Last Saturday I caught an old TV movie, A Very Brady Christmas. I’m a sucker for Christmas movies. In the Brady’s syrupy Christmas drama, Cindy (the youngest girl, just like me) was maneuvering that change from child to adult in her relationships with her picture perfect family. Ultimately, she had to stand up and say, “I’m an adult and I’d like to be treated like one.” Because she had a script, she also had all the right words, as did the family characters around her. Not so easy in the real world, I think.

A friend of mine recently told me that she was going home (back east) for Christmas. She said it rather wistfully, so I asked if there was a problem. “My faith community is here. I go home and no one will go to midnight mass with me and even if they did, it’s in some church that means something to them, not so much to me.”

This sounded all too familiar. When I was in graduate school, I came to be very connected with the Arizona State University faith community. Yet, each year, I’d travel to my mother’s house to be with family on Christmas Eve and day. I’d attend midnight mass at the local parish and sometimes be joined by a bit of my family. There I’d find myself thinking about the ASU community where I had helped create the Christmas environment, or a good friend lectoring at midnight mass for the first time.

Finally, one year, when I was about 27, I decided I wanted to stay and celebrate mass with my yearlong faith community. I approached my mother (and older sisters –the other power wielders in my family) with trepidation as I hoped to have some opportunity to celebrate Christmas with the family, but also to be appreciated as an adult making a healthy decision about her own life. What surprised me was how easily the conversation was. I had thought they’d treat me like a kid and be upset, however, since I approached the situation as an adult they treated me like one too. Who knew?

So, we celebrated a family gathering a week before the Holy Day. I stayed and celebrated mass with my faith community and a day or so later went to Mom’s. Since then, the question comes up in November who’s going to be where for Christmas. For the kids who have kids of their own and those who live far away, the question is whether or not they can make it out to California, plan to stay home with their own intimate family, or might they travel to their in-laws. Now there is no “command attendance” about our Christmases together. And I think I’m lucky when I can be with my current faith community (my sisters) and my family all in the space of a few days. While I’m rarely with family on Christmas Eve anymore, I’m there, often, on Christmas day.

At a meeting with a bunch of young adults the other night I asked, how they had negotiated their adult family relationships around the holidays. The resounding answer from most in the group was “I haven’t.” Whew. Some said that their siblings had made that leap through marriage and children. (That’s a lot just to be seen as an adult in the family.) I was reminded that often the understanding that’s missing about young adults is that the key word in that phrase isn’t “young,” it’s “adult.”

Our young adult model, Jesus, however, never had to negotiate this Christmas holiday dilemma: they wouldn’t have had his birthday party without him, would they? Jesus is, however, a model of one who made this transition with grace and honesty too. Telling us that his mother and brothers and sisters are those who hear the word of God and act on it. Jesus became an adult by acting like one. He named his adult responsibilities and he acted on them, whether or not others understood or appreciated this.

I was able, by grace and intention, to negotiate that move from childhood expectations to adult relationship in this one area of our family life. Ah, still, though, there are areas where being the youngest girl means something by way of expectations and treatment. And more or less, that’s the way I like it: it all depends on whether I have to do the dishes.

Good Grounds column for the San Francisco Catholic newspaper
December, 2002