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A Christmas tree in a window. Photo by Raysonho, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A Christmas tree shines through a window on a cold winter's night.

When going home for the holidays hurts


A Feature by Susan Passi-Klaus*
December 12, 2014

Many of us are expected to celebrate Christmas with our family of origin. After all, “there’s no place like home for the holidays.” Right? Not for everyone.

Jack, a United Methodist pastor, knows the right things to say and do when encouraging and advising others dealing with holiday stress—especially managing family dynamics.

But when he makes the five-hour trip home to celebrate Christmas with his parents, grandparents and brothers, he reverts to being the middle child who bickers with his younger brother, argues with his father and absorbs the stresses between his parents and grandparents.

“When I’m away from home, I am a capable 33-year-old United Methodist minister who people look up to,” he said. “I can usually hold it together and keep perspective on life’s challenges. But when I go home, I become someone trapped by the same challenges that I’m supposed to be able to overcome in the ministry. I become the teenage son again.”

Amy Birchill Lavergne, Director of St. Luke’s Nick Finnegan Counseling Center, a United Methodist ministry in Houston

Amy Birchill Lavergne is a counselor at St. Luke’s Nick Finnegan Counseling Center, a United Methodist ministry in Houston.

Don’t look back – Move forward

Amy Birchill Lavergne, Director of St. Luke’s Nick Finnegan Counseling Center, a United Methodist ministry in Houston, is familiar with this type of struggle, especially during the holidays. “If you go back with different behaviors and a different outlook,” she said, “you have a chance of making things different and having a pleasant time. But if you go back and [replay] those family roles that you were always in, then it’s going to blow up again.”

The scene has been repeated in many families for years. Grandma mentions you’ve gained a few pounds. Sis teases about your non-existent love life. Liberal brother debates politics with conservative father. Mom is so busy people pleasing she doesn’t even ask about your promotion at work. Ouch! Was that the sound of your buttons being pushed? How will you respond?

Plan ahead

To keep the situation from stealing your Christmas joy, take some time to prepare for the visit. Know how you will want to respond – or choose not to respond -- to put downs or unkind remarks. Here are some good places to start:

Do a self-check. Take your emotional temperature. What are you feeling? What emotional wound is your family likely to reopen? Are you still stinging from the last visit, or have you moved on? You know the patterns and pitfalls. Prepare to be the bigger person so you won’t repeat the same painful history. 

Set realistic expectations. It’s unlikely you will have a Brady family Christmas. Can you accept and not expect? Family members may not have changed, and in their eyes, you may not have changed either. Happily ever after is probably not gonna happen. Get over it. Hope for a good Christmas not a perfect one.

Take breaks. Use the time “home” to have lunch with long-time-no-see friends. Take yourself on a movie date. Find those favorite relatives you want to introduce to your spouse and kids. Take on a project—sort through old pictures, or go treasure hunting in the attic. Whether your retreat is a childhood tree house, coloring with your niece, a good book, or changing your oil in the garage, seek quiet, re-center yourself, find your peace. Ohm.

Don’t go “there” wherever “there” is. Everybody has his or her own hurts, disappointments and dark places. Sharpen your vision. View family members through eyes of compassion. Avoid button-pushing conversations. Leave the past in the past. Do not repeat history by bringing up old injustices, mistakes and misunderstandings. Sometimes it’s safer to talk about the weather.

Live the Golden Rule. Do unto them as you would have them do unto you. Celebrate the true meaning of Christmas by being an example of Christ. Give others what they seem unable to give you—forgiveness, acceptance, equality, the benefit of the doubt, trust, good wishes. This is how angels get their wings.

Maintain your boundaries. Don’t be a wimp! Don’t accept meanness, put downs, guilt inducing comments, or a lack of respect. Speak your truth and don’t be a glutton for more punishment.

Finding the strength to go home, even though you know it will be difficult, can be a good measure of how much you and your skills have grown. You certainly don’t want to ever regret a missed opportunity to have had a meaningful interaction with a family member. The hope that things may be even a little better is worth the investment in time.

Should I stay or should I go?

But if you try the above advice and nothing works…exit. Catch the next sleigh ride home.

Sometimes it is wise to say “no” to the invitation and expectations to join the family for the holiday season. Birchill Lavergne advises that despite possible consequences, in the end, it could be the healthiest thing we do for ourselves.

“If you’re going through a challenging time and you know it will be bad for you to go home, I think you have to protect yourself,” Birchill Lavergne said. But be prepared for a reaction.

“You always have a right to choose to do what you want to do,” she said. “And you really should be looking out for yourself and what’s going to make you healthy and keep you in a good place.”

If you choose not to go, Birchill Lavergne recommends creating a healing community within your reach that can strengthen you and keep you going. Surround yourself with other healthy, supportive relationships.

“If you don’t like the way you act when you’re around this one group of people, then being around a new group of people that you feel comfortable with and safe with helps you change your own behaviors so that you feel like a different person.”

You’re not alone

Finally, remember you are not alone. Many families struggle, including some of those in the Bible. Imagine a family gathering of Joseph and his brothers after they had thrown him in a well, sold him into slavery, allowed their father to believe he was dead, and generally messed with his entire life.

Yet God was able to work through all of those circumstances, proving he can be present in even deeply flawed families. God can help us love our relatives—even when they drive us crazy.

*Susan Passi-Klaus is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Joe Iovino,, at 615-312-3733.