Spending time with family over the holidays is like paying taxes. If you’re lucky, and you’ve invested enough over the year, you might get something back from it. If you’re not so lucky, you’re going to pay, let’s be very clear on that.
But whether spending time with family is a good thing or a bad thing, you do it anyway. You take days off of work. You hire the pet sitter. You pack the bags. You then remember you still need room for presents. You repack the bags. And finally, you get out the door.
You might then spend hours flying, driving or riding across hundreds or even thousands of miles for the distinct privilege of spending a handful of rare vacation days with a man who, as a child, once actually attempted to put your head in a toilet bowl.
Simply put, holidays are stressful. They demand planning. They are expensive. And they require spending a lot of time in your basement trying to find things that you’ll drape around the house, only to have to put them back four weeks later.
Families are also stressful. They demand patience. They are emotionally exhausting. And they require spending a lot of time trying to negotiate the delicate balance between obligation and desire.
And yet we insist on combining them year after year.
Putting family and holidays together is like pouring Red Bull into your coffee and wondering why you have the shakes. Either of those things alone can be intense. But put them together? Ten minutes into it and you think your head might explode.
So why do we do it? For some of us, it’s purely out of obligation. For some of us, it’s because we do actually enjoy the noise and drama. And for others, it’s merely an instinctual, visceral desire to avoid the passive aggressive backlash that will most likely last until the following Christmas.
There have been years that I have wanted nothing more than to lock the doors, draw the blinds and share the holidays with my no one but own little family – only to have an assortment of extended relatives show up on my doorstep anyway. There have been other years when I’ve swan-dived headfirst in the holiday melee, only to end up glassy-eyed in a corner wondering if perhaps it was less of a swan dive and more of a bellyflop.
The fact is, I’m still trying to find the balance.
I thought I had it figured out one year when I offered to host everyone at my house. It was the perfect plan. I wouldn’t be stressed about trying to jam the entire contents of Santa’s sleigh into a car topper, hoping that no one saw me in the process. I would serve delightful hors d’oeuvres on Christmas Eve. Finally, I would wake up on Christmas morning in my own bed, instead of on an air mattress covered with my nephew’s pirate sheets. I would make Christmas dinner the way I wanted to make it. I would control the crowds, making sure no one got in any one else’s space. Best of all, I would play the graceful hostess, effortlessly guiding conversation so that we remained well within the realm of neutral, but intellectually stimulating, banter, as opposed to my very large families’ other favorite topics – religion and politics.
So here’s how that went down.
Girl 1 came home with lice two weeks before Christmas. I did everything but burn the house to the ground with hopes of rebuilding before everyone arrived. Then I had to work the week leading up to Christmas, including all day on Christmas Eve. Two hours before everyone was due to arrive, I was at the grocery store. It was here that I remembered that I don’t actually know how to make hors d’oeuvres. A frantic phone call to a much craftier friend than I, and I had a crock pot meatballs recipe, alongside a couple of other easy-to-assemble-appetizer-style food ideas. I rushed home…
…and so began Christmas Apocalypse 2009.
Everyone arrived late. My brother unexpectedly showed up with his dog, who as it turns out, was not a fan of my dog. The neighbors decided to stop by in the midst of it with Christmas presents for my kids, which meant the other nieces and nephews had nothing. People were tripping over one another. Everyone was talking at once. It was mass hysteria.
As for the food, the meatballs promptly burned. I didn’t even know you could burn something in a crock pot. I took one bite and spit it out, near tears. My sister and I watched in horror as my mother, ever the optimist, insisted they were delicious and continued shoving them in her mouth just to prove a point, while undoubtedly fighting a gag reflex.
From there on out, it went downhill. The conversations were far from under control. The air mattress that someone else was going to have to sleep on had a hole in it. The children were staging Lord of the Flies in the basement. And the dogs were forming what looked to be a murderous gang war.
I ended up crying in the bathroom with nothing but a glass of wine between me and a midnight runner to anywhere but there.
I would like to say that it got better. It didn’t. Fast-forward to Christmas dinner. Chinese take-out. And that’s really all there is to say about that.
I was horrified by the whole experience. Why had I done this? Why do any of us do it? My family is amazing and we all get along really well for the most part. But for the love of sweet baby Jesus in the manger, small doses, people. Please.
The next year we moved to West Africa. Suddenly family was not close enough to irritate me. I prepped for the next Christmas with people who were friends – but not family. For the first time ever, I had all of the intimate, immediate family holiday I could stand. It was quiet. Too quiet. There was no one to laugh about childhood memories with. No one to roll my eyes with when my mother over-decorated and my father continuously muttered about it under his breath. There were no cousin-huddles in front of a Claymation made-for-TV Christmas movie while bickering over who was taking up to much room on the couch. Worst of all, there was not one single heated debate about religion – or politics.
Families are complicated. But they are comprised of the people that we know the best. The people that we have spent our most formative years with. The ones that know us inside and out, even if they shamelessly exploit it at times. Families are the people we convince ourselves we are the least like, but who always prove to be the most accurate mirrors of our true self.
Sometimes we run headlong into our families because we need that sense of sameness that can only come from shared experience and tradition. Sometimes we avoid them at all costs them because we are just too different. It’s a fine line that we must always learn to walk.
But no matter what the relationship, families are the ones that love us unconditionally. They will pack their own presents and bags and, sometimes dogs, then drive hundreds of miles and to eat our burned meatballs, insisting that they are delicious the whole while.
I’m not going to lie and say that family holidays are always the best idea. But I recently asked my kids to recall their favorite Christmas. They replied “2009,” nearly in unison. They then proceeded to recount the comedy of errors like they were describing their favorite movie. And as it turns out, they are really into Chinese take-out for Christmas dinner.
As we approach the holidays, I’ve been mulling this over a great deal. I’ve spend one too many holiday nights crying in a bathroom. So this year, I am going to go all out – not with Christmas itself – but with my family. I am going to watch my mother and sister argue about the perfect placement of every ornament on the tree and appreciate their sense of perfection instead of complaining about their OCD. I going to make my dad turn his hearing aids back on and get him to tell me stories of his own childhood Christmases (before the world became over-decorated). I am going to learn how to make some fun hors d’oeuvres that don’t involve frozen meatballs or crock pots. I am going to notice how I got my mother’s hands and my father’s sense of humor. I am going to marvel in the sameness of myself and my siblings and revel in the ways that we differ. I am going to actively avoid participating in conversations regarding religion or politics, but I will quietly listen to what the others have to say, because who knows, I might just learn something – if not about the topic, then definitely about the person sharing the opinion.
Most of all, I am going to remind myself that even if these people drive me crazy sometimes, when it comes down to it, they are the ones that will stand the test of time.
Christmas this year will not be perfect, I assure you. It will be stressful and probably a bit messy. It will be loud and chaotic. Someone will end up crying. But this year, I can only promise that it won’t be me.