As an adult orphan without any living blood relatives, I’m no stranger to holiday seasons that look… different.
Growing up, The Holidays (Christmas in my family’s case), was a BIG DEAL. My family (my mom and her parents), went overboard with decorations, an endless rotation of Christmas shows and movies, baked goods, Christmas Eve mass, and a pile of presents and a big dinner on the day itself, even though in our tiny house that meant setting a temporary folding table in the middle of the living room with my grandparents’ good china. Meanwhile, I performed in The Nutcracker ballet every year from age 8 to 18, so in some ways, The Holidays began at auditions in August. (If they ever even ended, considering my friends and I would be talking about what parts we wanted and practicing choreography all year long.)
But the Christmas after my grandparents passed away, my sophomore year of high school, those traditions started to fall away. The Nutcracker was still a given, and there was no way I wasn’t decorating a tree, but my mom thought it would be too hard to spend Christmas itself at home. So we stayed in a very festive and luxurious historic hotel and had what was probably a delicious and fancy Christmas Eve dinner and then I locked myself in the bathroom and had a sobbing meltdown that not only were my grandparents gone, but I didn’t even have my cat and my couch to comfort me. The next Christmas we tried again, this time only going into NYC to stay overnight after seeing a show. Hotel Bathroom Breakdown 2.0™ followed. By the following year, my mom had given up and I finally got to have a “normal” holiday break at home, even if it was just the two of us.
We had three “normal” holiday seasons together, and by sophomore year of college, my mom was gone too. That year, I was fresh off an airplane from studying abroad and instead of going home to CA, my roommate/bff/soul fam, flew back to NY with me. We spent Christmas morning “unwrapping” the small piles of souvenirs we’d accumulated from a semester in Europe since neither of us had the extra cash to buy even each other presents, and probably watching ancient VHS tapes of my favorite holiday movies. The next day we loaded up what had been my mom’s car to drive across the country, pulling up to our apartment in LA on New Year’s Eve.
I spent the next three Christmases with her family in San Diego, which is thankfully just as small as mine had been, because I would’ve been really overwhelmed by an actual Harry Potter at The Burrow situation. It became our tradition to go to the movies on Christmas Day (at a time when theaters were still empty, before that secret was out and they started doing blockbuster releases). It undoubtedly never felt like Christmas because the line for tickets was outside and you didn’t even need a jacket.
By the fourth year since losing my mom, I was back in NY and with my now-husband, who also had nothing to do and no one to see for the holidays. We worked at a bar and so I … worked through them. Working had come to be something that I could do on most holidays. I didn’t have anything going on, and others did, so why wouldn’t I take those shifts? Not to mention, holiday double time pay is no joke. And when you work on holidays you tend to find kindred spirits for whom holidays don’t mean quite as much, and those Island of Misfit Toys bonds can be what makes the difference in getting through them.
But in recent years, since having office jobs that actually give us time off for the holidays, my husband and I have just spent them… doing whatever, just the two of us, still in my childhood home. Sometimes I’ll decorate, sometimes I’ll cook (I HATE cooking UNLESS it’s a 4-course holiday meal accompanied by plenty of wine and Robbie Williams covering 1960’s standards), sometimes we’ve gone for a hike. There’s usually naps. In pre-Covid times, there would occasionally be having people over or grabbing drinks with friends in town. Last year I got nostalgic and went to the bakery two towns over where they still make the exact same French pastries that my grandfather and I would pick up on holiday mornings twenty years ago.
And this year, despite being the strangest of times, things looked much the same around here. OK, maybe not quite. After spending all of quarantine without a kitchen, a renovation that was 22 years in the making was a completed. (No lie, after my grandparents died my mom asked if I wanted to spend their life insurance on a new kitchen or a trip to Italy and your girl went to Italy, and 22 years later the kitchen still hadn’t been renovated). So yes, I did get to cook a holiday meal this year, in a kitchen that has countertops AND a stove. Get yourself a kitchen who can do both, y’all! (I wish I were kidding, but aside from one year in a shared apartment in college, I’ve never had a kitchen with both.)
There are harder things and easier things about any family situation, and while for many years my own holidays were filled with grief and feeling out of place, more than a decade on from losing my family, I can honestly say I’m grateful with how they are filled with autonomy and freedom. It feels pretty darn fulfilling to engage with traditions voluntarily (even if those traditions are just naps), and spend my time the way I actually want to (even if, again, naps), rather than the way that family/friends/society can pressure one too.
Of course, that can be easier said than done, and my heart goes out to each and every person who has navigated even-more-difficult-than-usual dynamics and boundaries this year, those who lost loved ones during the year (personally, especially my two close colleagues who lost beloved matriarchs immediately after Christmas), and those who had to cope with a very different holiday season than they are used to or maybe your first ever holiday away from some or all of your loved ones. Or really anything that made it just not the same.
I hope you are able to give yourself some grace and space to process the difficult, the unfamiliar, and the downright weirdness that was a holiday season in the middle of a pandemic.
HOW WERE YOUR HOLIDAYS this year? DID they LOOK THE WAY YOU EXPECTED, OR WAS IT [yet another] WHOLE NEW NORMAL? Did it feel strangely good to have a small holiday at home? Or were there any bathroom breakdown moments?