The Improbable Joy Of Reimagining ‘Home For The Holidays’
How to betray our brethren? How do we believe that we are not monsters for not going Home for the Holidays, but brave, differentiated, self-preserving.
I don’t know about you, but my holidays — Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving — were hard.
Sometimes overtly so. Someone often got very drunk and openly miserable and would lash out, then stalk off to lie down in a bedroom and cry — or in our most dramatic year, an extra special year of sorrow, yell, “MERRY. FUCKING. CHRISTMAS!” before peeling away in their Volvo, swerving across the two-lane road and leaving us all in a grey puff of exhaust where we had gathered on the porch for a very impromptu goodbye.
But more often, the holidays were marked by a more insidious sadness, a more subtle fear. Our gatherings reminded us of all the quiet ways we were separately suffering.
Despite an exceedingly lovely veneer of WASPish sophistication, Ivy league educations, impressive vocabularies, tweed, wit, and a collective joie de vivre — all flanked by a candlelit table laden with a feast that would make Martha Stewart’s loins quiver — a sadness deep and wide ran its rivulets through every one of us.
Alcoholism prowled the family’s blood with a cruel virulence. Was it hereditary, the proverbial Irish curse? Was it the creeping shame of Catholicism? Was it a host of siblings unable to forgive themselves for not living the life they dreamed of?
Together they were a kind of bastardized mirror, refracting endlessly upon themselves, upon each other; each holiday brought another fissure in the glass, another slender slice of unreconciled self to contend with.
Then there was always the promise that my grandmother — a venerable and terrifying matriarch laden in velvet and pearls and wafting the scent of Nivea cream in her wake — would single you out. About your weight. About the consistency of the mashed potatoes. About the linen table cloth having a rust stain. About…anything that struck her twisted fancy to be honest.
(She was brilliant and witty and beautiful and if born in another era would have, no question, been running shit — but I think all that sublimated energy channeled into two unhappy marriages, six children, and a God she didn’t believe in made her bitter and cruel. I don’t know, but she loomed large, a living shadow.)
It brought out the worst in us.
Despite a palpable love — do not mistake me, the 12-ish of us, my aunts, uncles, parents and cousins, were devoted to one another, we were a self-revered tribe who laughed a lot, hard — these holidays threw into sharp relief all the ways we were all failing.
Marriages. Jobs. Addiction. I was tormented at school, I had no friends; my 12-year-old face was a freckled, buck-toothed situation framed by too-long, uncombed hair and thrift-store bell bottoms.
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I stared around the table year after year knowing with more certainty with every pass of the potatoes that growing up just meant you were taller, older. It did not mean you paid your bills, didn’t throw up wine, or didn’t cry openly in a public place. It didn’t mean you found someone who wouldn’t betray your love, or that you exercised with any regularity. It didn’t mean you had enough money or a nice apartment or ever felt safe.
You just got older and greyer and a little more scared.
I’m not sure why we were all there. I think it was what was always done and, “what would Mother say” if we refused? My grandmother was the lynchpin of a perverted ritual of her own creation, which was in turn a broken homage to the Domestic Life of Women.
She stalked a kitchen brimming with the smoke of Virginia Slims and Marlboros; every one of her children smoked. My mother chopped carrots; my aunt dashed paprika on deviled eggs; my uncles finished polishing the silver and gave me knowing glances. Grey ash was expertly flicked from every finger to the beat of a frantic heart.
Holidays threw into sharp relief all the ways we were all failing.
I promised myself I’d never have holidays like this. I’d never curse and sweat and vacuum and sigh and be so tired by the serving of the meal I could barely taste it before dividing everything into Tupperware and the dishwasher.
I promised myself that I’d skip the goddamn holidays entirely. I could think of nothing sicker than creating rituals that sacrificed yourself on an altar of your own making.
…but then I was 23, freshly installed in a tiny apartment in Sunset Park Brooklyn, and it was a week before Christmas. I was coming home from work — I taught dance and tumbling to children in a velvet jumpsuit every day — when I spotted a parking lot filled with Christmas trees.
Beautifully hulking beneath the dusky light of twilight and a streetlamp, I spotted a fat little tree beckoning me. I rushed into the lot and plunked down $45 — an astronomical sum then — and stared in loving awe as the sweet bearded man wrapped it in twine and helped me heave it onto my shoulder.
I made my way to the R train and got onto the subway, tree in tow. Like a bad adaptation of It’s A Wonderful Life, strangers beamed into my face as I dragged it onto the platform and into a crowded car, apologizing.
Merry Christmas! They laughed. Merry Christmas! I smiled, burying my face in its perfectly piney needles. I lugged the thing home 10 blocks from the subway and rang the bell at my apartment.
My roommate and best friend from boarding school swung open the door to the building. OUR OWN TREE! We yelled, galloping up the stairs as best we could with the tree gripped in our hands.
