How to deal with family chaos at Christmas
One of the great mercies of being the mother of a large family is you know one thing for sure: This can’t all be your fault. How could it be? You have raised at least some of your children more or less the same way, at the same time, using the same parenting techniques and the same amount of money in the same house, being the same person the whole time, and yet they all turn out so very different.
If ever I feel sorry for parents of one child, it’s because they might think all their child’s virtues and flaws are the result of their parenting. They’re not. Some are, to be sure, but some is pure witless genetics, and some is environment beyond family, and some of it is luck, some is miscellaneous, and a lot of it is meaningful but completely mysterious, known only to God himself, and he’s not telling.
Let’s take a look at my own kids. Let’s take a look at them on Christmas morning after Midnight Mass, when they’re opening presents, and the secrets that lurk in the hearts of Fishers are revealed. I have tried to teach all my children generosity and gratitude, thrift and any number of other salutary virtues that I think will serve them well in life. How’s that worked out?
Well, one of them will be sitting in a pile of wrapping paper and random things her siblings grabbed off the rack at the dollar store, every single time she opens a present, she will shout, “It’s just what I wanted!” and she will mean it, too.
What a grateful and generous heart, you will think! Yes, up to a point. But that same kid will have carefully wrapped either a 50-cent Walmart cake or a 50-cent Walmart pie for everyone she knows, because it was the cheapest thing she could think of. She figured out long ago that this method allowed her to pocket a good half of her allowance, while the rest of those suckers were blowing the whole thing. But also, she is so extremely delighted with her cleverness, and that delight is so contagious, that everyone who opens a present from her is delighted, too, and we eventually all begin chanting, “Cake or pie? Cake or pie?” as each person opens up yet another tiny, squashy box from her, only to cheer uproariously when it turns out to be either a cake or a pie. And so it became a tradition. The “cake or pie” chant is now my favorite part of Christmas morning.
One of my less favorite parts is when one kid invariably manages to convince themselves that all their carefully curated presents are disappointing, not anywhere near what they wanted, and probably a sign that nobody really knows them or loves them, and then retreats guiltily to their room with their stocking to sulk, and also feel embarrassed about sulking. It’s not the same kid every year, mind you, just to keep us on our toes. Next year, that same kid will spend November earnestly begging us to donate their present budget to the food pantry, because they already have everything they need.
One of my more favorite parts of Christmas morning is when another kid, who has some recessive organizational gene, manages to get everyone interested and excited about a complicated new board game he just unwrapped, and as they all master it, there is laughing and hooting and convulsing for a good 45 minutes before the bickering starts up again, the merriment devolves, and people retreat back into their chocolate hoards for comfort.
One kid looks forward to the traditional Chinese take-out food we order every year, and would consider Christmas barely valid if we so much as switched restaurants; and one kid takes it personally that we order Chinese every year, because she once threw up Chinese food, and she’s holding a grudge, and now it’s part of the tradition to order her a sandwich. Another kid loves Chinese food but is also jealous of sandwich kid, because she also loves sandwiches. And so it goes.
We have kids who want to spend Christmas playing medieval Celtic music because they’re nostalgic for a simpler time that may or may not have existed hundreds of years before they were born, and we also have kids who want to play Mario Kart all day because they just unlocked new levels or something, and Rainbow Road doesn’t cause nearly as much neurological damage as it seems. We have kids who want to reenact the Nativity story with their Montessori-approved wooden figurines, and kids who consider the Mr. Bean version, with the dinosaurs and the helicopters, to be an essential part of the Gospel. And I will be honest, the Gospel of Mr. Bean just about tided me over last year, when one of my other kids didn’t even show up, because she wasn’t talking to us at the time.
And I raised them all the same way! I tried so hard with every one of them, and they all turned out different, because they are who they are. They do have virtues, all of them. Just not necessarily the ones I tried to arrange for or the ones I immediately recognized the value of. That’s how it goes. That’s how people are.
Why am I telling you this? Because Christmas is a big “Am I Doing This Right?” time for Catholics. This seems to be true whether they have big families or small, or whether they have families at all. We feel a tremendous amount of pressure to show up on Dec. 25 with all our ducks in a row. And maybe it’s not about presents at all, but about the spiritual experience we’ve had throughout Advent, or the relationship we find ourselves having with God when we arrive at Christmas day. We feel a massive obligation to somehow have the ultimate experience that we imagine we’re supposed to be having on this extremely important liturgical day.
And we forget, somehow, that we still are who we are. Individual human beings made in part by how we were nurtured, and genetics, and our environment, and miscellaneous elements, and a giant, heaping scoop of mystery known only to God.
What do you do? What can you possibly do?
I am a mother, and I will tell you what to do, because this is what I do with my kids: You turn it all over to God. You turn yourself over to God. You don’t even have to know exactly what you mean by that; just do it, try it, and trust that God knows what it means, because he made you and he knows what is good and lovable about you, far better than you know it yourself.
You make a big messy package of yourself and you give it to the newborn Christ child as a gift. Do it now!
What do you suppose he will say when he receives this present? I promise he will say, “It’s just what I wanted!” And he will mean it, too.
Simcha Fisher is an award-winning columnist who regularly contributes to America Magazine, Parable Magazine, and The Catholic Weekly. She lives with her husband and eight of their ten children and several animals in a surprisingly small house in NH.