Happy Holidays From the Texts of Exes Past

Santa on the phone
“Hey, stranger.” Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Every year, a lot of fuss is made about running into a former crush when you’re home for the holidays. (Thanksgiving Eve is ripe for this, apparently.) But I grew up in Los Angeles and live in New York, where the odds of running into an ex are pretty low. Plus, most people tend to vacate those places to other, smaller cities, or escape for vacation. And so instead of finding a former partner lingering at the local bar, I’ve gotten used to the holiday texts from exes past.

The holiday text is short, and usually vague, a meager worm on a hook to see what comes in. “Hey stranger, was thinking about u” is a popular one, as are the even more generic “happy holidays” messages. They also always start coming in around the Friday before Christmas, when work is slow and things seem to stall in a merry, lazy sort of way. I got my first holiday ex text two days ago; a friend received hers yesterday.

“Generally I’ll get them around Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s not always the same exes, although there’s one guy who does it more than anyone else,” she said. The messages are always “holiday themed plus a check-in. Like, ‘Happy Thanksgiving! Hope you’re doing well, would love to catch up sometime.’ I’ll respond and we’ll chat a little bit, give life updates, but when it comes to making specific plans I am like ‘Maybe sometime!’ and then stop responding.” She never acts on the “sometime,” and neither does he.

The aim is not necessarily to lead to a hookup; you could, ostensibly, get a text from an ex who’s halfway around the world. Instead, I think the spirit of the holidays either makes people feel like being the bigger person, even to someone who ripped their heart out, or so lonely and nostalgic that they want to reach out to anyone they think might be there.

Last year, researchers at eHarmony called the trend “Marleying,” in homage to the ghost that comes back to haunt Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. They told Mashable that the holidays can make people feel “upset or stressed,” which could contribute to why people hit send.

It’s also what likely compels any of us to respond. Whenever I get a holiday text, the reason of the season moves me to write back, usually with a similarly canned festive greeting. (“Happy holidays to u too!!”) Ignoring an ex’s text can be easy enough during the rest of the year, but something about the holidays changes that. “I don’t know why I reply,” one person told me about chatting up his exes, and them chatting him up in return. “I think men just do it a lot.”

The term “Marleying,” however, struck a number of my colleagues as … just wrong, so we tried to rectify the situation. “A holiday haunting deserves a good name,” one observed. She suggested Kringling, because it was the act of someone — often a man — dropping in unannounced, with either a present or coal.

Whatever its title, I will admit that receiving one can make you feel that much cheerier at a time when things are cold and bleak and happiness can feel forced. (If I am worth a happy holidays message, perhaps I was not such a monster in whichever relationship after all.) Another friend values the texts for their nostalgia factor. “I dated a girl in high school and into freshman year of college. We’ve always sent each other holiday texts,” he said. “Maybe it reminds me of simpler times in my life, before the real world.” But there is a limit; he finds it “a little strange when I get random ones from girls I dated but it wasn’t that serious.”

The Washington Post called all those feelings a sign of Relationship Nostalgia Season, and argues that the uptick in new engagement rings and cozy couples photos on your Instagram feed could have something to do with those message notifications. “The holidays put us in this fantasylike trance where we think everything is so blissful,” sexologist Logan Levkoff explained. “If we’re not exactly thrilled with where we are romantically speaking at the moment, we go through these moments of feeling, wow, that’s what I was missing.”

Perhaps there is really no good explanation for the ex text, other than that they were really in their feelings, so it’s okay to avoid them. One friend, who ended a long-term relationship this year, told me she blocked her ex’s number, “so I probably won’t get one.” Consider it the digital equivalent of walling up the chimney and installing a space heater instead.

Happy Holidays From the Texts of Exes Past