We threw a big party and everyone dressed up and helped decorate and I served champagne in plastic flutes. I scanned my body and felt nothing but joy. This was my house and this is what Christmas could be. My favorite people, all smiling, all swaying to Louis Armstrong, all eating too many pigs in a blanket and cursing the cold howling outside the frosted windows. Inside our cheeks were flushed with laughter; inside we were all safe.
But for Christmas proper, we all had to head Home, myself included. And again and again, year after year, despite my own tree, despite my howling heart, I made my way to Grand Central station and into another dysfunctional holiday, another bout with darkness that left me feeling dizzy and sad and infantilized for weeks after.
And I know so. many. of us make these pilgrimages; so many of us struggle with boundaries. Where does love and familial obligation begin and end? How much do we owe our sometimes drunk mothers, or military-rattled fathers, our conservative Jesus-loving brothers, our self-loathing cousins who are cruel out of fear and loneliness? These relationships manifest like cut crystal, refracting infinitely, transcending age, country, class, sexuality, religion, or gender. Sometimes it seems to me that familial dysfunction is the great human denominator, like food or air.
Show me a human, I’ll show you a pained family. I jest of course, but only half.
What’s stranger still is that those of us who do have particularly fraught families often wait until the holidays to see them, transmuting what could be a joyful event into a sanctioned ritual of pain. Is this a kind of shared martyrdom? Is this what it means to be family?
But how to betray our brethren? How to walk away when their unhappiness is often not their fault, but a broken path they’re stumbling along as best they can? How to admit that you’ll never be the gleaming faces sipping cocoa, laughing over red-ribboned gifts or sipping red wine while growing pleasantly warm by the fire as your uncle slips the final piece into a turkey-shaped puzzle? How do we recognize that all those charming films of dysfunctional family gatherings are nothing but celluloid to project your desires onto — they are not truth or reality, but pretty, distracting lies that have nothing to do with us.
How do we utter — and believe — that we are not monsters for not going Home for the Holidays, but brave, differentiated, self-preserving. How do we actually live self-care?
Last year is literally the first time in my 34-year-old life I wasn’t there to chop carrots and sweat beside my mother for Christmas dinner. I went to Vietnam instead. It was a decision I had to make six months in advance, negotiating hard like a well-oiled politician when all the while I wanted to scream, “just because I don’t have a husband and children doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have autonomy over my fucking life!”
It hurt to hurt her — a lot — but it also felt amazing to be eating squid on a dock halfway across the world on Christmas Eve. My mouth was full of cheap cold beer and all I could see was a vast inky night speckled with renegade stars. I felt my body tense and release. Like a life-bar in a video-game, I felt my Self grow two levels stronger.
I called them the next morning on FaceTime; I was passed around the room to uncles and aunts and waved hello to the dogs. I took in the fireplace, the glinting candelabras, my mother’s giant smile, my father’s tweed coat and jaunty red tie.
I cried a little, wishing it wasn’t so hard. Wishing I didn’t love their faces as desperately as I did. And yet.
I’ve only been brave enough to miss one Christmas, but it seems I’m about to miss another unless my mother agrees to come to California. She likely won’t.
I don’t have my own Christmas yet. Last year I closed my eyes and cut the threads, but they’re still madly flying in the wind — in the wake of the shearing, I don’t have a new ritual.
But Thanksgivings?! They’re mine now.
I’ve taken everything I learned was mandatory for magic — low light; whipped potatoes, Bell’s seasoning, a champagne bucket, gourds, fancy cheese on a gleaming wooden platter, a hot shower, and an outfit that makes you feel beautiful — and chucked everything else into the bowels of my childhood.
Do I set an elaborate table? Oh fuck yes. Do I buy a tablecloth that can’t be stained with red wine or the snarfing of a pecan pie? No, no, no. Do I spend the day cooking? Inevitably, yes. Do I do it with joy, listening to rock music and dividing all the chopping and boiling and sipping and thickening and sauteing and oh-dearing over the dryness of the poultry with some of my favorite people on earth? Yes. Is it chaotic and often includes a stranger or two, a glorious orphan looking for their own ritual, looking for their own chosen family? Yes, the more the merrier, and I mean it.
Do we say grace from this little bound book of prayers and do I wince at my own saccharine heart as I clutch the hands beside me and we smile into each others’ faces and offer gratitude — sans God — for the feast and friends before us?
I do. I even cry sometimes, so great is my relief. So great is my power in casting off the shadows of what could have been and instead, re-imbuing a ritual with love, with possibility.
I am older, I am greyer, but I’m not as scared as I always thought I’d be. Taking back my Thanksgivings has enabled me to shrug off so many of the shadows that clung to my shoulders with the teeth and claws of familial calamity.
And while I bear the scars of those dinners and the crushing sadness that only comes from the inability to help those you love — you’re screaming, begging, PLEASE MOVE! as the freight train hurtles down the tracks — the days of believing I was bound to those tracks, too, are over.