The stress of the holiday season weighs on almost everyone to some degree, and for me personally, this year is especially challenging. I’m struggling mightily with boundaries surrounding strained relationships with extended in-law family members.
The past few years have been a period of both growth and grief for me, as I have left evangelicalism and conservative politics, two institutions that still define my husband’s family. My faith shift has been personal, and yet as a writer, I’ve processed that shift very publicly. I’ve written extensively about my frustration with the evangelical church’s support of Donald Trump and his racist, nationalist and often inhumane policies. I’ve criticized the parts of my Christian upbringing that now, as an adult, I find deeply problematic.
No surprise, the reaction to my writing by friends and family has been mixed. Some of my relationships have been strengthened in solidarity, some have faded in quiet disagreement, and others suffer deep wounds due to hurt feelings and angry accusations.
Now here we are in the thick of the holiday season, supposedly the most wonderful time of the year. In my husband’s family, it is expected that we gather together for a meal, gift exchange and general merry-making to celebrate Christmas. But, these family members’ anger toward my writing, politics and the deconstruction of my faith has dominated most of our interactions in 2018. Is it possible to put aside anger, resentment and deeply held philosophical differences and to enjoy one another’s company against the backdrop of lights, presents and shared family history?
This year I’m not sure.
If it wasn’t so devastating, it would almost be comical that a buffoon reality TV star turned president of the United States has been the catalyst of so much resentment. Prior to 2016, politics was not a regular point of contention or even conversation between my in-laws and me. We had mild disagreements on religion from time to time, but nothing compared to the deep chasm of bitterness caused by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and past two years in office.
“Is it possible to put aside anger, resentment and deeply held philosophical differences and to enjoy one another’s company against the backdrop of lights, presents and shared family history? This year I’m not sure.”
I have debated over the past few weeks whether my presence at the Christmas Eve family gathering this year would be appropriate and mature or just awkward and possibly toxic. After much anxious deliberation, I have decided to attend, and here’s why:
My Opting Out Won’t Help The Situation
Sure, if I refuse to attend the family gathering this year, I could avoid the immediate awkwardness of spending a few hours with people who are admittedly furious with me. But other than that, I see no positives to my opting out. I fear I have become a caricature to my in-laws: an angry, bitter, snowflake liberal who has handed in my Christian card. By showing up in person, on Christmas, there’s a possibility they will see me again as more than the topics discussed in my articles.
It’s Not Only About Me
I have my own nuclear family to consider, including a husband and small children very much caught in the middle of my personal disagreements with their family of origin and grandparents. I don’t want them to miss out on celebrating with family, nor do I want to spend Christmas Eve alone, away from them. In a cost-benefit analysis, witnessing my children have a magical evening of presents and lavish love from family, minus the question of Why isn’t Mommy here too? is worth the price of my anxiety and awkwardness.
Traditions Bring Hope
There is something magnetic and hopeful about family traditions. Despite the canyon of deep disagreement and hurt feelings the past 12 months has dug, gathering together because this is what families do feels a tiny bit hopeful. Maybe exchanging physical gifts rather than biting text messages will allow us to again see one another as actual humans rather than personified political ideologies. Perhaps watching tiny people stuff their mouths with cookies and tear into their presents can bring us together in the wonder of the season. At least I hope so.
I do acknowledge and understand those who, in my situation, choose to stay away from family who support leaders who cruelly dehumanize others and disrespect their identities and rights. There are certainly situations and family dynamics where reconciliation and civility is impossible in light of polarizing values and politics. Obviously, self-care and mental health are more important than being present at any family event. And maybe I am wrong to be hopeful for my own Christmas gathering. After all, there has been nothing in 2018 to suggest that I will ever find common ground with the family with whom I once joyfully celebrated the holidays. But at least this year, for my husband and children, I am going to show up despite my skepticism and defensiveness.
Realistically, I see no path to completely restoring the relationship with my in-laws in light of our profoundly different religious and political ideologies. But I do believe it’s possible to soften our views and temper our anger, especially in the context of being together for Christmas. So I will nervously show up, gifts in hand and a smile on my face, and in the spirit of Christmas, hope for an evening of celebrating family and the values that we do share. And let’s be honest, spiking the wassail couldn’t hurt either.
Elizabeth Baker is a writer and editor from Katy, Texas, who believes that stringing words together is an act of vulnerability, resistance, and ultimately, hope. She is a wife, mom of three, and a follower of Jesus who also has some major side-eye for the church. Elizabeth admires intelligent humor and good writing, and injustice and fake news makes her ragey. She writes about faith, politics and special-needs parenting at elizabethkbaker.com.