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Family holiday gatherings are a true test of civility
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Christmas seems to be the most nostalgic time of the year.

For me it's mostly because of the holiday tunes. Hearing Bing Crosby croon "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," or Gene Autry sing "Here Comes Santa Claus," or Nat King Cole sing of roasting chestnuts on an open fire, is freighted with the nostalgia of my childhood in the 1960s.

The radio by my desk is dialed to KVIN 920 AM where it's been parked all month long. Occasionally I hear this particularly fun vintage song that makes me chuckle. Ever hear "I Just Go Nuts At Christmas"? Recorded in 1949, performer Harry Stewart sings as a goofy Swedish immigrant Jorgi Jorgensen making fun of the Christmas celebration ritual complete with a thick exaggerated accent.

Here's a sample of the lyrics: "Yust befor Christmas dinner, I relax to a point, Den relatives start svarming, all over da yoint. On Christmas, I hug and I kiss my vife's mother, Da rest of da year, ve don't speak to each other. After dinner, my aunt, and my vifes' uncle Louie, Get into an argument; der both awful screwy. Den all of my vife's family, say Louie is right, And my goofy relations day yoin in da fight. Back in da corner, da radio is playing, And over da racket, Gabriel Heatter is saying, 'Peace on earth everybody, and good vill toward men' and yust at dat moment, someone slugs uncle Ben."

The song is humorous but underscores the reality that Christmas can be the coup de grâce of strained family relations. The obligatory family gatherings can be somewhat stressful for most people because Christmas, like no other time of the year, can force you to be with people you'd rather not see.

I have a pretty civil family and no one I am dreading to see. But I can say that in my 49 years' experience with a myriad of family gatherings that involved generations now passed, I've seen my share of incidences that left feelings hurt and flared nostrils. The stress and grief of a funeral once even led to a physical altercation between family members. True, while the season's wish of many is "Peace on earth and goodwill toward men," Christmas can be a trying time. No wonder funny man Victor Borge said, "Santa Claus has the right idea. Visit people once a year."

Perhaps we'd all be better off to look at ourselves and how we conduct business as human beings when it comes to our wish for world peace. After all, the most control we will ever experience is the space within the walls we occupy.

I've long pondered the implications of a simple Bible verse (Romans 12:18). It reads: "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." I've been moved by what it implies. It suggests that we have a lot of control in what goes on between me and the next person, that I can steer a relationship on the path or run it off a cliff. Combine that with Proverbs 21:23: "Whoever guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble" and you can quickly sense that it is restraint that may be the essential element in having a good Christmas gathering or an explosive one. In the same book is this one: "A man of knowledge uses words with restraint ... even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent."

I'm constantly having to remind myself during some of my tirades that I don't always have to be right; that it's okay to have an opinion but I don't have to share it as vociferously as I can. I don't always need to share it, especially in mixed company. In the long run, I want to leave a gathering and be able to say, "That was enjoyable."

It's a good thing that Stanislaus County schools, at the behest of Supt. Tom Changnon, are talking about civility in the discourse of the day. Educators are using P.M. Forni's book, "Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct," as the basis for the focus. The local initiative uses 12 key points as talking points in being civil toward one another. They are to: Listen. Respect other people's time. Don't shift responsibility and blame. Accept and give praise. Respect others' opinions. Acknowledge others. Speak kindly. Apologize sincerely. Refrain from idle complaints. Think the best. Accept and give constructive criticism. Don't speak ill.

Simple but profound. Imagine how our city, state and nation could be revolutionized for good if all of us lived out those principles. Think of how fewer crimes would be committed, how many fewer police resources would be needed, how much less misery would we felt in the human community. It's a staggering thought IF practiced.

We have a lot of work to do. But it starts with me. It starts with you. Let's roll up our sleeves and get to work.

How do you feel? Let Jeff by e-mailing him at