When your family holidays….aren’t

By Caitlin Kelly

Christmas card, ca. 1880 Featured on the Minne...
Christmas card, ca. 1880 Featured on the Minnesota Historical Society’s Collections Up Close blog. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a beautiful post by a young woman, chosen for Freshly Pressed, about how she’s spending the holidays, without the traditional closeness of family:

We were browsing the greeting card aisle at Target the other day, looking for something to send my parents for Thanksgiving. The more I skimmed the contents of each card, the more discouraged I became.

Because it hurts to know millions of people all over the country will be sending cards that say things like, “Holidays are a time to appreciate loved ones…” or even better, “I’m so thankful to be spending this day with you…”

But I didn’t pick a card like that. I was relegated to a small selection of cards that read more along the lines of “Hope your holiday is __________.” Fill in the blank with words like blessed, enjoyable, and joyful. These are the neutral cards meant for acquaintances, distant relatives, or coworkers. All of the formality but none of the tenderness.

I just want to talk about this. I want to speak into the hearts of the people who struggle during the holidays as much as I do. Whether you’re estranged, cut off, or alienated the endless routine of the holiday season can sometimes be too much to bear.

That post cut me to the heart — as I, too, had just searched the card racks in vain for a birthday card for my mother, one without all the glitter and butterflies and saccharine emotion that has no relevance to our relationship.

We no longer even have a relationship.

My mother’s last card to me was several years ago, filled with anger. She now lives in one small room in a nursing home in a city that takes me 7 hours flying time to reach. I’m her only child, and she wants nothing to do with me.

The details are too complicated and grim and personal to get into here, although long-time readers of Broadside read a post that once explained some of it.

Christmas lights on Aleksanterinkatu.
Christmas lights on Aleksanterinkatu. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are fortunate enough to have a family that looks forward to spending time with one another, happy selecting gifts you know will please them, eager to cook festive meals and welcome them to your table — be thankful.

And please include those of us who don’t have a place to go to, as one friend did for me, one brutal Christmas Day some 15 years ago. My mother had come to New York to spend it with me, but Christmas Eve, (which already had some old and very painful memories for us both), had once more turned into a holocaust.

On Christmas Day, alone, I had nowhere to go and no one to be with.

My friend Curt, home from California visiting his parents in Pennsylvania, said: “Come!”

This season is a painful, aching one for many. We may be too shy or too proud to explain why we’re not going “home” for the holidays, the nasty details a thorn in our souls every day as it is.

And some people are grieving, this being their first Christmas without someone they adored — like this blog, written by a talented artist whose wife Leslie died six months ago. This post is heartbreaking, but describes what it feels like to approach Christmas for the first time as a widower.

The first Christmas after my husband left, in 1994, was deeply painful, but I got through it thanks to a dear friend and (yay!) a terrific new beau who reminded me there might actually be life worth living as a divorcee.

Luckily, I’ve spent the past 13 Christmases with my second husband, who thoughtfully chose Christmas Eve, (at midnight, snowing, after church) to propose, so that evening would newly represent a happy choice, not frightening old memories.

Home is where someone who loves you welcomes you with open arms, no matter who opens that door.

Please let your home be that place for someone feeling lost and lonely this year as well.

25 thoughts on “When your family holidays….aren’t

  1. Thank you for sharing this post, Caitlin. Since I have been following you I must say that I appreciate your subject matter and the way you always question your reader, and challenge them to think about your subject matter and how it may apply to them. This particular story should remind us all that we need to open our hearts and acknowledge that with all that we may have personally, many do not and so we should take action. We have Christmas dinner guests every year, and for the past 6 years we always have somebody who may not have anyplace in particular to go. Thank you again for sharing this post, and Merry Christmas to you and your family …

    1. Thanks for the kind words. My goal is often to provoke that sort of thinking, so I’m glad this one resonated.

      Last Christmas day we had a friend for dinner who was visiting alone from Toronto. It was a perfect day.

      Turns out my father is actually going to be coming to NY for Christmas, so it looks like a family holiday.

      Have a great Christmas as well!

  2. I am so sorry to hear that you no longer have a relationship with your mother. I simply can not imagine the pain and the horror you’ve been through. I still have a fairly decent relationship with my own but I really don’t care to be around her because the little things she does are like those little cuts that individually are tolerable but en mass are deadly. I want to have more than one drink when we part ways.

    She doesn’t know it but I’m taking lessons from her how to NOT be a mother to my own daughter, who is now on the cusp of adulthood.

