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.

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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Crying as We Rejoice: The Bereaved at Christmas

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I secretly cried after Mass yesterday. My kids told me that one of the new altar boys that they served with had his grandparents in town for Christmas. The enthusiastic Nanna and Papa were so gleefully proud, they couldn’t refrain from snapping photos to memorialize their beloved grandson’s biggest moments. Clearly, their hearts swelled with pride for their daughter’s treasured offspring.

On the drive home, I told my boys that if Grandma Maureen and Grandpa Jerry were living, they would have taken loads of pictures too. How proud they would be. How proud they are. “Maybe they’re taking photos from heaven…” I mused. Then the quiet tears.

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Advent Life Hacks to Help Your Family Grow in Holiness

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It turns out, for most of my life I’ve had Advent all wrong. Caught up in the whirring consumer machine, I often couldn’t wait to kick start the celebration of Christmas. I’d barely make it to the end of the Thanksgiving meal and I was breaking out the decorations, singing the songs and scrounging at the stores. December 1st signaled the beginning of that most magical time of the year known as Christmas, right? Actually…

(Insert record scratch here.)

Advent is not party time. It’s prep time. What helped me to better understand and explain to my kids was this analogy: Lent is to Easter as Advent is to Christmas. You wouldn’t plan to party it up during Holy Week. (Those of you thinking, why not?… allow me to direct you to some great agnostic sites.) The minute Lent begins, we don’t start celebrating Christ’s glorious resurrection. We work on our spiritual lives. We train in order to get our souls in shape. Then on Easter, it’s the big reveal, the greatly anticipated end to all that work. He is risen! OFFICIAL party time. Now pass the doughnuts!

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Beware! Are you a ZOMBIE Catholic?

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(This was posted last October and got a lot of great feedback, so I’m reposting for those of you who would like a refresher on Zombie Catholicism. I added a particular prayer at the end of the post that has helped me personally keep the zombies at bay)

Halloween is just around the corner. And as usual, I expect to see my fair share of kids trick-r-treating in their zombie get-ups: pasty white masks with dark, vacant circles for eyes, torn shirts and pants, occasionally a little flourish of fake blood splattered here or there. It’s usually the teenagers who go all out with the most gruesome costumes, but occasionally a five-year-old will greet me at the doorstep decked out in full zombie face paint and garb. I respond the same way each time. “Oh… wow…quite a costume,” I stutter with my best perma-smile. “My, look at all that blood… here’s your candy,” I murmur, avoiding eye contact while timidly dropping a couple snickers in the outstretched bag. Then I anxiously scan the perimeter to make sure there aren’t any zombie parents lurking nearby.

Don’t chuckle. Zombies exist. They dwell in our midst.

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Filth & Faith: How My Husband and I are Talking to Our Kids About the Problems in Our Church

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Is it just me or have you noticed how every single reading from Mass over the last couple weeks seems to point to all of the unrest and scandal in the church of late? Not in that oblique, beating around the bush kind of way, but overtly, and in a way that seems to strike you to the core. It’s kind of how I remember feeling after a romantic heartbreak. No matter what station I tuned the radio dial to, I’d hear a song that eerily seemed to be speaking directly to me. But this a lot different. It’s not the voice of Tears for Fears. It’s God who is knocking on our collective foreheads, trying to break through so we might truly hear Him in the midst of such devastation.

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I Cried with Michael Jordan

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Certain iconic sports images of epic underdog wins and poetic last plays witnessed over the course of my life remain imprinted on my brain. Consider Tiger Woods dramatically donning the green Masters’ blazer as the first person of color, Michael Phelps shattering the record for the most gold medals, the Chicago Cubs’ curse-breaking World Series triumph against my beloved Cleveland Indians. I could easily go on, but there’s one memory that is even more enduring. Yet, I suspect many of you probably won’t even recall it.

For me, the moment crystallized not just a legendary sporting achievement, but an encounter with sadness and mourning in the midst of victory. It was Father’s Day, 1996. Michael Jordan had just won his 4th championship for the Chicago Bulls. His win was rendered even more momentous after a brief retirement and triumphant return to the sport that made him a household name. Also notable, this marked Jordan’s first major career win without the support of his father in the stands. Jordan’s dad had been murdered three years earlier.

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