sorry mom

I Refuse to Celebrate the Holidays As I Did in the Before Times

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Every year, I grow less attached to the holiday classics of my childhood, like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and Jingle All the Way. Still, I cycle through them during the season, the slapstick antics, famous one-liners, and winter-themed soundtracks adding a merry touch to festive activities like baking and gift wrapping. But the message of these classics — that the debilitating effort is what the holidays are all about — started feeling even less relevant in 2014, when I moved from my hometown of Seattle to Los Angeles and realized that, with travel now involved, I just couldn’t keep up with the bustle.

It took a few more years, a move back to the Pacific Northwest, and the purchase of a bookstore, which threw me into the world of retail, before I finally admitted I didn’t actually want to keep up.

Despite being close with most everyone, I was raised in a fractured family. My parents divorced when I was a baby, with my mom remarrying shortly after, and large age gaps between my siblings and me meant we basically grew up in different households. Add all of that to the general estrangement caused by unresolved resentments between my immediate and extended family and, yeah, it’s difficult to maintain any sort of classic tradition when the only tradition left standing for me is scheduling individual get-togethers for dinner and gift swapping.

The stress of navigating the holidays feels isolating, as right around now Instagram becomes an endless scroll of families at tree farms and groups smiling over sprawling turkey dinners. And this year, excitement is at an all-time high with people trying to make up for last year’s missed festivities. But in reality, the dread — and oftentimes the refusal to ignore said dread and book a seat on an overpriced December 23 flight anyway — is more universal than you may think. Just ask your feed.

For Erika, a 29-year-old assistant director in higher ed who used to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas traveling between Florida and Ohio, it all came down to the unmanageableness of travel. “Flight prices, coordinating time off from work, trying to fit in so much while home, feeling guilty for wanting to relax instead of visiting with loved ones” — it was all too much, she says. “There’s so much expectation and obligation, and for years I felt a lot of shame if I couldn’t live up to everything.” So when she and her now-fiancé moved to Los Angeles, they used their relocation farther from home as a springboard to shift things around. Now, each Christmas, the couple travels outside the city for a few days, just the two of them reconnecting in destinations like the Joshua Tree and Sequoia National Parks.

Of course, confidence in eschewing old traditions doesn’t necessarily make doing it so easy. The holidays exacerbate kid-parent dynamics, as new adult realities — work obligations, relationships, moves — no longer pair with expectations that involve your inconveniently dropping your real life for the fantasy of family traditions like tree decorating, holiday-themed parties, or Christmas morning. Erika’s family was disappointed the first year she and her fiancé decided to stay in California, but, as she explains, “establishing that we’re our own family has been extremely important for our relationship.”

Logically, I know my husband and I are our own family too. Yet when Thanksgiving approaches, I find myself slipping, prioritizing everyone else’s expectations over my own (a pattern I was forced into as a child, but that’s another essay). We joke sometimes that we should have kids just to have what feels like a universally justifiable excuse to stay home for the holidays — the same excuse his parents used to create new traditions of their own. Of course, it could also backfire spectacularly. Ask your local parents: Having kids can actually invite more pressure to attend gatherings, as extended-family members hope to revive that tender, festive awe that we unknowingly cling to but that inevitably fades with age. Who else will sit through all those grainy Christmas Claymation movies?

Then last year’s collective isolation eliminated forced gatherings, shaking up the very meaning of the season and spotlighting those anxiety-inducing patterns.

For Nicole, 27, a social-media manager in Quilcene, Washington, it was amazing. She and her husband still saw their respective families, but they exchanged their usual large, high-stress Christmas Eve dinner with both families for a far more chill walk in the woods. “We got to visit, connect, and be in nature but with none of the stress of cooking, cleaning, hosting, etc.,” Nicole says. “The result was a much more balanced blend of family time and relaxation.”

And she doesn’t have plans to return completely to those big gatherings. This year, Nicole is hoping to mash up the old with the new, still carving out time for family but with more time spent outside than at the table. “I suspect there will be a big push for a more traditional format this season, especially after we ‘missed’ last year,” she says, noting that there’s a sacredness in certain traditions that’s more ingrained in generations older than hers. “For me personally, the value of holidays like Thanksgiving is the togetherness, not the turkey or the place settings. For our parents, part of their value seems to lie in upholding the tradition itself.”

The performative nature aside, there’s something festive about togetherness during the holidays, gathering to celebrate and not just to catch up. Last year showed me that the magic of that connection had gotten buried under the pressure-filled busyness of it all.

This time around, I plan to celebrate the holiday season with family rather than the specific holidays, reserving those for my husband and me to recuperate from Customer Service: Holiday Edition together. I’ve picked a few manageable family activities to reintroduce some of that seasonally specific joy — a tree-farm excursion, a gift-shopping day, dinner on Christmas Eve — prioritizing what I’m actually capable of and not what’s expected of me. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy about my decision. My parents in particular have always emphasized the days. Shifting my focus invariably disrupts theirs. After sharing my dreams for the holidays with my mom, instead of responding to my suggestions directly, she simply postponed the conversation by saying we would talk about it later. We still haven’t. It’s uncomfortable, sure, but the discomfort in establishing that, as an adult, I have a choice is still more appealing than asking what everyone else wants and exhausting myself trying to deliver.

I Refuse to Celebrate the Holidays As I Did in the Before