    Bless your husband for turning your sorrow into joy and happiness. He is truly a gift from heaven.

    I’m glad to hear your father will be visiting for Christmas this year. May your time together be filled with good times and laughter!

  3. So true. I learned the hard way – spending a holiday or two alone – to scale back my criteria on what constituted a good holiday. Anything more than being alone with a six-pack of beer and a bag of Fritos qualifies. Want what you have works well for me during the holidays.

  4. This post really resonated with me, Caitlin. I have no relationship with my immediate family either, and Christmas has always been a fraught time for me. I suffered through it for years, until establishing my own Christmas Day routine with my daughter (I’ve been a solo parent since before she was born) a couple of years ago. Now it’s get up early, open presents, go for a run, then have a lovely breakfast with my daughter and her boyfriend. They head off to his family for lunch around 11.30am, and then I grab my bottle of Pimm’s, my remote control and watch all the good TV, which I save for this time. The last couple of years it’s been Game of Thrones; this year it will be the last season of Breaking Bad. Not a bad way to spend a day if I do say so myself!

    1. Thanks for sharing…

      I know that many people have fractured families and even explaining that is too private and painful. So glad you have now got a lovely routine and good company to enjoy. I love the sound of your holiday!

  5. Inese Poga Art Gallery

    Spending Christmas or other family celebrations alone is not the worst what can happen. There are millions of people who for different reasons are alone. I sometimes have to think about how bad it is to be at a hospital during these times like Christmas, and yet, if you are recovering, it’s already somehow good. Some people never have had a family and some have recently lost their closest loved ones. It’s how you want to look at it. If somebody intentionally is standing at the card rack or watching others buying gifts, it’s going to hurt. However, I remember times when the money situation was so bad in that country where I used to live (regardless of how much one worked, there was not enough to pay bills after all government and currency changes) that I would have been so happy just for some decent Christmas dinner. For anything. I am aware that most people have not experienced how that feels to be starving for a couple of weeks, like really having nothing to eat, thus, simply being alone seems to them the worst thing what can happen, but it isn’t. There are nowadays ways to participate in community events, help people who are in more need and suffer from bad health conditions or other troubles. It is possible to organize your own event through meetup sites or simple advertising sites such as kijiji or similar. We can allow the stream to take us anywhere, even to places where we would never like to be, and we can take the initiative in our own hands: go against the stream, fight against the storm and create a warm shelter not only for ourselves, but for other people, as well. The way we approach it is crucial. Christmas is a beautiful event, but it passes just like the other days, and the special meaning of this day is only in our perception. I wish everybody to be in peace with themselves and others and the hope that the best days are only to come.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      It is only “one day”, but for some, a difficult one. I like your idea of organizing some sort of meet-up; here, many people are already full committed for the holidays to work, family and friends’ events…I’ve got seven (had to skip a few) and don’t even have a very wide network of friends nor an office job.

      So remembering left-out or isolated others can become yet another distraction or forgotten item on the long to-do list. That was the really the point I am trying to convey.

  6. beautiful and thoughtful post, caitlin. on christmas eve, my family always invites any friends or others who may need a place to share in a celebration, it has been wonderful for all of us, and i remember the times when people have done so for me, at various holidays and events.

  7. Pingback: What Can Alienated Parents Give? The Ghost of Christmas Presents | Moms' Hearts Unsilenced

  8. Kathy

    I really enjoyed this post, and it reminded me to pause and appreciate the gifts I have been given. I was once in a similar situation – alone on Christmas in a new city and unable to visit my family and friends for the holidays. As a lifelong introvert who values solitude more than most, I was surprised by how empty I felt waking up alone with nowhere to go on Christmas day. One year, I woke up determined to fight off the holiday blahs with a long hike at the Oregon coast. I couldn’t think of a better remedy for the misery I was feeling on the inside than to expose myself to external misery of a prolonged hike in the cold, wind and rain. I don’t think I’ll ever do that again, but it helped me to find and appreciate the small comforts in life when home seems so distant and out of reach.

    1. Thanks!

      I don’t think I have ever spent the holidays alone, and it is not a great time unless it’s absolutely your choice to do so. The night my mother and I had the last Xmas Eve debacle, I went alone that night to a nearby church so I could feel welcomed. I was, and, not surprisingly, it remains my church 18 years later.

  9. Holidays can be difficult when families are estranged or loved ones have passed on. In some cases, physical distance and money can be a reason for not sharing with people we love and care for. That’s the case for us this year. Instead, we’re going to volunteer in the community.

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