I have a very romanticized idea of the holidays. I function at a Clark W. Griswold level of holiday merriment from November through mid-January. It’s obnoxious.
I grew up having amazing Christmases with my grandmother before she died. She filled every room of her house with friends and family as the Rat Pack hummed from the record player in the living room and the walls glowed with Christmas lights from the trees in every corner. She served hors d’oeuvres on themed glass plates from her china cabinet and had a bartender at the ready filling drinks and slipping me swords of maraschino cherries. Everyone was laughing and hugging and singing along to the music as gifts were passed and stories were shared.
I kept wanting to recreate that for my kids, but I’d always bypass success and land somewhere near abysmal failure with Dixie plates, cans of pop shoved on the garage step to keep cold and tears. So many tears.
Holiday stress aside, this time of year is horrible on families. It’s like putting under a magnifying glass all the problems you’ve had all year, the family drama, passive aggressive Facebook statuses, the one-upping and feeling left out or excluded, and adding to that the fun of now having to come face to face with a warm dish to pass.
Four years ago, my family experienced a falling out, and with Andy’s family living out of state, we were left suddenly very alone. During the year it was okay, less people to share news with and toss Happy Birthday cards in the mail to, but other than that, the quiet was nice. The lack of stress and worrying about who was mad at who was nice. Exhaling for the first time in a long time felt… nice. But then the holidays hit, and that contentment I had been experiencing without family drama went out the window, and I was suddenly hyper aware that we were alone. Being alone on the 4th of July while skipping town on a vacation with our kids instead of being at the family BBQ was one thing. Being alone at Christmas was another.
Our house was empty, our Christmas card list was small, and a day usually spent going house to house in celebration was now without any plans at all. The first year was horrible. I was still completely brainwashed that my holiday happiness hung on the quantity of people jammed into it. Even though I wasn’t happy, at least I wasn’t alone, you know?
The next year was our rebuilding year. Mostly thanks to Andy sitting me down, telling me to stop blubbering, and reminding me that family has very little to do with the blood between us, and more to do with the love shared. I am paraphrasing, he was way less elegant, mostly screaming “fuck them, we got this” and throwing boxes of Kleenex at me. And he was so right. We had amazing friends who loved us and our children, that was what family was. So when the holidays hit, I no longer felt lonely and left out, and instead was getting my merry back. We sent out Christmas cards, threw holidays parties, and felt included and cared for by people we never thought to lean on before.
We also made new traditions. Christmas Eve, a night previously spent at a relative’s house having dinner and watching the little ones open gifts, was now spent at home. We give the kids special Christmas Eve boxes filled with new pajamas, slippers, mugs for hot chocolate, a new board game, and special paper and markers to write their notes to Sanata. We then all change into our new pjs, eat homemade fried rice on the couch and watch Christmas movies and play games together, just us.
Christmas Day in the past was spent hurrying through gifts in the morning before taking off for another holiday tour of relatives. Now we gather around the tree eating pancakes and unwrapping gifts at our own pace. Later in the day, my parents, brother and sister-in-law and other family-orphaned friends come over. We eat more food, play games and let the children play with their spoils upstairs as we relax in the living room laughing over bourbon slushies and Monty Python movies. We’re together because we chose to be.
It wasn’t elegant or traditional, but it was happy. For the very first time we were conscious of the time we were spending together. It was no longer time spent in the car schlepping kids around and being pissed on the ride home because someone said something shitty at the dinner table. It wasn’t being nice to someone’s face or whisper screaming at your kid in your Aunt’s bathroom because they were tired and tantrumy. The holiday was suddenly meaningful, and we decided right then, we were never going back.
For us, the only way to have a happy family Christmas was to stop inviting our family to Christmas. We had to realize that feeling hurt and horrible was not how family was supposed to work. If you are leaving every family gathering upset and stressed and scared that people hate you because think that attending is some sort of obligation you have for being birthed into a certain bloodline, it’s not. You are not obligated to surround yourself with people who feel like they have a bounty on your happiness.
You do, however, have the right as an adult to chose who you surround yourself with, and you have a responsibility as a parent to make sure the people who gather around your children are people who lift up and love them, every part of them, even the parts that come from you.
Happy Holidays to you all, in whatever form that comes!