Okay, so I guess I don’t really hate Norman Rockwell. I mean I really like his beautiful studio location in the Berkshires of Massachusetts…. But Norman Rockwell hasn’t done any favors for the non-traditional American household (not to mention the just plain dysfunctional one), that’s for sure, particularly when it comes to winter holiday celebrations.
I don’t even have to tell you what I’m talking about here — you know the painting — “Freedom From Want” — where Grandma and Grandpa, all the aunts, uncles, children, cousins, you name it are gathered ‘round the table for a traditional Thanksgiving feast.
Is this what your Thanksgiving or Christmas get-together looks like? Be honest. Outside that photo you post on Facebook where you were able to get everyone to smile for all of three seconds….
Is it passé to note that I hate the holidays? In fact, if I didn’t have a 10-year-old, I wouldn’t even acknowledge them. Nothing brings one into greater intimacy with one’s social and familial inadequacies than the holidays. And I have no illusions here. I’m not alone in this feeling, not by a long shot.
A friend of mine said to me a few days ago, “I cannot wait for December 26 to get here.” And this is a woman with the so-called traditional American household — husband, kids, extended family nearby, all of whom gather together for these seemingly mandatory get-togethers where we all pretend we like one another and try to create our own Rockwellian Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Who’s buying this shit? The kids…maybe. No one else is, I’m sure of it.
Some people will jump to the conclusion that I despise the holidays because I’m a divorced single mom and only child. But this really isn’t what’s going on. Being divorced doesn’t make me sad, nor does being an only child. What makes me sad is the societal pronunciation that my life is somehow inadequate because I lack a husband, siblings, a loving mother, grandparents (they are all dead now), and the ability (or desire even) to cook a succulent turkey for a table of 20.
What’s even sadder is when I let this societal expectation rule my happiness (or lack thereof) and succumb to enduring a painfully inadequate attempt at replication of the scene in “Freedom From Want.” If you don’t know what I’m talking about, consider yourself unusually lucky. It means you’ve never been party to a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast among family members you see maybe once a year, most of whom you are, at best, indifferent to, and some of whom you downright loathe. It means you’ve never endured the steely stares or awkwardly averted gazes of those relatives involved in decades-long feuds. And it probably also means that you’ve never wanted to stab your spouse with the carving knife instead of the turkey.
Who are you?? I’m sure we are not friends.
Only days ago, I saw a Facebook post from an acquaintance proclaiming that no one in her sphere should be “alone” on Thanksgiving, that any such desolate person was welcome at her table.
Don’t get me wrong. I fully appreciate the spirit behind her entreaty to the introverts and outcasts among us (to name but a few of the folks who know a glass of wine and a book in front of a fire are way more fun than a gathering with strangers or most relatives, for that matter). But wasn’t her post yet another indictment against those of us who do not fit the turkey bill?
I know the last thing I’d want to do on Thanksgiving is trade my comfy couch and a good Netflix binge for a gathering with other people’s dysfunctional relatives!
Frankly, this is why I typically run away from holidays. While all of my social media friends are oohing and aaahing over my photos from Thanksgiving Day in Venice or Christmas night in Vienna, thinking I live the life of the consummate jetsetter and am a woman worthy of envy, I know, no longer secretly, that I’m just running away from home — kind of the way I did as a child when I’d pack up some cookies, a good book, and bring the dog along to retreat for a few hours to some secret spot along the creek on my parents’ farm. I never got as far as Vienna in those days.
But the sentiment was the same: This is bullshit; let’s get out of here and have some fun!
And so, less guiltily the older I get, I frequently escape the traditional dysfunctional sit-in of Rockwellian lore to drink wine recklessly on Thanksgiving Day with a dear friend near the Rialto Bridge or enjoy a Christmas feast with new-found friends and adoptive grandparents for my daughter overlooking the Danube in Austria.
Suddenly the holidays are magical again! All I have done is change the scene, ignored the entreaties of relatives who don’t like me anyway, and absconded to a fairy land where I can make the holidays anything I want…. And no one can enter my fairytale but those I love and who love me back.
But lest you think the only way to escape the Rockwell nightmare is to leave the country, let me tell you this isn’t so. One of the best Christmas Days of my life occurred when my daughter and I spent Christmas just the two of us at home, baking Swedish meatballs, opening our gifts together, coloring and painting while sipping hot tea.
I don’t need the Saturday Evening Post-worthy family portrait to make my holidays happy. I don’t even need a turkey or a Christmas tree. What I need, perhaps, is for the societal pity to cease, the assumption that I’m alone to end. I know when I die my bedside will be surrounded, perhaps not all by blood family (after all, I’m an only child), but by the family I have chosen.
This is not a family with whom I necessarily spend the “sacred” holidays, but they are the ones with whom I spend my daily life–my toils, my fears, my joy.
And while I am spiriting across the ocean to find my holiday bliss in far-off lands, my heart lies in the hands of those who know better than to ask if I need a place to park my fork on Thanksgiving. They know I will show up when it counts — on the mundane days and the dark spaces in between the joy. The holidays are of no consequence. One’s real family shows up on the hard days — the ones you won’t find portrayed on that cheery Rockwell calendar.