• Fri, Dec 20 - 2:00 pm ET

Celebrating Family Holidays With Your Imperfect Family

The Family Stone (2005)

The Family Stone (2005)

The aggressive good cheer of the holidays affects everyone differently: you can get carried along in a tidal wave of joy and eggnog, or it can remind you of what you don’t have: Cleaver-like parents or a significant other to share it all with, let alone one who lets Jon Hamm talk him or her into buying you a Mercedes. And if you’ve suffered a recent loss in your family, the season can be heartbreaking.

I have an older sister from whom I’ve been estranged for the past several years, and though this is a sad thing all the time, at no point during the year do I feel it more strongly than Christmas. Christmas is the ultimate kid holiday and your sibling is who you share it with; when I was a kid, my sister and I used to creep into each other’s bedrooms and wait until the designated time of seven AM when we were allowed to go and wake my parents up and open our stockings. Until 2011, I’d never spent a Christmas without her.

But over the years, a strange thing has happened as a result of our family tragedy. I’ve come to appreciate the holidays more than I did before.

Traditions Change  

For most of us, the holidays are anchored in traditions: from what we eat, to the timeline of the day (presents after breakfast!), to who makes what jokes. Traditions are a wonderful way to highlight your family’s cultural heritage (I hate Christmas pudding but I’d be sad if it ever went away, hating it is actually our tradition), and all of their special nuances and quirks. But as new people join the family through marriage and birth, and others leave through death, divorce, or other sad circumstances, traditions are bound to change. Accept that just because this holiday isn’t exactly like the last one, or the last twenty, that doesn’t mean it can’t be wonderful in its own new way.

The first year we celebrated Christmas without my sister, my parents and I knew the sadness of missing her would drown us if we stayed put and did things exactly the way we’d always done them, just with three of us instead of four. So we got the hell out of dodge and celebrated in Palm Desert instead of at home in Seattle. We hung ornaments on palm fronds and at lunch my mom and I drank mojitos by the pool. It wasn’t very Christmas-y, which was exactly what we needed.

Family is an Elastic Notion

I’ll probably never stop missing my sister, but I’m blessed to have amazing friends and have kept them close throughout the last several holidays. In 2011, when I was dreading the impending season, I threw a giant Friendsgiving potluck with about thirty five friends, members of my dance team, and various and sundry significant others. If you pack a room full of people you love—however it is they came to be in your life—it makes it almost impossible to focus on those who aren’t there. My mom and dad are those amazing parents who sort of become everyone’s parents: so anyone who doesn’t have a place to go on the holidays is welcome at our table.

I also have fabulous coworkers who are like family. Our holiday party this year—with everyone’s husbands and children running around—reminded me that sometimes blood has nothing to do with it.

Don’t Get Hijacked by Cheer

The overbearing cheerfulness of the season can leave you feeling even lonelier in your loss. You feel like everyone else is happy but you. But ask any therapist what they see this time of year and they’ll tell you otherwise. If you feel an impending doom as the holidays approach, you’re not alone. So feel your feelings. I’m pretty excited about Christmas this year: one of my besties is celebrating with us, I get to see my darling cousin who lives in Wisconsin, and I’m pretty sure I killed it on the gifting this year. But I also know that there will be some moments when I will suddenly dissolve into tears as I did the other night while I was decorating the tree with my mom. And you know what? That’s okay.

Gratitude is a Great Antidote

Just like your yoga teacher is always telling you, gratitude can go a long way to counteract suffering. No one gets everything they want, even if they have a Beyoncé-like trifecta of seemingly perfect career/ child/ husband. We all have the choice to focus on what we have or focus on what’s missing. The silver lining of loss is that it reminds you how fleeting, and how very precious, time with those you love really is. So even if someone you love is missing from your table this year, don’t let it blind you to those who are still sitting beside you.

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  • Kaitlin Reilly

    This is a great piece. I think that the holidays can mean something different for everybody, and there is no right or wrong way to celebrate it. I think that you’re doing a great job at surrounding yourself with people who love and care about you, and that’s really all that’s important during the holidays anyway. Friendsgiving is the best.