10 Ways to Enjoy DIFFICULT Christmas Dinners with Family

by | Dec 13, 2016 | Extended Family, Family | 18 comments

How to make Christmas dinners easier with extended family--even if you don't always agree with family or approve of family.
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Big Christmas dinners with all the siblings and parents and in-laws.

That can be very Norman Rockwell. But it can also be filled with boisterous arguments. Lots of alcohol. Swearing.

It can be really uncomfortable.

And so, at Christmas, we’re often presented with this conundrum:

What do we do with an extended family we don’t necessarily get along with or have much in common with? Do we have to spend time with them?

I had one reader write to me last week about her extended family. One sibling is in a transgendered lifestyle. Others are openly homosexual. All are often profane and use bad language. What effect will this have on the kids?

Yesterday I wrote a big post about what to do when in-laws are actively being verbally abusive or bullying towards members of your nuclear family. But today I want to pose the more common question: What if you just don’t agree with their lifestyle, or what if you just don’t like them very much or get along with them? What do you owe them at Christmastime? Obviously, if they’re abusive, yesterday’s post is more relevant. But when families just plain are unpleasant, here’s some other thoughts for today’s Top 10 Tuesday.

Some of these thoughts may not sound much like me. After all, I’ve spent the last few months talking a LOT about how it’s wrong to enable sin, and we should draw boundaries. But I’d like to take this from another perspective today.

So here’s the question I’d really like to ask:

Can you get along with extended family, even if you don’t agree with them, approve of them, or even just plain like them?

I think we can. And here are 10 ways to make that easier:

How to make Christmas dinners easier with extended family--even if you don't always agree with family or approve of family.

1. Draw boundaries over how much time you will spend with extended family.

It’s okay to say, “We’d love to join you for dinner from 3-7 on Christmas”. You don’t want to stay all day. Think about how much you can take comfortably, and then make those rules. It’s also okay to enforce boundaries on gifts. It’s okay to say, “we don’t have a lot of money for presents this year, so we’d prefer to draw names and only buy one gift,” or “we won’t be giving presents to anyone over 18 anymore.”

2. Try to carve out time with just your nuclear family (or those with whom you’re 100% comfortable).

It’s also easier to handle extended family if you have time at Christmas just with your nuclear family (or those with whom you’re totally comfortable and laid back with). It’s okay to say to your parents, “we’d like to spend Christmas morning just with the kids.” Build some memories the way you want to build them, and then it’s easier to handle more difficult situations in small doses.

But, once you’ve got those boundaries in place, try to love your extended family wholeheartedly in the time you are giving them. Here’s how:

3. Come to terms with what you expect from your family.

One of the reasons that extended family takes such a toll on us, I think, is that deep inside we long for the approval and love of family.

When extended family isn’t like that, then we often feel hurt, and that hurt is often expressed as anger. “They’re bad people.” “They’re hurting my children.”

What if, instead, you realized,

My extended family is never going to be that for me. That’s why God put me in the body of Christ, so that other people could fill that role for me! So my job, in this family, is just to love others, without expecting anything in return.

As I said yesterday, it doesn’t mean that you accept abuse from people. But you know what? Drinking alcohol in front of you is not abuse. Swearing in front of you is not abuse. Being rude or vulgar is not abuse. It just means that they aren’t like you. That’s hard to accept, and sometimes we have to mourn for a while what we wish we had. But when you stop expecting extended family to fill a certain role for you, then you’re freed up just to love them!

4. Realize your nuclear family is your main family. Don’t expect others to fill the gap.

If you came from a not-so-great family, or if your family currently is not-so-great, that’s sad. But the neat thing is that you can create your own traditions and your own family, right now, with your husband and your kids. Realize that your nuclear family is your main source of love and emotional connection. Others don’t have to fill that role.

5. Does everything need to be perfectly pleasant?

We all dream of idyllic Christmases with magic and candlelight and family togetherness. But does everything have to be like that? If you enjoy time with your nuclear family, does it really matter if a few hours or a day out of the Christmas holidays isn’t how you’d like to spend it? Is it okay if some part of the season is about you loving others where they’re at, even if it’s not as fun for you?

