This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. As we enter the holiday season, the Millennial Fellows have chosen to explore the ideas of community and home.
I used to love Christmas.
Throughout my childhood the instant December 1st hit, I became a little elf. My family didn’t have a lot of money, but we conjured Christmas magic from scraps of canned food and improvised decorations sponsored by our local church. With color-clashing socks and the subtlety of a jingle-bell, I’d run around the house collecting items to regift. Nothing was safe. Spare erasers, old t-shirts, recycled plastic bottles, the remote control, extra pillowcases, and even my own toys were doused in glitter and covered with whatever colorful paper we had lying around. If you lost it, chances were it was wrapped with love under the tree.
My dad, an exemplar of patience, played along. Without complaining once, he would spend the entire month getting up to change the channel on the TV. He’d say, “Wow I really wish someone would get me a remote control for Christmas.”
I didn’t always have December with family. My dad had problems of his own, so when I enjoyed the presence of various foster families, they didn’t always understand my version of good cheer. The older I got, the more the realities of having an income-stressed puzzle piece family set in, and family-centric holiday celebrations fell apart in the many homes I occupied. After my dad passed away, Christmas became a bitter reminder of the perfect family I didn’t have.
Holidays are hard for a lot of people. In my case, it was because of family, otherness, and income. But young people everywhere have trouble in December for many different reasons, including, but not limited to: lack of income, insecure housing, unpopular political views, sexual orientation, gender, and religion. When you are young, when you lack a support system, and when the world tells you there is only one way to be happy, finding a way out of negativity and isolation seems impossible. It often feels like there’s no other acceptable way to have family, no alternative way to celebrate. And, as a result: you don’t.
Homogenous representations of family, normalized rhetoric surrounding family, and even governmental policies that were written for and enshrine the traditional nuclear family further isolate those who are forced to rely on alternative support systems. Dated and non-inclusive American policies, reaching from marriage and tax policy to employment leave policies, fortify the nuclear family while neglecting diverse families of not just blood, but also love and choice. By restricting the definition of family socially and politically, we also restrict the informal social support systems people can conceptualize for themselves and rely on in times of need as well as in times of celebration. If families of choice aren’t represented in formal and informal structures throughout politics, media, and rhetoric, then so many people will go on believing they really are alone.
Despite my efforts to avoid holiday cheer, it knocked on my door earlier and earlier every year. I couldn’t escape the normative language that frequently escapes the sweetest, most caring mouths.
“Are you going home to your parents this break?”
I will definitely be leaving student housing!
“Don’t you just love shopping for your family?”
Shopping is boring, hey have you heard Michael Buble’s Christmas album?
Each holiday season would come and go, and I said nothing to anyone about how I felt. I skirted the questions with fierce voracity and just enough saccharine to avoid being nicknamed The Grinch.
I wish I could say that in one night the Ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future visited me in my sleep and changed my mind about the holidays through the glory of song. But, the truth is it took me a few years and a bunch of uncomfortable conversations with acquaintances, friends, and eventually family to explain and pinpoint why I just didn’t love Christmas anymore. It felt like I couldn’t cross off anything on the “Christmas Nostalgia” checklist - no presents, no traditions, no childhood room to return to like in the movies, no mom and dad and Buddy the golden retriever in reindeer ears.
So when I told the people I love about the immense pressure I felt to conform to the narratives of traditional, often white, families in commercials, conversations, and Christmas movies, I braced myself for pity reactions and uncomfortable hugs. Instead, they asked me the single most important question I never knew I needed to hear, the question that changed my mind about the holidays, about family, about love, community, and support systems.
“Can we be your family?”
They were choosing me. My heart grew three sizes that year as I realized I was denying myself family, love, and holiday joy by restricting the definition of family to an antiquated ideal. Families of blood matter, but so do families of love and choice. Not only that, but regardless of whether or not society values and assigns any worth to chosen family currently, I could make a small step personally to choose it for myself.
But, why did I internalize this stress and isolation for so long? It was because of the way I thought holidays were supposed to be celebrated. I subscribed to a long-standing tradition that was not created for me, and I tried to squeeze myself into a perfectly wrapped little gift box that I could never fit in. By expanding my own definition of family, the holidays feel like less of a war, and more of a chance to celebrate the people I choose to have in my life. Over time, I’ve found new traditions and alternative celebrations through Friendsgivings, Holiday Potlucks and Cookie Exchanges, impromptu brass instrument caroling, secret santa gift exchanges, and random good deed advent calendars. All of these traditions strengthen my chosen family, uplift my friends who may be dealing with a similar situation in silence, and augment the degree of intentionality we have in supporting each other in good times and bad.
Holidays illustrate just one example of American social outgrouping. The feeling of social isolation skyrockets when one homogenous identity (in this case Coca-Cola’s St. Nick with an American Doll for Katie, a Nerf gun for Ben, a Roomba for Mom, and a Toyota Camry for Dad) dominates every corner of life. Social media inundates people with messages of the perfect way to live, and the happiest way to experience the holidays. Either unconsciously or consciously, the dominant standard aggrandizes one definition of holiday joviality, and any divergence from the imposed paradigm must be considered an affront to Christmas, tradition, and family values. When people feel like they do not belong, or when the need for friends and family remains unmet, the holidays can catalyze further withdrawal. Isolation and loneliness leads to serious, sometimes life threatening, physical and mental health problems.
Changing a couple simple things locally can make a world of difference to the friends out there who may be struggling to find community during the holidays. With words, we can make rhetorical choices to say “family and friends” rather than “parents.” By asking questions and listening openly, we can support our friends thoughtfully by hearing their needs rather than assuming them. With our votes, we can support inclusive policies that meet the needs of the grab bag assortment of families we create for ourselves, and actually work to empower and create choice for marginalized low-income communities of color where families of choice and community might be the necessary default.
The holidays suck for a lot of people, and immediately assuming that it doesn’t suck can make it suck more. Let’s spread thoughtful and warm wishes to those who need it most during the holidays by elevating families of choice.