As someone who is estranged from their parents and has never been very close to most of their extended family, I’ve often felt like a stray during the holidays. Usually, I’m trying to find someone to go home with for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas, times when I feel most alone. And when I do go “home” to blood relatives, I feel like a square peg in a round hole. I scroll past pictures of people’s family meals at home on Instagram and Facebook, and wonder what it’s like to feel truly a part of something like that. This year, though, we’re all in the same boat, in a way, because of the pandemic — trying to find ways to stay afloat, all trying to figure out what we’re supposed to do together, apart.
For those of us who already felt anxious about going home for the holidays, have actively dreaded it, or just aren’t close with family and thus feel indifferent, this year is the perfect excuse to reclaim the holiday time for ourselves. The fact that the pandemic could mean it’s not safe to gather with relatives is a reason to do our own thing, and figure out what home means to us when we build it ourselves. Plenty of people are finding the positive side of not going home for the holidays, so if you, too, have felt yourself looking forward to not having to deal with some aspects of it, you’re not alone, and you’re not a bad person.
Despite everything that’s been taken from us this year, and the very real losses that many of us are experiencing, there is one thing that I personally feel we’ve been gifted: the ability to find, build, or strengthen our bonds with our chosen family. Whether that means learning to love your roommates and making your shared home feel cozier, or focusing on activities that you want to do with your significant other, this could be an opportunity to forge a new path for what the holidays look like — to decide they don’t have to fit into one mold.
Reaching out to others has reminded me that this year is a reprieve from the stress of going to be with family for the holidays for many other people, too. Kal, who came out to their family as non-binary almost a year ago and hasn’t been back to Southern Indiana from Brooklyn since, says this year is the first opportunity they’ll have to spend with their partner during the holidays.
“Even the members of my family that are trying still struggle with my name and always use ‘she’ pronouns. Which is nothing compared to some of my bigoted uncles who I can’t even bring myself to come out to. I would’ve spent the entire holiday playing ‘would you rather get misgendered/deadnamed or have to argue for your right to exist?’ But now I get to stay in NYC without the usual guilt trip I get every year for not visiting enough. It’s such a relief! It has been the only good thing to come out of this for me,” they say. For them, it will be an opportunity to take a real day off without having to spend time traveling and rushing between family events. “I’m hoping to hit the holiday market in Union Square (my favorite holiday tradition) early this year (if it’s safe), mourn the end of one of my favorite TV shows, and actually have time to read a book for fun.”
Meanwhile, others are fairly close to family and generally don’t mind going home for the holidays, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t little comments or experiences that it would feel better to avoid. “Over the past year or two I've balked at going home more because visits bring up a lot of discussion about weight and diet. My mom imposes her poor relationship with food on me: sometimes I'll find she talks more about recipes in a day than anything else. But not in a whimsical sense — it's very calculated in a way I honestly compare to orthorexia,” says Cait, a woman in her 20s living in New York. “There's also a lot of body scrutiny I undergo, and going home supercharges my disordered eating patterns. I'll agree to eat all the meals she makes, and by the last day I'm home won't even finish those meals. Last time I was home, she took me to buy a scale.”
While Cait doesn’t necessarily have plans for how she’s going to spend her holidays this year instead of going to visit family, she says she doesn’t mind. “Chances are I'll just be home as always and let it slip by. Time is kind of fake now regardless,” she explains. But the opportunity to avoid those potential stressors brings more relief than anything. Usually, when she goes home, she feels she loses a lot of agency and a lot of personal time because she’s made to feel guilty for taking time to herself. At your own home, you can spend a little more time in bed. You can cook what you like. You can set your own rules and hours.
It would be easy to allow ourselves to be overcome by gloom during a holiday season that feels so different than others — and it’s not that we shouldn’t let ourselves feel that at all. Not only is seasonal depression coming at us, but this is a serious time of loss. It’s okay to mourn. But there’s also joy in the agency that many of us will be able to reclaim for ourselves. I don’t want to spend the holidays overwhelmed by what I’m missing, the way I have in years past. I want to bake pies and enjoy the company of my roommates. I want to find comfort in the things I can do for myself, comfort in the knowledge that everything is changing and there are still good things that can come from embracing it.
One of the last big concerts I got to go to before all this happened was in June 2019. It was a Death Cab for Cutie and Jenny Lewis concert in Queens. And while I’d only bought a ticket for myself and planned to go alone, as it turned out, most of my friends had also bought tickets. At one point, I was crying to Transatlanticism and surrounded by people I knew, also crying together but separately. I thought of all of the people who cry or laugh to these favorite songs in their own bedrooms, feeling so intensely, and how human it was that we could all experience it next to each other, seeing everyone else feeling big things too. Even if we weren’t technically going through the same thing, we were in it as a unit. It was one of the most comforting, beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. To me, the prospect of many of us not going home for the holidays this year feels like that. It’s not something any of us will have to face solely by ourselves if we purposely build community with each other, even if only by text or online.
Maybe you are close with your family and feel a devastating sense of loss from choosing not to go home for the holidays if that’s what’s safest for you and your loved ones. There’s space for you here, too. This year does not have to be an empty, misshapen place or a hole to fill. It can be the year you find and perfect a recipe you really love, or order takeout from a new place and treat yourself to a favorite meal you almost never eat, instead of making a complicated meal. You can pause and reflect.
The beauty of this is that all of us who are staying where we are get to decide what the holidays look like to us — and know that the only “right” place to be is wherever we’re keeping ourselves and the people we love safe.