6. Do we have to agree to get along?

Is it necessary to agree to be civil and kind to one another? Do people have to be super nice to you in order for you to be nice to them?

What I’ve seen in a lot of my extended family is that people can take offence, and that offence can last for years. I made a decision early on in my marriage that I just plain wasn’t going to let myself dislike anyone or hold a grudge. Life is just easier if we all get along and are kind to one another. So that meant that I didn’t have expectations on people. I decided that I would try to find things to talk about where we had things in common, even if it was just the kids. If someone did something I didn’t like, I just ignored it. That’s not becoming a pushover; that’s just deciding that you’re not going to take offence and you’re just going to get along.

I wasn’t expecting anyone to be my best friend. I was just expecting that we could be kind to each other.

7. Remember: your kids identify with you.

“But what about the children?” I can hear so many say. What effect will it have on them to see people getting drunk or to hear people swearing? Won’t that mean that our kids will start to think that kind of behaviour is acceptable?

No, not at all. You are the ones raising your kids, and they will primarily identify with you. You can say to your children, “Sometimes Uncle Joe drinks too much alcohol and acts really badly. That’s one of the reasons that God doesn’t want us to get drunk. But we’re going to love Uncle Joe anyway.” Your kids know what you approve of or don’t approve of, and just because they’re around people who are different does not mean that they’ll somehow change their minds.

8. If you treat it like it’s not a big deal, your kids will, too.

Worried that your kids will pick up on swear words because they hear them from your family? Honestly, if you treat it like it’s not a big deal, they will, too. Our kids heard swear words for years without realizing they were swear words because we never really reacted. But if you make a fuss all the time or show obvious disapproval, then your kids will perk up and try to see what’s causing all the uproar.

9. Your family already knows your views. You don’t have to advertise them more by actively disapproving of them.

If your brother brings his live-in girlfriend to dinner, you are not obligated to tell them that you think sex before marriage is wrong. If your cousin who you know smokes marijuana comes to dinner a little bit high, you are not obligated to tell her that she is doing something bad. If your uncle who is homosexual brings his lover, you aren’t obligated to say that you disapprove of homosexuality.

I’m pretty sure that your brother, your cousin, and your uncle already know what you think. What matters to them is how you love. We don’t win people to God by spreading our views. We win them by loving and by setting an example. Live out your faith; don’t expect people who don’t already share it to be able to live it without the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. 

10. Jesus ate with sinners. That means it’s okay for you to eat with them, too.

If you have a homosexual brother who is bringing his partner to dinner, eat with them. Laugh with them. Tell jokes. Enjoy them. They are people. What if they flaunt it in your face and make fun of Christ? If they’re deliberately attacking you, then certainly you can leave. But make sure: is it that they’re honestly attacking me? Or are they just insecure and trying to see if I will reject them? 

Because if they say something mean about Jesus, you have two choices: You can take offence and leave; or you can chuckle and say, “I’m really sorry you feel that way, because I love God, but you’re not pushing me away that easily, because I love you, too.” And then you can change the subject.

Jesus ate with sinners, which means He ate with people who normally made lewd jokes, who swore a lot, and who drank too much. But those people were comfortable with him. And I think it’s because he saw through the false bravado and just talked to them like people. This Christmas, can we do the same thing?

Can we just enjoy our extended families at Christmas? Some thoughts on Christmas dinner with difficult relatives.

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Lydia purple

    I really love this! i had one more thought: if you don’t like how the holidays usually go with extended family you could try to host it in your house. Because then you have more influence to change the dynamics. You could even plan some games or set up some conversation starters at the dinner table to give the family something new and more pleasant to talk other than bad mouthing and the same old stories… By hosting especially if you are a believer and the family is not you have much greater influence on the atmosphere in your home than going To someone else’s home. Also you can have greater control on which kind and how much alcohol is served.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, my goodness, Lydia, I love you so much! It’s like you ARE me, and not just about the purple thing, either. 🙂

      I’m hosting Christmas dinner this year and we’re doing games and conversation starters. 🙂 Already had that planned! Great thoughts.

