I hope everyone enjoyed your Thanksgiving and spent it surrounded by people you love. This time of year stirs a lot of emotion as we get to enjoy added time around friends and family. Not all gatherings bring holiday joy. Sometimes we’re forced to swallow a dreaded side dish of family conflict.

It’s wise to sidestep hot button issues in the interest of fulfilling mama’s singular wish that all of her children gather pleasantly around the dinner table without it erupting into an clash of personalities. Easier said than done when that person who gets on your last nerve delights in stomping on it to provoke a reaction.

The big three discussions to avoid concern politics, religion and sports rivalries.

With today being the Iron Bowl, I’m well aware that bragging rights are on the line and my team seems destined for a big slice of humble pie. I can take (and actually enjoy) the digs as long as the other person keeps it good-natured. The score of one game is not life or death.

Family gatherings suddenly thrust together cousins, aunts and uncles whose urban/rural and generational divide is punctuated by strong differences of opinions. The young woman introducing everyone to her purple hair, preferred pronouns and tendency to lecture others about social justice may feel mortified as her new boyfriend overhears her uncle’s conspiracy theories about the inevitability of JFK, Jr. returning from the dead to help carry out public executions of pedophile lizard election thieves. They’ll both ride home completely convinced that the other one is the weirdo.

Religion is the ultimate hot button because it’s impossible to argue with someone who is convinced that they have the infallible word of an omniscient creator on their side, yet people of faith can vary greatly in the specifics of their exact denominations. Maybe not the best time for any atheists to add their two cents.

If your religion permits it, alcohol may lighten the mood, but it could fuel obnoxiousness and impair judgment. I fully expect we’ll read some headline tomorrow about a bar brawl over the Iron Bowl that leads to a gunshot wound or poisoned trees. Lighten up, guys.

Whichever side you find yourself on, the smart person remembers the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.”

Playing games fills the awkward silences. I’m partial to Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit myself. Minus an actual game board or cards, like-minded siblings can turn overheard keywords into a homemade version of Bingo.

When avoiding potentially flammable topics, alternative conversations might regard the weather. No, wait, that could lead to an argument about climate change. I would say that reminiscing about days of old is a good choice, but not if it triggers resentments about catching your ex-wife cheating with your brother or teasing at the expense of someone who wishes you would just drop it already. You could mention someone that everyone in the room is sure to hate and enjoy the fellowship of rhetorically ripping them to shreds. What’s more Christmasy than shared contempt? I joke. Poorly, perhaps.

To spare unpleasant encounters and sore feelings, some will use last year’s absence of a traditional family gathering as an excuse to again skip Christmas. That’d be a shame. Perhaps we should talk less and listen more, deferring to our elders as they share their wisdom about the world. We might learn something that changes our perspective and alters our certainty that we already know it all. Maybe we should look for goodness deep down, beyond shallow concerns of how fancy someone talks or dresses or how many degrees they earned. We are more than these things.

Flesh and blood transcends all of that. Family persists despite whoever else abandons us in this world. They stand by us in our most embarrassing moments of ruin and still love us, even if they don’t particularly like us.

I’ll leave you with one final thought. This may be the last Christmas you see someone whose presence you’ve taken for granted. Few of us predicted that these last couple of years would rob us of so many loved ones. Take a moment to truly, fully experience their company. The next time you’re together may be the funeral of someone in the room.

— Steven Stiefel is the publisher of the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: steven.stiefel@times-journal.com.

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