s culture. When situations like divorce or relational conflict usher tension into Christmas gatherings, knowing how to behave can be a tricky business. How should traditions be maintained? Who should be invited? When and where should the holiday be hosted?
The outlook you choose can make or break the day. Here are three attitudes that have helped me adapt to changing Christmas traditions:
1. Flexibility. Our family traditionally exchanged gifts on Christmas morning, but after the divorce that was no longer an assumption. I remember the first time my family exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve. My cousins were scheduled to celebrate Christmas with their dad that year, so for the sake of seeing them, we planned to open gifts and take pictures the day before.
When I learned of this plan, I was filled with frustration. I knew it would not feel like Christmas. I was right; it felt strange and unfair. Yes, we were able to see family, but I still felt the loss of the long, golden afternoon and meal we had always enjoyed together. I had done nothing to merit this, and yet I found myself begrudgingly paying the price for someone else’s choice.
As I have been told hundreds of times, Christmas is a time for family and friends to celebrate Christ’s birth. In light of this, I am amazed by my ability to make it all about me. Why did they have to get a divorce and drag me into the consequences? I wanted to spend Christmas Day with family, and family only, while carrying out meaningful, long-kept traditions.
Over the years, I have discovered that an attitude of inflexibility only pivots my attention back on myself. Selfishly forcing “the way we have always done things” onto a broken family can drive family apart instead of draw them together.
I have found that openness to change encourages togetherness. Difficult as it may be, if I ultimately want to celebrate Christ with family I must place their needs before my own. In doing so, I reflect the self-sacrifice Christ’s birth embodies.
Flexibility is not always comfortable, but it helps refocus my heart on what truly matters.
2. Compassion. When I’m tempted to complain about my own sacrifices, I try recalling what my cousins must have felt while driving from one parent’s home to another for Christmas gatherings. When their parents divorced, they lost the root of their security. All I lost was one day of tradition.
Jesus calls us to be tenderhearted and to place others before ourselves. But I confess, it is easy to forget my cousins’ suffering. I still enjoy the luxury of a united family. Their desire to hold on to whatever traditions they can must be exponentially greater than my own. When I realize this, my heart is able to extend compassion toward them.
What is harder is showing compassion to those who instigated the pain in the first place. It is the least natural response toward those who are at fault.
But when you think about it, this is precisely what God does for us. We choose to sin. We choose to do things our way and walk away from God’s beautiful plan. But God still has compassion on us. He sent Jesus to earth on that very first Christmas so that He could restore us.
I need to have the same attitude of compassion. Inward heart change, and sometimes outward displays of empathy, can go a long way in setting the tone on Christmas.
My own disappointment over lost tradition and family peace may be significant, but I must ask for God’s help to keep my feelings from controlling my words and thoughts toward those responsible. Above anything else, my heart should break for their hearts and the suffering they have caused themselves.
3. Thankfulness. Since the divorce, I have experienced Christmases without my cousins, Christmases celebrated on Christmas Eve, and Christmases with loved ones distracted by non-family members. But I never guessed I would have to give up a home-cooked Christmas dinner, too.
The cousins only had two hours to be with us that year, and that led to the adults’ executive decision to eat a quick meal out before the cousins drove to their next commitment. My pale plate of biscuits and gravy tasted like paste. This was nothing like Grandma’s ham, yams, macaroni salad, and orange fluff we had eaten every Christmas.
My favorite parts of Christmas Day suddenly slipped between my fingers. No lingering afternoon. No photos. No homemade meal. I was always good at putting on a smile and trying to make the best of things, but on the inside, I was angry with the whole situation.
One thing rescued me from a moody, miserable day: thankfulness.
My parents were consistent about reminding my sister and me to have a heart of thankfulness in all circumstances. And somehow that message penetrated my heart that day. Looking at my circumstance from a different angle, I recalled that at least I had a family, broken as it may be, to celebrate Christ’s birth with.
In the midst of upheaval, thankfulness served as a healing salve to my selfish heart. God designed thankfulness to dispel negativity and selfishness from human hearts, including my own. It turns my eyes away from myself. It points me to God.
Psalm 107:1 is one of many passages in the Bible that invites us to “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” I may experience His goodness and His love differently than Christmases past, but they still surpass my circumstances.
The enduring love that God gave to the world through His Son Jesus is more than sufficient reason for thanksgiving, even amidst family conflict and disrupted tradition. Family dynamics may not create a “merry” Christmas, but choosing thankfulness can do wonders for the heart.
I cringe when I reflect on what the past 10 Christmases might have been without flexibility, compassion, and thankfulness. While I have been far from flawless in these areas, they have helped me minimize my selfishness and maximize my love for my family and Christ.
God has been gracious to me in my weakness. I have learned along the way that when tradition begins to hold greater value than the people involved, my focus on the celebration wanes. May my heart continue to give God thanks for the gift of His Son, who was the very embodiment of compassion and flexibility.