  2. Mina

    I struggled with this question for years, about spending Christmas w/ family. I finally quit. I don’t get it. The big dinner w/ relatives is considered sacrosanct, and I just don’t agree. The family obligations have ruined Christmas for me. Of course, I quite *after* I was censured for putting up boundaries, so maybe that’s the difference between me and other people who continue to join. I got sick of my *very* reasonable boundaries being faced w/ tears, or even told that I’m “making everyone bend over backward to accommodate [me].” My diva-like behavior? I wanted to sleep at a hotel (my cost) instead of an ancient mattress on the floor that nearly cripples my back. Or the time I asked if we could have a 1-to-1 gift exchange instead of everyone being obligated to buy presents for everyone. ” dinner from 3-7 on Christmas?” Jeez, my family was mad at me because I didn’t spend the better part of a 9-day reunion w/ them (only 2 days). Oh, and I didn’t invite them to go look at Christmas lights w/ me! I feel like if I show up w/ appropriate beverages and my fair share of the cooking (intensive stuff too, not just mashed potatoes), then that should be enough.

    Why the pressure of a family reunion at Christmas anyway? Save that for mid-year.

    I’m glad you posted this, though. You’re #1 was helpful for me to remind myself that I’m not crazy for not wanting Christmas w/ my family of origin – they reject and censure very reasonable boundaries.

    By the way, one little issue w/ #7 – the children often *do* strongly identify with their cousins, especially slightly-older cousins. And they might not come home cursing, but they might come home w/ a snarky attitude or feeling grousy because cousins got a huge haul and maybe made rude comments about your more modest gifting. How does one handle that? I can see a strict dinner plus pie timeline helping, but what if you both families traveled to be there? Leaving after 3 hours might be tricky. Or just do it anyway? Thanks in advance.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Mina, so tough! It does sound like you’re trying to enforce extremely reasonable boundaries, and if you try to do that, and then people react badly, then I think it really is okay to say, “we can’t spend time with you if you can’t respect my choices.”

      And I totally hear you about the hotel. I’d do that too! 🙂

      Here’s a question: when your family gets mad at you for not doing something, can you say, “we just preferred to do other things at Christmas this year, and one of the reasons is because of reactions like this. When you get mad at us for making our choices, it makes us not want to spend time with you. Can we just enjoy the time that we do have?” If they don’t react well to that, then you may have to back off.

      As for #7, yeah, I can totally see that being a problem. I think just talking to the kids about the “haul” is important. Having that conversation about how life is about more than toys, and spending a lot of time as a family playing games together and doing family things, helps the kids identify with you rather than with cousins? Maybe something like that?

      And I’d totally leave after 3 hours. Totally. 🙂

      • Mina

        I haven’t said that, exactly. I have told both of my parents about other incidences where they say something about me that was mean or demonstrably false, and they either deny wrongdoing or just ignore me, pretend I didn’t say anything. Another time I specified that I didn’t like to be around Parent when Parent was around Specific Sibling because the behavior was worse. So, while it wasn’t Christmas-specific, I think that’s similar. If not, let me know.

        I’m glad I have “permission” to leave after a set time w/out feeling like a bad Christian. I wish I’d had these scripts with me a few years ago! I hope other people out there who need these scripts, find them.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Mina, it really sounds like you’re trying your best to find your way here, and I just hope you can give yourself a break (I wish I could you a hug!). It’s hard to figure out how to act appropriately, especially when other people are not responding well. I think the important thing is to always be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, “I was honest and open, and if they didn’t take that well, then that’s on them, not on me.” The only behaviour you are responsible for is your own. Try to love your family and be as pleasant as possible, but for many of us, that’s, by necessity, in small doses.

