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.

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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 gay marriage.

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 live-in partner to dinner, eat with them. Laugh with them. Tell jokes. Enjoy them. They are people. Besides, while many Christians elevate homosexual sex as the worst sin, I personally think a person who cheats on their spouse with porn is far worse, and we need to get a grip. I really don’t understand what the problem is here, to tell you the truth. If it’s your brother, don’t you still love him?

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.

Yes, conversation at the Christmas dinner table may not be what you would want.

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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