Romanticized in memory, my childhood Christmases were festive gatherings of extended family: a few dozen tipsy adults and hyperactive kids on a marathon of feasting and fun—shiny happy people, as the R.E.M song goes, holding hands. That is how I choose to remember those days, despite the fact that many such event crescendoed with embattled wills and harmful words between adults and kids alike, then collapsed into a communal meltdown of whiny crabby people shaking fists. One year, I’m told, two of my great uncles on the Italian side ended a yelling match by ripping the Thanksgiving turkey in half and never speaking to each other again.
It seems to me that unless we interact with our relatives on a daily basis, by sharing a common goal or at least checking up on each other, we simply cannot know whom they have grown up to be in heart and mind. Unshared, our life experiences (and journeys toward or away from faith) can render us strangers, even enemies, to one another by the time holidays or major life events bring us back together under one roof.
This year—beyond the sacred Christmas Vigil, and a quiet Christmas morning planned with Kevin and the kids—I don’t know what to expect from family. While gatherings with Kevin’s relations are usually harmonious and relaxing, certain branches on my family tree are still gnarled and brittle. Some of us, I’m glad to report, will converge for a long overdue reunion; others have politely declined; yet others are cursing the audacity of a public reconciliation when they are still licking private wounds. In defense of the latter, I’ve not been wounded myself and so cannot presume that time’s healing job is complete. At the same time, I’m zealously impatient with people who seem so attached to their pain that they mistake it for comfort.
Minding my own business when—to paraphrase writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—acrimony threatens to “amputate the family memory” of happier times is a great struggle. But I refuse to stop believing, as one relative demanded, that my “hallucinated” God can hear and answer my “pointless” prayers that the family will once again “join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’”
The drama and dynamics of my extended family may be greater or lesser than yours. Either way, if you’re like me, family rifts are especially heartbreaking at Christmastime. What, if anything, can we do to restore peace? Can we justify separation from a family member because “it” wasn’t our fault? Do we think it’s enough that we get along with this sister and that uncle and other relatives we can more easily tolerate? Jesus says, in Luke 6, that there’s nothing impressive about loving those who love you and doing good to those who do good to you; “even sinners do the same.” The challenge is to “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
A merciful Christmas…it just might make shiny happy people of us all.