  3. K

    Such a needed reminder for me! I hope to live it my life around my extended family while still communicating love to them (even though I don’t agree with or participate in their lifestyle). The hardest thing for me over the holidays is competition between families. My husband’s family is very laid back and easy to be around. Esp because we’re mostly like-minded. However, we have the opposite dynamic with my family and try to set very clear boundaries with them. The offense comes when my parents get jealous over how much time we spend with my in-laws vs how much time we spend with them. I’m not interested in trying to make things fair in their view but I struggle with guilt over their hurt feelings.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That is a tough one! And I think the only way through is to own your decisions. You know that you are doing what is best for your family and for your own emotional health. You know that you are putting your nuclear family first, and that is important.

      Unfortunately, that may mean that some people have hurt feelings. It’s hard to get away from that guilt. But if you can truly say, “we made this decision for the right reasons, and even if it’s awkward, we have to stand by it,” then that is really all that you can do. Merry Christmas!

      • Mina

        Thanks for posting this, both of you. I struggle with guilt regarding my family, and this is helpful.

  4. sunny-dee

    For the lifestyle thing, with my stepson, I find TV shows are an awesome proxy for this. If we’re watching, say, Arrow (he’s 11; it’s all superheroes over here!), then I can very gently point out that it really isn’t great that Boy and Girl are living together, or that Friend is drinking heavily … but that it’s okay to set our standards, live them ourselves, and just accept that other people are going to act differently. (Like, not in a totally preachy way, because that would mess up the show, but just in comments to reinforce it.) Then, if Family Member is doing something that I’m teaching him not to do … it’s okay. We can still love them, still have a relationship, and still not agree with or accept everything they do.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Great idea! Yes, those are the conversations we used to have with our kids, too. We’d just take opportunities as they came to talk about lifestyle choices, but they also understood that you could still love others who chose differently than you think is right.

  5. Lindsey Bell

    I love what you said about adjusting your expectations. That’s one thing I have done that has really helped make family get togethers so much better. I’m no longer expecting them to meet all of my needs, and now I’m free to just love them for them…rather than loving them for what they can do for me. Great post, Sheila!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thanks, Lindsey!

  6. Marshwiggle

    Another thought – in loving our family members who are hard to love, we are also showing love to others (like their parents) who are also struggling to love them. For example, my sister-in-law has many issues, so she can sometimes be difficult to interact with, but her parents (my in-laws) appreciate so much when she is included – it helps spread the burden (if I can put it that way) around, and helps them experience a happy family time – so in loving her, we also love on my in-laws.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s a great way of looking at it! I was recently invited to a dinner party where the host had also invited someone whom I find very difficult to be with in social situations. I was going to decline when one of my daughters pointed out that perhaps I had been invited to make life easier for the hosts! So I said yes and it really wasn’t that bad, because we had numbers on our side to dilute the other. And I realized that this person really was well-meaning, just very socially awkward. So surely this person deserved love, too?

  7. Rebecca

    My question is, how do you differentiate between abuse and unpleasantness? This is hypothetical because it’ll be a cold day in hell before I spend Christmas with my husband’s extended family before. But there, one sibling always brought their seriously ill children along, when the kids had the worst possible illness (eg rubella when I was pregnant, chicken pox when my infant daughter had not yet been vaccinated.) As well her husband, who is a fundamental Muslim, would insist on more and more aspects of Christmas being tossed aside to accommodate him and his religious beliefs (no ham, no Christmas music, no nativity, and finally, no gifts for his kids, although they also didn’t bother telling their kids the truth about santa, so that, year after year, the kids would he absolutely devastated and think they must’ve been naughty.) If he spoke to me at all, it’d be to tell me how evil Americans are. (I’m American but we’re don’t live in the US.) Finally I said no more, and I don’t regret it; but was that abusive, or were they just jerks?

  8. Ron Campbell

    I’m the Black Sheep of my family. I stole from them in my youth, and did 5 prison terms.
    However, I have been out & clean 16+ years, running my own business almost 10 years, yet most of my family STILL won’t give me a chance. It saddens me, because all I really want is to be a part of my family.

    • Sheila Gregoire

      That is so hard, Ron. Congratulations on turning your life around, though! That’s wonderful.


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