While passing around generic Christmas tree ornaments from the hardware store last weekend, a wave of Christmas cheer washed over me. I felt delighted that not one of the gold spheres contained any latent nostalgia for Christmases past. After all, my husband and kids and I are having our first Christmas, ever, alone — due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While I expected it would be devastating, instead, it seems remarkably like…self-care?
Therapist Chantel Cohen, LCSW, tells SheKnows that skipping family gatherings entirely this year could be a blessing — and not just for virus/health reasons. Cohen explains that, rather than having a sad Christmas by hanging solo, my husband and I are lowering the likelihood of a marital blowout over the holidays.
“About 10-12 percentage of arguments between couples are about extended family, and that’s before COVID,” Cohen says. “It is likely even higher when you factor in COVID, because of the added negotiations around what safety looks like for different members of extended family.” She adds that “it’s a ticking time bomb.”
My extended family spends a fair amount of time talking about the glory days in the ’80s when things looked a lot different — back when the patriarch of my family, my mother’s brother Michael, was still alive. His sudden death in 2003 created a crack that led to more and more fractures within my family. This year, we severed further due to politics and views on the coronavirus.
We also saw more of each other’s opinions via social media this past year. Whether it was a cousin’s #AllLivesMatter posts, mine celebrating the Biden-Harris win, or an aunt on the front lines turning down the vaccine, we all know where each other stands. Yet we don’t have to be face-to-face this year, so we can avoid those caustic topics — at least in person. This year could, for my immediate family, actually be a drama-free and healthy Christmas. Of course, if 2020 taught me anything, it’s to see the white privilege inherent in opting out of these hard conversations about race, trauma, and COVID. Families of color don’t get a day off from these discussions.
This year could, for my immediate family, actually be a drama-free and healthy Christmas.
The debate around where to spend Christmas originated when I was small. My father left when I was in diapers, and my mother couldn’t cope with raising me after alcoholism took hold of her. By age 10, I lived with my aunt and uncle (the aforementioned patriarch). On every Christmas morning since 1990, I have awoken with the knowledge that I am a visitor at someone else’s Christmas. I’ve become accustomed to BYOS: Bring your own stocking.
But Cohen explains that you don’t have to be a victim of this specific kind of trauma — or any kind of specific trauma, for that matter — in order to benefit from not “going home.”
“Trauma is not just a single incident; it can be a cumulative effect over time, such as your family didn’t support you or there’s scapegoating of one particular family member,” Cohen adds. She says that for anyone with a difficult family relationship, this holiday season at home could be incredibly healing.
“[This year], victims don’t have to play nice with the person who victimized them,” she explains of avoiding those painful holiday-gathering run-ins. Cohen even describes returning to a former home as being difficult regardless of who’s there: “The place can be emotionally flooded with all these memories,” she says. But this year? Instead, people “can begin the process of making Christmas/holidays their own.”
Maybe a year off from holiday microaggressions, fat-shaming, or additional pressure to drink beyond your limits could be a 2020 pandemic silver lining after all?
The thing is, I love Christmas. I have great Christmas memories. My struggling mother could always step up for Christmas. Only after my husband and I decided to stay put this year did I feel a wave of relief. I’m ready to say goodbye to overly nostalgic Christmases and let my children have their own lives.
My five-year-old son told me recently, “Mama, please don’t tell me about when you were little. It makes me sad,” after I told him a story about my childhood. Even he is sharply aware that our life experiences are very different. And we’re not alone; most grandparents have a hard time understanding their children’s approach to contemporary parenting.
“Parenting today is looser with respect for children having their own voices,” Cohen explains. Parents today aren’t “constantly telling the children ‘no’ or that they aren’t doing things correctly,” which believe it or not is a good thing. Trying to accomplish this approach to sensitive parenting under additional scrutiny from in-laws? That affects children more than we realize — regardless of whether we straight-up change our parenting style in order to avoid an argument with grandparents.
So. A Christmas without any of these stressors? Could be just what the therapist ordered after this so-stressful year.
“Not only are you free, but the kid is free from the tension,” Cohen says of families choosing to fly solo this year. “You have the chance to have a more mindful holiday season… not spent focused on babyproofing or being hypervigilant in someone else’s home.”
Reveling in a solo holiday season isn’t to say we don’t miss our family; we do. And it’s an incredibly privileged position to have a choice of where to go for the holidays. By staying closer to our current residence, we open up the opportunity to reach out locally and make our holiday season less about the gifts and more about the spirit of giving.
Cohen says that this Christmas is also a chance for “boots on the ground”-type charity work, which resonates with children. “Being home makes you more cognizant of your surroundings, and leaving causes you to overlook your own backyard. This is a real opportunity to give back in a meaningful way,” she says.
As we change everything from our go-to accessory to our “offices” to our views about the police this year, maybe it’s also an opportunity to forge new pandemic-era holiday traditions. Rather than retrofitting your family into other people’s traditions, it could be the chance to adapt and start your own. While we say goodbye to 2020, maybe it’s also time to say goodbye to the holidays of yore — and rework them, along with everything else, as we face an unprecedented future.