Holiday Family Values

As Christmas dinner impends, one's thoughts turn to family values. I'm one of the lucky ones, blessed with a non-toxic nuclear family composed entirely of people I genuinely like. No arrogant siblings-in-law, no bigoted aunties, no wicked stepfather. Nobody who brings all the forks at the table to a simultaneous halt by announcing that the Holocaust didn't happen. Not everyone is so lucky. Every January 2, as friends and colleagues come flooding back to the office, the tales of holiday horror begin. The cousin who offended everyone at the table with wistful reminiscences of the pre-civil rights South. The boyfriend who dominated dinner with blonde jokes. The mother-in-law who repeatedly insisted, from the cheeseball clear through to the pecan pie, that homeless people could get jobs if they really wanted to. Let no one underestimate the ghastliness of such comments. Nor let anyone discount the tidal pull of emotions when such offenses emerge from within the bosom of family. This is kin we're talking about--the ones who love us best, the folks we call home. It is not an overstatement to say that when these significant others come out with an opinion you consider morally indefensible, your family loyalty goes toe to toe with your integrity. The moral stress can be profound. This isn't a very shocking phenomenon, as families are composed of individuals who have been thrown together by lots, not by choice. The wider the net is cast from the tidy nucleus at the center, as frequently happens at holidays, the more incompatible the ensuing "family" is bound to be. Members of many such motley collections would probably never have occasion to meet, let alone socialize over mashed potatoes, without the binding convention of family obligation; many may, indeed, struggle mightily to come up with topics to talk about at all. And so they resort to areas of general interest--news, politics, social issues--which are, of course, the very subjects that get them into trouble. The awkward formality and relative lack of intimacy that characterize many Christmas-dinner rituals almost guarantee that conversations will stay in shallow waters, the ripest breeding grounds for facile treatments of complex issues. Add a few bolstering glasses of Christmas cheer and--voila! Your holiday table has become a hotbed of offensive humor and pat generalizations. Home, indeed, to the two traditional Christmas beasts: the Ham and the Turkey. You know the Christmas Ham--he's the guy who can't get enough of telling that hilarious story about his secretary with the big hooters who couldn't take a joke. He channels Rush Limbaugh; he still tells Polish jokes. One can attempt to correct the Christmas Ham with earnest argument (it'll go right over his head; he's having too much fun); attack him with some of his own medicine; or deflate him with frosty disinterest. All of these tactics probably require more energy than he is worth. He's not particularly harmful; nobody takes him seriously. Best to grit your teeth and pity the Christmas Ham, scraping together enough seasonal spirit to help you understand that anyone this desperate to hide behind a joke must be pathetically afraid of revealing himself. Challenge yourself to appreciate him as you would any camp artifact; as you would a lava lamp. Dealing with the Christmas Turkey presents a more distressing problem, for his remarks are serious and frequently wounding. He offends not merely through political incorrectness--a thoughtful dash of which can add welcome piquancy to any Christmas dinner--but through a potent blend of arrogance, ignorance, and viciousness. He is my friend Carla's stepfather, who, describing a dishonest merchant last Christmas, hissed, "He Jewed me." He is my friend T.J.'s uncle, who around the Thanksgiving table last year declared that "the day faggots are allowed in the military is the day America goes down the drain." The reasonable person's first instinct may be to take vehement issue--translation: make a scene. Though this may be the conscience's only choice, experience says it is not a road to be rushed down on principle. Others at the table will almost certainly be made extremely uncomfortable--a consequence inconsistent with the holiday spirit. And to what end? No blowhard bigot is going to be transformed by an argument, however eloquent, shrieked at him from across a table of spectators. My friend Carla takes a wiser tack. "My goal is never conversion, it's awareness," she says. "I'm not going to change his mind. I just want him to think twice before saying it again." Her method is the earnest interrogation. In the wake of her stepfather's remark, she asked, "Tell me, Dick, what exactly is it that you mean by `He Jewed me'?" After he explained, she elegantly responded that she found that view fascinating; that she had in her life known plenty of Jews and never found his characterization to be accurate. "People like to do their racism hit-and-run," she says. "They never want to have to explain it." Calmly offering a reasonable opposing view not only threatens to deepen the offender's understanding, it calls the whole table's attention to his lack of understanding. T.J. accomplishes similar ends through lighter means: he lampoons the remark by heartily one-upping it into the realm of the ridiculous. "Yup, if homosexuals are going to be in the military they oughta have their privates clipped off along with their hair," he deadpanned to his uncle, who smiled awkwardly and shifted in his chair. Agree with T.J. and he'd reveal himself to everyone at the table as a buffoon; disagree and he'd have vaulted over to the reasonable side of the argument, a dangerous place for any bigot to be. Not surprisingly, Unc changed the subject. Finally, one always has the option when dealing with the Christmas Turkey to let his offending remarks pass unheeded. Though this sounds like a contemptibly spineless alternative, it may be the best option. You are in the home of your partner's family for the first time. The Christmas Turkey is your dear octogenarian aunt. (Our elders, in my mind, can be forgiven a lot; their propriety was imbibed amid a different world.) Someone at the table would be humiliated by your response. The subject at issue hits too close to home for you to address it rationally. Or--a perfectly reasonable disincentive--you are the only one at the table who holds the enlightened view. In other words, sometimes Christmas dinner just has to be gotten through. Flex your integrity with the Christmas Turkey later if you wish, in private, where you can be more considered and more direct. Waiting may also be a good idea for another, less obvious reason. It will give you time to consider your motives. It's Christmas, after all; the season that traditionally brings out as much holier-than-thou in the human spirit as it does holiday generosity. Every year, tromping through the stores, we complain about the masses tromping through the stores. We howl about the increasing lamination of Christmas, the dread commercialization, and affect poses of noble self-denial. The homemade Christmas card, the manger-free pageant, the $5 Chubby & Tubby tree, the gift that reads "A donation has been made in your name to . . . ", all earn high marks in the complicated hierarchy of Christmas judgments. 'Tis the season to take umbrage. And why not? There's much superiority to be gained in righteous indignation. I only wonder how much of our principled advocacy over the dinner table is really about principle, and how much is theater for showcasing our own high-minded selves. Where would we be without our families at Christmas to make us feel so mightily beset, so tragically misunderstood? God bless us, every one.

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