DON’T STEP IN IT! 5 Things you should NEVER say at a Family Gathering

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I’ve been on the receiving end of countless awkward comments. Unfortunately, I’ve uttered plenty of them too. Navigating social situations is a bit like dodging roadside IED’s while blindfolded. The obstacle course often gets more treacherous at family gatherings during the holidays. Christmas get-togethers are already rife with turmoil and stress. Merely sharing surnames and relatives doesn’t mean anyone will agree on anything: faith, politics, diet, fashion, or even what’s funny. Why would anyone want to pile on and make an already difficult situation more strained? “Pass the green bean casserole, Uncle Ned, you pony-tail wearing, commie-loving hippie!” Obviously, not appropriate. But what about the more veiled remarks delivered with the best of intentions? These little conversational nuggets are the dirty bombs of small talk. The gift that keeps giving—like my father-in-law’s homemade sugar-free cranberry sauce which packs a bitter wallop upon first taste, but the memory of that punishing, mouth-puckering sharpness lingers a lifetime.

While we are all at risk of saying something blundering, there is no need to approach the next party with trepidation. In an effort to promote peace and goodwill this Christmas, I’ve compiled a list of 5 things you should never say at family gatherings. These are friendly little exchanges that may seem well-meaning, but can ramp up the tension faster than you can say, “Donald Trump.” Don’t step in it!

5 THINGS YOU SHOULD NEVER SAY AT FAMILY GATHERINGS:

1. You’ve lost/ gained weight! 

Even if the weight loss or gain is dramatic, please keep a lid on it. It’s too tricky to comment on someone’s weight. They may have slimmed down due to sickness or depression. If they’ve packed on pounds, they don’t need someone pointing it out in front of the whole family. A better way to handle the visual change—“You look nice!” Leave it at that. If you don’t think they look nice, don’t say anything other than a genuinely warm greeting. Unless you’re confidants, it’s not appropriate to have a heart to heart with someone about their weight in the middle of a bustling kitchen. A good rule of thumb, refrain from making pointed comments about people’s looks. No one wants to hear they look heavy, exhausted, pasty-faced, scrawny, or anything else that happens to occur to the observer.

2. Are you engaged/ married/ pregnant yet?

This line of questioning is wrong on so many levels. It makes light of a deeply personal and important step in a couple’s life. Even if you’re dying to know when your cousin is going to pop the question, it’s inexcusable to pester him about it over cocktails with extended family. Unless private information is volunteered, it’s just impolite and nosy to pry it out of someone. Putting pressure on a dating/ engaged couple as to when they plan to change their status is in bad form. Bringing it up over ham and turkey is obnoxious and embarrassing. In the same way, while baby news is always thrilling, asking a couple about pregnancy is crossing a line. Consider that the couple may be struggling with infertility, or have a history of miscarriages. Even if there are no problems, Emily Post would surely scoff at such a forward question. Always better to let someone open that line of conversation if and when they choose to do so.

3. Cheer up! It’s the best time of the year!

It’s hard for some to imagine that Christmas could be a trigger for depression, but that is the reality for many. Those who are grieving, alone, or away from home can find Christmas an extremely difficult time. If someone seems down, rather than drawing attention to it and ordering them to change their mood (which accomplishes the opposite) a better approach might be to offer warmth and affirmation. “I’m so glad you came to the party. I bet it’s not an easy time for you. We are blessed to have you here!” And if that doesn’t seem appropriate, just let him/ her do the talking. It is not necessary to fill all silences with chatter. Sometimes the strongest words are the ones left unspoken. Showing gentle deference to someone who is struggling is a selfless, Christ-like gift. Do your best to accompany people in their depression and pain, which means don’t aim to fix them!

4. Why are you still single? I know someone I can set you up with!

Talk about conversation killers… The implied question behind the question here is “What’s wrong with you?” Showing up to parties without a significant other can be tough enough. Don’t make someone feel worse by putting them on the spot, adding to their self-consciousness. Rather, try to make the person feel comfortable and valued. “It’s good to see you again. The party just kicked up a notch!” Avoid discussing their solo status. And here’s a tip, no one wants to be set up with your thirty-year-old second cousin who lives in his parents’ basement, even though he’s probably a really great guy.

