Back Home Again: Pass the Potatoes

Holiday dinners are joyous gatherings—unless you have one too many glass bowls at the table.
Illustration by Ryan Snook

FOR THE PAST 25 years, my wife and I have celebrated Christmas at our home in Danville where we raised our sons. My brothers and sister visit on Christmas Eve, and we sit in the living room and make fun of one another like we did when we were kids. When we’re done agitating each other over little things, we bicker about politics. One of us likes Donald Trump, while the rest of us think he belongs in prison. We quarrel about that until my wife calls us to the table, the household demilitarized zone, where no arguing is permitted. Though we clash over politics, we’ve all agreed to let no politician, Democrat or Republican, keep us from eating.

With Trump facing possible imprisonment, this promises to be a festive season. But then, I’m happy whenever Americans affirm that we are a nation of laws, not of men, and that no title or position exempts the powerful and privileged among us from accountability. Our family member who likes Trump believes sending a president to jail is something a politically unstable nation might do, but I believe the opposite, that equal justice before the law is the hallmark of a healthy democracy. I am far sadder if a president breaks the law than I am if he is held accountable for it.

As a pastor, I’m privy to the struggles of others, chief among them the political divisions that roil so many families these days, making many family gatherings a veritable minefield. One misstep, and the family tree is blasted to splinters. In the interest of peace, I thought I’d offer a little advice to help neutralize any red zones you might navigate this holiday season.

I’ll begin with the most obvious counsel: If you’re easily agitated and prone to speaking your mind, it might be wise to keep your yap shut for the six hours you’ll be with family. It’s not like your family doesn’t already know how you feel about Donald Trump, one way or the other. Besides, after eight years on the public stage, none of us is undecided about him or open to reconsidering our opinions, so do everyone a favor and zip it.

If you can’t keep quiet, at least make the effort to support your view with verifiable facts. Just to be clear, not all political commentators and news outlets are reliable. Some have made a lot of money stoking partisan fires and aren’t at risk of impartiality anytime soon. It never pays to take the word of someone who profits from lies, whether it’s a politician, a car salesman, or a preacher. As my mother used to say, “Lies are never made truer by volume or repetition.” Actually, I just made that up, but my mother would have said it had she been alive during the Trump news era.

At some point, someone at the dinner table will say something outrageous, and in the interest of integrity and patriotism, you’ll feel compelled to correct him. (For some reason, it’s almost always a “him.”) Remind yourself that our republic will not be saved just because you corrected your boneheaded relative. Instead, smile and offer them more mashed potatoes. The more they eat, the less they talk.

It helps to remember that some people derive joy from annoying others. My mother had a word for people like that, which I won’t repeat, other than to say it rhymed with “glass bowl.”

“Oh, look at that glass bowl,” she’d say. “The one with the mashed potatoes. Pete, you seem to be enjoying those.”

This Pete was a real person, married to my aunt and a certified, grade A, number one glass bowl. I saw him six hours a year, every year—three hours at Christmas and three hours at Easter. It was agonizing, almost enough to make me regret the birth and resurrection of Jesus. Still, he taught me a valuable lesson—that it is entirely permissible, and at times advisable, to skip family gatherings altogether if they cause you more hurt than happiness.

In her lovely little book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I feel the same way about family gatherings. If people want you there, they need to behave better. If they decide to be a glass bowl, you can decide to stay home. Just a little advice from your pastor. Happy holidays!