The holidays in my family are dismal affairs. They are feared and dreaded all year long. If any of us haven’t managed to bail out on the whole thing, we are left with the feeling that the season is one to be endured, not enjoyed.
First is a longtime annulled single mother of five children, all of whom are middle-aged, but none of whom have had kids. They live apart, scattered throughout the Eastern Seaboard. Only one of the five is married. Of those five, only three are involved with the family in any significant way – frequent phone calls and visits.
Otherwise, the family dynamic is marked by polite distance; conversations are stiff and humorless; gatherings are infrequent, sparsely attended and short-lived.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was young, the season was magical. Advent was a mysterious, sacred time – lighting candles at sundown, reciting prayers, church every Friday morning. The weekend after Thanksgiving ushered in extensive preparations, joyfully attended to by my industrious grandmother. Italian Christmases are epic, and the preparations were truly a sight to behold.
We used to be a large, involved, close family who would gather in the late afternoon of Christmas Eve. We would then drink, eat, talk and joke until midnight Mass, where we would all go to together.
It was a beautiful childhood. I’m eternally grateful for it.
Following the death of my grandmother, however, breaks in the family unit became apparent. Some members chose to fight, others chose to simply stop talking.
Ten years later, those breaks seem permanent. The blissful Christmas of our childhood was replaced by the abysmal season we are still grappling with. There seems to be no way out, despite our best efforts to avoid them.
I have, over the years, figured out how to make these holidays a little easier. I find the more I let go of expectations, the less painful the season gets. Here are the things I’ve realized my family – or at least I – need to do for some peace of mind:
1. Un-invite Norman Rockwell
I’m sure most people are familiar with the Norman Rockwell painting of a Thanksgiving dinner: a crowded dining room, food displayed festively on a banquet-sized table, complete with a crisp white tablecloth. The turkey (and the grandmother serving it) are plump and pink, the picture of health. Grandpa wears a suit, smiling quietly at this sumptuous meal. Every single face is smiling, every glass is filled with water, every dish is pristine, every fork polished. It is an idyllic scene of the perfect multi-generational family enjoying a beautiful holiday moment.
I have no doubt that this image ruins many a holiday. How many families look like that? Worse yet, how many families don’t but want to look like that?
Therein lies the damage of the idyllic scene. Many of us do not have the perfect nuclear family unit. Many of us cannot afford crisp white tablecloths, sumptuous turkeys or polished silver. Many of us could not manage to get our entire families to smile at each other, lost in the blissful camaraderie of the moment. Many more of us probably don’t have a grandpa who will don a three-piece suit or a grandma with a pristine white apron and manage to keep it pristine while serving a gigantic turkey.
The whole scene is an image that I wish my family had never been exposed to. The idealism in this scene, so far removed from the reality of my family, has prevented us from accepting our own unit in its present state. If we have to compare ourselves to the Rockwell painting, we are complete failures at creating a family.
To that I say, why?
Why try to measure up to an unattainable ideal? Norman Rockwell presents an image of how life should be, or how it once was and is no longer, or never could possibly be.
I think we could all save ourselves so much grief and angst if we lost the Rockwell lens through which we view our holidays. The same goes for the Hallmark and Lifetime channels, The Waltons, the feel-good movie of the year and the relentless commercials showing this same Rockwell family, updated and re-packaged.
2. Let go of the past
In my family, my identity was set for me on one occasion; coincidentally, it happened on Christmas morning. The first occasion was when I was 7 or 8. My mother hand made me a costume so that I resembled Holly Hobby, a popular doll in the early 70s. But I’d wanted a ballet costume. I dreamt for weeks of glittering leotards, dreamy chiffon capes and wide pink tutus. When I saw the costume she made – think “Little House on the Prairie” – I was crushed. Being the age that I was, I made no attempt to hide my devastation. I recall crying hysterically for about 10 or 15 minutes, followed by a solid 48 hours of intense sulking.
I still have not lived that morning down; not one Christmas has passed without someone reminding me of my colossal meltdown. Not only that, I sealed my fate as an ungrateful, disrespectful, egocentric, spoiled brat for whom nothing – not even an exquisitely hand-made costume – was good enough.
Every single person in my family has had an identity set for them in the same way.
Not one of us are those people anymore. We cannot seem to shake the identity of our former selves.
This is a clear-cut problem with a fairly simple solution, but simple does not mean easy. We all know we need to let go of the past, but somehow the holiday season brings it all back to us in a way that seems impossible to shake.
Perhaps what is needed is a holiday in a different location, or with different food, or with a few extra people – particularly ones who didn’t know us way back then. I am certainly willing to try it!
3. Accept everyone where they are
Although we were all raised Catholic, my mother and I are the only ones left practicing. Between all four siblings and one sister-in-law, there are two agnostics, one Buddhist, one non-practicing Methodist and one New Age aficionado.
This could make for some serious tension. Thankfully, though, this is one area where we all seemed to get it right: no one judges anyone else for their place in their faith journey.
Another non-issue is politics; in my family the variety is just as wide along the political spectrum as it is on the faith issue. Certainly, politics are never discussed in the first place. It has never been a topic that was discussed while growing up. I’m just grateful that, given all the other challenges my family faces, these two issues aren’t thrown into the mix.
4. Ask questions, don’t make assumptions
The reality of me and my siblings is that none of us had kids. I spent years lamenting my childless state, both for myself and for my mother. Without discussing it with her, I automatically assumed she was disappointed at not being a grandmother.
But one year I decided to ask her about it. I was pleasantly surprised and very relieved at her response.
She said, “I would never impose a set of standards on my kids. I want them to lead their own lives, not live according to someone else’s idea of life.”
I felt so liberated by this information and now look at my siblings as fearless, independent pioneers, not lonely, unfulfilled singletons.
So how can broken families try to dread the holidays less? I think everyone has to find thier own way.
But here’s what I’ve been imagining: What if I could re-paint the Rockwell scene? I could insert my own family, flawed and struggling, instead of the idealized image. Our dishes would be chipped, the tablecloth scattered with stains. Calamari with pasta could replace the turkey. No one is wearing a suit. Maybe no one is smiling, but no one feels that they have to smile. There is no past, no judgement and no ideal.
Essentially, this is a scene that feels infinitely more real and more intimate. It forces me to realize that the fear and dread we feel has no basis in reality. It also allows me to see that there’s no reason everyone needs to have a traditional nuclear family unit. I am able to have compassion for all of us and for others who struggle as we do with the holiday season.
At the end of the season, though, it becomes much more important for each person, and by extension the family, to be authentic and true to themselves. This is by far the greater lesson the holidays teach us.