How To Not Be Irritated With Your Family During Christmas

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Friends are people who know you as you’ve come to be, and family are people who knew you as you were coming along.

For a lot of adult children, this distinction is clear and very painful during the holidays. Through perceived or real guilt trips levied by their parents, they feel tugged to return to their families of origin to participate in traditions of their youth, giving up the cozy familiarity of their present day friends who know things like, for example, that they question the very religion that is grounds for this current holiday season. Or that we’ll be quitting the job that pays our bills. Or we’ve been having a fling – it’ll end soon! – with a cokehead drummer. Things they wouldn’t want to discuss with their parents. But I’d ask: why not?

It’s tough to be intimate with people who don’t know how you think, what pushes you and pisses you off, what makes you sparkle and what you hold most dear. It’s tougher when those people feel an assumed closeness to you simply because you share DNA or a childhood.

It’s also frustrating and borderline insulting when families do not encourage or in some cases even allow their grown children to establish their own traditions and customs.

But I think the onus is on the kids – us grown-up, navel-gazing, parent-pleasing “kids” in our 20s, 30s and even our 40s, often with kids of our own – to work this out with our parents.

If we want to enjoy our time with them (or for everyone to be cool with having time apart) during the holidays or other times, we have to let them know us as our friends do: as the people we have become.

For me, this comes from asking – and being willing to answer – meaningful questions of my parents and extended family.

But I know from being around other less verbal people (including members of my own family), that closeness can also develop over cards or football, a raunchy board game, on a pontoon boat with cocktails, walking around a golf course, cooking a meal together, listening to records, and writing letters (real ones, in the mail).

We expect the world from our families, especially our parents. It’s a valid expectation; they brought us into the world and, assuming the best, they raised us mostly right.

But we can’t expect them to keep up with all our changes – to know intimately whom, exactly, they’ve raised – unless we share ourselves with them.

Parents, grandparents, adult children… we are all adults now. We can act the part instead of assuming the roles we did as kids, and we’ll all be closer and more empathetic.

Footnote: the photos above are from Christmas 2011. One is of friends around a table in Oak Bar at the Hermitage Hotel – a tradition we started five years ago as a friends group. The other is of my family, in my dining room. Our family has several established holiday traditions, but we are flexible. That year, everyone drove or flew to Nashville to be at my house so my daughter could be with both her (very recently divorced) parents.

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Perennial Christmas

The sedum bloomed beautifully, taller than most sedum and full but tightly constructed like a cheerleader’s pompon, just like it did the year before and the year before that. The difference was that as it grew, the stalks separated from the middle of the original plant, spreading all over that part of the garden and leaving a hole in the center that mildly annoyed the gardener but not enough to propel her to do anything differently.

She cut stalks and decorated her home with them, arranging them with sprigs of rosemary, a plant with the same sort of beautiful, unwieldy but predictable center-holing attributes.

The best thing about the sedum was that when it dried, it looked almost exactly as it had when it lived. The other best thing was that the seeds were easy to harvest, and the gardener did so each holiday season, tucking them into Christmas cards (real Christmas cards, often homemade) that she wrote for people she loved.

She found many people to love each year.

The most precious people were the same ones as the year before, and the year before that.

She knew good people and she knew good plants, with annoying habits and otherwise.

One night she sat alone in her house, a little sleep deprived and a little buzzed on red wine she’d enjoyed with one of those good people, and she realized that people and plants were the same because the world – lovely as it is – does not allow for too much deviation from what has already grown.

A Christmas tree glowed in the background.

A year ago she found herself alone and wrapping presents, feeling 50% sentimental and 50% melancholy, in a state of wonder about all the ways she and the world around her had changed in 12 months. That refrain would repeat, and repeat again. Fundamental change, when it happens, takes many lifetimes.

The sedum flourished. The gardener flourished.

It was Christmas.

The people who loved each other toasted another year, and were surprised at their surprise.