5. Why aren’t you drinking? or Why aren’t you having any dessert? 

Don’t be the kind of dinner guest who thinks it is his job to monitor everyone’s fun quotient. If someone chooses not to imbibe or indulge in holiday confections that is their business. Period. They certainly don’t deserve to be called out on it. It’s presumptuous to think that everyone has to be drinking or surfing the dessert table in order to experience fun. Besides, some who abstain from such indulgences may have perfectly legitimate reasons for doing so. Even if they don’t, it’s still no reason to insinuate yourself. Butt out! Peer pressure was stupid in high school, but it’s beyond boorish when attempting adulting. Make an effort to track your own intake and all will be fine.

Getting through the holidays without stepping in it can seem nearly impossible! But adhering to some of my mom’s sage advice, “think before you speak,” will certainly help you limp across the finish line. And when you find yourself on the receiving end of one of these little zingers, do your best to roll with it. The key is to politely and kindly let the offender know they’ve gone too far with their probing question/observation. Don’t let someone’s social clumsiness ruin your fun. Move on, but above all, do not forget it. It will make a great story at the next party. Did I mention the time I was 8 months pregnant and a family member said I looked just like an oompa loompa? Good stuff, right?

God grant us all patience and wisdom at our next holiday event.

Where’s the Beef This Advent?

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If you’re as ancient as I am, you’ll remember those Wendy’s commercials from the 1980s which featured a spritely grandma who takes apart her fast-food burger to reveal two comically oversized buns with a pathetic, tiny piece of meat nestled on one of the halves, barely detectable. It’s dwarfed by the pickle chip. An unwitting spokesperson, this little gray-haired lady, heroically takes up the voice for the rest of America. She, like all of us, is tired of being ripped off, as she rightly demands, “Where’s the beef?” (If you don’t know the commercial, trust me—it’s a laugh riot, but you should stop reading now so you can finish your spelling homework.) The point of the commercial is that other fast food joints try to pass off tiny burgers in enormous buns to unsuspecting customers, while Wendy’s clearly has their priorities straight. It’s all about what’s sandwiched between the gigantic slabs of bread, the generously portioned all-beef patty. That tiny speck of meat the other restaurants are peddling will never truly satisfy.

Recently glancing at the calendar as November winnowed away, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition of notable days. To my surprise, sandwiched between the two biggest consumer holidays of the year is the weekend which marks the beginning of Advent. I must have realized this before, but for some reason, it was the first time I really made the connection. In other words, God turned a nightlight on for His daughter. To my shock, the crucial Sunday when we begin to prepare liturgically and spiritually to welcome the Savior of the whole wide world—just happens to be bookended by Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Situated poetically between a day for hardcore bargain hunters which inspires fistfights in the aisles of Walmart—and a workday when adults opt to remain in their jammies staring at blue light for hours trying to score killer deals, we find the kick-off to Advent. Is it just me or is the world committing a dastardly sleight of hand, playing up the non-essential part of our lives in the lead up to Christmas and seriously downplaying the only part that truly matters? Am I so unsuspecting and gullible as to fall for a trick like that? Not this year. I’m looking back at what the world has to offer and demanding none too politely, “Where’s the beef?”

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Hate This! Not That!

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Years ago I used to enjoy the mind-numbing babble of a popular national morning show while I got ready for work. One segment that caught my attention was, “Eat this! Not that!”  The ultra-skinny host whose own diet clearly consisted of an occasional rice cake topped with kale would run through a display of mouth-watering dishes, often well-known fast food items. With the help of an “expert” guest, the bobble-headed anchor would compare the fat and calorie information of each. By comparison of the nutritional facts, they would conclude, “Eat this grilled chicken sandwich which has 50-billion fewer calories than that one loaded with mayo and fried in gobs of fire-retardant lard. (Gasp.) And for heaven’s sake, don’t ever eat that!” But the greatest shock entertainment value came when they compared seemingly healthy salad entrees against obvious fat-laden dishes like pizza, or hamburgers and fries. The plates piled high with greens and veggies often contained—wait for it—double or even triple the calorie content of the junk food items! The moral of the story: unsuspecting customers were often hoodwinked into heart disease by the lurking fat in “healthy” salads. Poor shmucks! “They should eat this delicious all-beef patty! But not that deadly harvest salad piled with carcinogenic croutons and dreaded trans fats! It contains enough calories to nourish a small town for two years. Just look at all that BACON and RANCH!” Yum…

Recently, I came up with a twist on the morning show game which has shed some light on the problem of recurring sin in my life.  Let’s call this little game of spiritual discovery, “Hate THIS! Not THAT!

