The Holidays Suck When You Don't Have a Family

If you are having a hard time this holiday season, I really just want to let you know that there’s nothing wrong with you for not being flush with peace on earth and all of that.

Dec 23, 2011 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

I love me a secular Christmas. I love tinsel and twinkle lights and giving meaningful and whimsical and generally delightful gifts. I love carols, even the religious ones. From the day after Thanksgiving until right around New Year’s Day, I am pretty disgustingly full of holiday cheer and goodwill toward everyone.

This is the rub: I have a really hard time sometimes at Christmas. Every year I remember that this chapter is part of my story, part of my Christmas Past. And so, every year, I have to sit down and take a minute to be very quiet and sad.

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Once upon a time, I spent three years not speaking to my family. The whys and wherefores of that are really small things that built up and exploded, ordinary family drama type things that are really only significant to the participants on any given day. Which is to say, I’m not actually telling the story of how I wound up disowned in this post.

Just know that several years back, I’d just been disowned, okay? It wasn’t a formal legal thing but the emotional impact of it was pretty freaking severe. I’d been invited to spend the holiday with the rest of the family that was still speaking to me, but I wasn’t handling it very well at all.

Every day I’d call and put off my arrival by another day. And I did that, every day, right up until it was Christmas and there were no more days left. I made my excuses -- and instead of visiting my family, I dog sat for a friend who had an out-of-town boyfriend.

Part of the appeal of dog sitting for this friend was her generous cable channel selection. At that point, "Dead Like Me" was a relatively new show. For those of you not in on this, "Dead Like Me" is about this girl who dies and becomes kind of a reaper -- but not in a terrible way. In a really kind of awesome way that involves Mandy Patinkin. I wound up marathoning episodes.

Thing is, this dead girl? This dead girl had a really difficult relationship with her mother. And that was front and center in the storyline.

Which is how I wound up on her sofa, alone at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning, sobbing my eyes out while two worried dogs looked on.

This is pretty bare bones, obviously, but I don’t know how else to tell it. Yes, I cried. Yes, I thought a lot of horrible things about myself. Yes, a stupid TV show (that’s actually a good TV show) pushed me over that point so I could let myself weep it all out.

Objectively, I recognize that one of fiction’s most important roles is as a provider of catharsis. Subjectively, years later, I still cannot watch "Dead Like Me" without it feeling like someone has grabbed me by the throat.

Similarly, I can’t really relax at a Denny’s anymore either.

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Because here’s what happened later on that Christmas day: A different friend came and dragged me out of my friend’s house and took me to dinner. At Denny’s.

Christmas dinner at Denny’s is not a really joyful occurrence. Unlike the awesome Chinese food on Christmas tradition, a lonely holiday meal at the Denny’s is a sign of trying to find something traditional. It’s an open-faced turkey sandwich on a paper placemat, surrounded by other people who have nowhere else to go.

Here’s my obligatory disclaimer: I am totally positive that there are people who have celebrated joyous and wonderfully meaningful holidays at Denny’s. It’s not an inherently bad place. I’m just saying, I don’t think that’s the common experience, okay? 

I looked around the dining room and saw an array of stereotypes. Mostly, it was single men (divorced dads, I suspect) with one or two kids. Everyone had kind of a worn look, stretched thin around the edges (like butter over too much bread, to borrow a beloved simile). I’m sure my friend and I (he was estranged from his family as well) had a similar look as we tucked into our meals.

The holidays are hard. There is such an emphasis on family togetherness that those who do not have a family for whatever reason is particular to their circumstance get lost in the cracks. Sometimes that’s good -- sometimes you really just want people to leave you alone with all that togetherness bullshit.

But sometimes I think the holidays are hard because we as a culture don’t want to build any narratives that involve learning how to have a good holiday on your own terms, alone or with chosen companions.

My Christmas Present is pretty awesome. We’re visiting my in-laws, who are really amazing people. I have so much love and regard and respect for them. And we’ll see my family as much as we can, too. My Christmas Future is, of course, largely unknown, though I can extrapolate that they will be awesome and spent with loved ones, either friends or family.

But Christmas Past is still me in a heap on a borrowed sofa.

If you are having a hard time this holiday season, I really just want to let you know that there’s nothing wrong with you for not being flush with peace on earth and all of that. There’s nothing wrong with a small private holiday; there’s nothing wrong with not having a holiday at all.

Not everyone has a family. Not everyone has a family they can or want to spend the holiday with. And that’s not even touching the people who don’t celebrate Christmas because they belong to other religious traditions. Either way, Christmas is this inescapable force in our culture right now and I think it’s worth saying that you do not have to be merry if you do not feel merry.

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As is pretty usual for me, I have got through the personal experience part of writing this just fine. And now that I’m thinking about how hopeful Christmas -- and this time of year in general -- makes me feel, now is when I keep having to stop and wipe my eyes. I never said I wasn’t ridiculous, you know?

There’s a song by Greg Lake -- of 70s prog rock band Emerson, Lake, and Palmer -- that has what I think is the best Christmas wish of all. So that is what I wish for all of us.

I wish you a hopeful Christmas,

I wish you a brave New Year,

All anguish, pain, and sadness,

Leave your heart and let your road be clear.

You don’t need a family for that. And if I wind up sitting by myself for a little while, even in the middle of family and friends this holiday season, well, that’s not such a bad thing either. It doesn't mean my Christmas isn't wonderful. It just means it's my Christmas.