As an adult, Christmas is my favorite holiday, for many reasons. I’m a practicing Catholic, so the religious ones naturally take precedent for me, but society as a whole, including the secular parts, is kinder and more generous to one another during Christmastime. After opting out of rounding up our dollar for charity for the greater part of the year, we suddenly buy toys for children we’ve never met. Retired hermits volunteer to spend their evenings ringing a bell in the cold for spare change donations. Bad tippers cheerfully leave 20% and library patrons drop off Whitman’s samplers for staff. The Christmas season is a constant source of glitter, pretty lights, whimsical music, decor featuring woodland critters, offensive stop-motion Christmas movies, and cookies and candy galore. Those are my favorite things, y’all! Add in the sudden acceptability of my indoor girl behavior and even in my thirties, this is the best time of year.
As a child, Christmas was my favorite for the more obvious reasons: presents and winter break. I didn’t exactly grow up in a whimsical household, so the Christmas music and movies were limited, as was the decor, which typically only consisted of a tree, stockings, and lights on the house. My parents claimed Catholicism, but it wasn’t until I was six that I realized it wasn’t just a really cool coincidence that Jesus was born on Christmas, but that he was the actual inspiration for the holiday. For me, the season was simply about no school, Santa, presents, food… and family.
When I was a little kid, before my parents went all dysfunctional on me, the second best part of Christmas (after Gramma gifts) was spending so much time with my cousins. My dad was one of four, making me one of seven grandchildren, the perfect number for holiday shenanigans. Every Christmas, we’d spend an evening celebrating with my Grandma Kay, eventually retreating to her playroom to spend hours giggling and fighting and inexplicably getting hurt while our parents did boring grown-up things in the sunroom. Soon after, we’d repeat at an evening celebrating with Grandpa Geff, because divorce doesn’t just lead to two Christmases for the kids, but the grandkids as well. Then, on Christmas day, my great grandparents would host Christmas for their five children, 15 grandchildren, and 31 great children… plus spouses and steps. The numbers started smaller, of course, growing gradually through the years, until my great grandparents passed in 2005. The tradition didn’t die with them, however, and at last count, the numbers had ballooned to more than 100 people, whose attendance is expected every year, at the church gym at 2:00 on Christmas day.
Y’all, as much fun as I had with my cousins, when I was a kid, even at seven-years-old I’d have told you I preferred the smaller gatherings with my first cousins to the extended family Christmas celebration. In simple, childlike terms, while I knew my extended cousins were family, I didn’t share as much history with them. They didn’t have the same aunts and uncles or the same grandparents that I did. They weren’t present at all the same gatherings and we didn’t have sleepovers. We were related, but we didn’t feel as related… because we weren’t. That was twenty-five years ago, when watched the same TV shows, played with the same toys, had the same immature humor… naturally shared the bond of being children. Today? I have virtually nothing in common with these people, from my nerdy fandoms and hobbies, to my political and religious beliefs, to my career passions and goals. At this point in time, the only thing we share is a history that’s nearly as distant as our bloodlines.
A few years ago, I was a very active Facebook user. I knew everything that was going on with everyone… until I realized that, in addition to wasting massive amounts of time that I could be devoting to my marriage and hobbies, my obsession with social media was just generally detrimental to me as a person. So, I deleted it all and with the exception of the occasional reactivation of Jake’s Facebook account to sell things on Marketplace, I’ve never looked back. At times, however, I’ll admit to feeling less connected to family. When I was on social media, I saw their pictures and read their updates, so I felt closer to them… but feeling closer, is not being closer. The bonds were superficial, at best, and that was no more obvious than on Christmas day, sitting in the gym of a Catholic Church, when I still had nothing in common with these people, but for some reason felt like I should. I’d been liking their humorous memes all year. Shouldn’t we be able to laugh at the same jokes?
While my absence on social media has forced me to accept how little connection we actually have to one another, out of obligation, I’ve kept up the tradition until this past year, when Jake and I decided to tell each side of the family that we were with the other and stay home eating leftovers and watching Christmas movies all day. We were just so exhausted after three other Christmas celebrations and as small as it might be right now, Jake and I are building a family. If it’s exhausting for the two of us to attend multiple Christmas parties, I can’t imagine how much more taxing it’ll be with a baby, or a baby and a toddler, or a baby and a toddler and a kindergartner. The time to set those boundaries is now, not after five years of setting the precedent that Christmas Day will be spent with their grandpa’s cousins and all of their descendants. If seven-year-old Belle felt the distance of third cousins, I can’t imagine how much less comfortable this gathering would be for my children.
Folks, my issue is not with keeping in touch with distant relatives. Sure, I don’t appreciate a good racist joke as much as some of them (or at all), but we do have history and lineage in common, however distant. That has value… just not enough for Christmas Day. If this were an annual family reunion, I’d be an enthusiastic participant, no matter how awkward it might be when I don’t laugh at their jokes or someone gets drunk and starts an argument about politics. Family is family, but the third cousin whose children I couldn’t name is just not family enough for Christmas Day. I don’t need to spend the holiday surrounded by people who get my Star Trek references or who have heard my Titanic rant, but I think it’s reasonable to limit December 25th to people I see and/or talk to at least a handful of times a year, who know my job title and what library I work at, who can tell me what my husband does for a living; and that description barely covers my first cousins, at this point. It’s not about like personalities. It’s not like I have that much in common with my closer family members. I just don’t want to spend Christmas with anyone if I would be more upset by a coworker’s death than theirs. I don’t think that’s unreasonable.
As for my family, they’re pretty well divided over our Christmas tradition. The older generation, in particular, still really enjoys seeing everyone and sharing memories. Naturally, as the tree branches, however, the younger ones could take it or leave it and many of them have begun to do the latter. Now that I’m married and have more obligations, it’s both easier and more desirable to do so myself, as I lay the groundwork for how I want my future holidays to look (more intimate, less hectic). Grandma Kay, however, is simply heartbroken when anyone mentions changing the arrangement, and when Grandma Kay is heartbroken, Grandma Kay is angry. She says that she promised her parents that they’d carry on the tradition, even after they were gone. It’s not that I don’t respect that. It’s just that it’s Christmas and I don’t know these people. At what point is family just… not really family anymore?