Over the river and through the woods, to grandfather's house we go.

That familiar verse recalls the hallowed tradition of visiting our families and friends during the holidays. We all have memories of such visits, some sweet, some bittersweet.

Scripture offers us a model for our holiday visits in the Luke's account of Mary, the expectant mother of Christ, visiting her cousin Elizabeth, the expectant mother of John the Baptist during that first Advent.

"Mary set out and traveled to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? The moment the sound of your greeting reached my ear the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.' " Luke 1:39-45

This passage, known as "The Visitation," has inspired great works of art with its message of charity, peace and joy -- the hallmarks of our Christmas season.

The heroic charity of Mary dominates this scene. While naturally anxious and concerned about her own condition, she took time to help another who was also with child, a child not equal to the Messiah, but a child who meant everything its own mother, Elizabeth. This act of charity by Mary brought peace and joy to both Elizabeth and her unborn child. Mary prepared herself for the first Christmas by serving the needs of others rather than being preoccupied with her own more pressing concerns. The Visitation is magnanimity personified.

The joy of Mary's unselfish service in visiting Elizabeth is a model for our holiday visits. Visiting family and friends during the holidays can be warm and wonderful occasions building memories that last a lifetime. Unfortunately, they also can be disasters that leave painful scars. Tongues loosened with too much eggnog can inflict wounds, dredge up old hurts, create new divisions.

We need to endure quietly the tiring monologues of boring relatives and the pompous rantings of bosterious friends. Listen patiently as Grandma exaggerates the burdens of her youth and Grandpa retells his heroics in the Big War. Let your windy uncle harangue local politics and your garrulous aunt critique the social scene.

Refuse to return a snub, intended or not. Avoid comparisons. Don't take the bait; bite your tongue; swallow your pride. Be a host in the gracious spirit of joyful service; visit with a gentle gratitude that fosters peace.

Mary is the model for a fruitful Advent. Her waiting in faith, her quiet trust, but especially her kindness in visiting her cousin Elizabeth, should be models for our own Christmas celebrations. Honor your guests and your hosts this holiday season with the best of all Christmas gifts, the gift of peace.

Father Earl R. Meyer is from the Capuchin Center for Spiritual Life, Victoria.