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How This Introvert Got Super Involved at Her Parish

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I was caught off guard recently by someone’s response to meeting me. While shaking her hand, I made the customary smiling introduction. “Nice to meet you. My name is…” I had barely gotten my name out when recognition instantly spread across her face.

“I totally know that name! I see your name attached to everything here.”

With that string of innocuous words, I was suddenly rendered self-conscious and exposed, as if she’d said, “I can tell you had spinach for dinner. You have a hideous green thing in your teeth.”

I answered her tentatively. “You’re probably right…” Nervous laughter. “We are pretty involved.” Awkward pause. “I’m not quite sure how that happened. My husband and I aren’t normally joiners, but…”  What I said after that is a blur because my mind was racing with the implications of her statement. No doubt her comment was meant in complete kindness, but I felt a wee bit of shame for being the person who’s name is “attached to everything”—mainly because it was just so unlike me!

On the drive home, as my husband and I sat at a red light, I broke the silence to voice my concern, “How did that happen? How did you and I, a couple of introverts become so involved? We’re at the church a lot.  All of a sudden, I’m that lady. Weird…” A sudden intake of breath. “Oh dear God, I’m a Church Lady!”

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No Map Required

“Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.” —St. Padre Pio

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Recently, I overheard a snippet of a private conversation between strangers. While it could technically be classified as eavesdropping, I’m certain God didn’t mind my listening in. In fact, though the conversation was not expressly intended for my ears, witnessing the seemingly chance encounter may have been part of God’s plan. Looking back, he was leading me to a spiritual breakthrough. In other words, even God can bring good out of my inclination for being nosy.

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5 MUST-HAVE School Supplies to Keep Kids on the Path to Heaven

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It’s that time again when moms and dads across this great land finish checking off a mile-long list of obscure, annoyingly specific school supplies. We scour the internet, traipse through aisle after aisle of every big box store and office supply emporium around, trying to find the correct color, brand, and amount, at the right price. But there’s always one item at the bottom of the page that is nowhere to be found—that elusive pre-sharpened number 2 red Ticonderoga training marking-pencil with a white eraser fashioned out of rare unicorn dust and angel feathers…?

We’ve come a long way from my school days (way back in 19—ahem, never mind!) when the list consisted of at most four or five items—pencil, scissors, crayons, glue, and paper. This gets me thinking about what kids actually need to get across the finish line of school and ultimately life. Here’s a hint: you can’t get it at Walmart. What spiritual tools can I provide my children to help them navigate the more arduous path to heaven? A couple years ago, I compiled my first list: The Top 5 Must-Have School Supply Items for Every Catholic Kid. In the spirit of growing lists, I’ve added to it. For a refresher on what is at the top of my list, check it out here. Now for my 2019 new & improved edition of the essential spiritual school supply list:

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Parenting Like a Convert

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I’m not a convert, but sometimes I wish I were. I come from a long line of cradle Catholics. It has undoubtedly been a grace to grow up simmering in the rich soup of faith seasoned over time with enduring traditions and profound familial witnesses. What a blessing! So why am I so darn jealous of converts? You know that superstar Catholic who dramatically joins the church after a lifetime denouncing the “whore of Babylon”? I can’t get enough! Who doesn’t love a captivating Scott Hahn story with all those twists and turns that ultimately lead to Rome? Or better yet, what about those amazing creatures who have come to faith after years of card-carrying atheism? Their stories are nothing short of remarkable and bear the stamp of God’s own imprint. They come to the Faith with such zeal, humility, compassion, and moral courage. 

And then there’s me.

I don’t mean to downplay my own “reversion” going from a barely checking-the-boxes pew warmer, to one who longs for deeper intimacy with Jesus and His church. But it’s certainly not the thrilling stuff of, say, Saints Paul and Augustine, Blessed Cardinal Newman, or Edith Stein. Or more recently, Jennifer Fulwiler, Tim Staples, and Leah Libresco. Needless to say, I admire their fire, grit, and heroic journeys of faith, risking so much to heed God’s call. I, however, was born into it, with the proverbial silver baptismal spoon gently nestled in my mouth.

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