Home for the holidays*

IMG_6339This week’s episode of my favourite podcast, Reconcilable Differences, resonated with me when the discussion turned away from St*r W*rs and towards the holidays and how some people get very tense and/or miserable about them.

John Siracusa was firmly of the opinion that people oughtn’t to force themselves to fulfil family obligations to please other people, particularly when those people were in reality rarely actually pleased to see them. He argued that if you choose to spend the holidays snuggled up at home with just your immediate family, like a hobbit, and that results in the rest of your family not speaking to you, maybe that’s what has to happen. Meanwhile, Merlin talked about family dynamics in terms of producers and consumers, which both rang a bell and felt like an original way of looking at the problem. Families always have those who do, those who arrange, cater, cook, host, give up their time; and people who turn up: consumers, other words.

John talked about his experience growing up, with an extended family living nearby, and how the holidays involved seeing all these people, all the time. And then how people – the next generation, maybe – living in different circumstances, often tried to recreate that experience, which was the source of so much stress. It’s one thing if all your uncles and cousins live within a 30 minute drive; quite another if getting everyone together for the holidays requires hours-long road trips, or negotiating airports, etc.. People need to give themselves a break when it comes to this stuff.

Merlin picked up on that, talking about three types of nostalgia: real, imagined, and aspirational. People either look back on idyllic holidays in their childhood; or look back on the holidays they wish they could have had; or want their kids to be able to look back. In all three cases, there’s pressure on people in the here and now to live up to some ideal.

All of which struck a chord. I don’t look back on my big family holidays with nostalgia, but that’s what it was like: there were uncles and aunts living within a short drive, and December 25/26th involved a round of visits. I would place my mother in the producer camp, and I think we, her children have felt varying levels of obligation to be producers in our own lives.

Since meeting my wife, I’ve spent most of my winter holidays in La France, where much of her family (on her mother’s side, at least) do indeed live within a short drive. Her father’s family are more dispersed (most of them in the South, some in Paris), but there are still enough people in the local area to make the two weeks a constant round of visits and occasions.

For most of the time we’ve been going over there, I’ve been a consumer, which has felt odd, because I’m old enough and ugly enough to organise my own festivities. My mother-in-law was the main producer, but a couple of years ago, when she was temporarily ill, we took over. And so this year (having just hit 53) will be just the third time I’ve been a producer. And Merlin’s right: if you’re going to do that sort of thing, you have to start planning well in advance, long before all the consumers in the family are interested in the subject. Which can be awkward when you’re trying secure agreement from people about what you’ll be eating and all they have to say is, ‘Isn’t it too soon to be talking about this?’

*Yes, I’ve decided, slightly awkwardly, to start calling it the holidays. Apart from anything else, this is likely to enrage Daily Mail readers, which is all to the good.

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