You Don’t Have To Go Home For The Holidays

Too often, we allow nostalgia and guilt-tripping to convince us that there is a ‘right’ day and time to be with family.

“Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays . . . ”

This might be the truest line from any song written for this time of year — a line that fills some with warm waves of nostalgia and others with cold shivers of dread. Those on Team Dread aren’t necessarily from families that treat(ed) them badly. Many are simply exhausted at the thought of having to travel YET AGAIN this year, as they have been required to do every year since they left home. The emotional consequences of not going — perish the thought! — can last throughout the year and into future holidays.

And so we trudge home, through airports and/or holiday traffic with kids and gifts. Why? Because we’re the one(s) who left.

Left.

The word loomed over me for years.

It didn’t matter that I’d left to go to college or that I’d stayed in the new city for a job. It didn’t matter that I was only two hours away from my hometown or that there was a reliable, affordable train connecting it to my new home in Chicago. What mattered was that I LEFT. This inescapable fact meant that it was my responsibility forever and ever (amen!) to make the trek back to Indiana. It was exhausting long before the first time my mom disowned me right before the Christmas of 2011.

The cost of having to return was inconsequential to my parents. Taking off work from hourly jobs without paid vacation or sick days meant that the trip home wasn’t just the $25 or so in gas and tolls or even the time I spent driving exhausted when I shouldn’t have. To go home for a couple days at Christmas could easily cost me $500–1,000, depending on the day of the week Christmas fell and which jobs I was working at the time. But, no matter. I LEFT — therefore, I must return.

‘Left.’ The word loomed over me for years.

And when I showed up, I better be in a festive mood, goddamnit! Four 60-hour weeks in a row in a retail job listening to Mariah Carey’s holiday album on repeat (OMG it’s only like 42 minutes long) before driving five hours home at half speed in a blizzard resulting in my not being able to stomach Christmas carols? SUCK IT UP! No understanding, no mercy. So much for the sentiment behind those carols, I thought to myself.

The imperative to return home for Christmas was made additionally exhausting, stressful, and expensive because it’s only a month after Thanksgiving. It wouldn’t be until after I graduated college that I was allowed to take advantage of our annual Thanksgiving location: 40 minutes from my new home at my favorite aunt’s house. During college, I was expected to drive home on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving (by far the worst traffic of any day of the year) so that I could ride with my parents two hours back in the direction FROM WHENCE I HAD COME LESS THAN 12 HOURS EARLIER to my aunt’s. Why? I needed to wake up at my parents’ house Friday morning for the annual Christmas decorating bonanza.

Couldn’t we have done the decorating a different day? Or perhaps I could have met my parents at Thanksgiving and then just driven to their house when we all left Thursday evening? Not a chance. It wasn’t worth the anxiety spike that would begin as early as Halloween when I would try and broach the subject of compromise.

I would continue to perform holidays as required to keep the peace for 15 years.

Since 2011’s disowning, when I was told not to feel I had to come home for Christmas, my relationship with holidays has changed — sometimes abruptly, sometimes gradually. I’ve become friends with and heard from folks who have their own stories of being the one who left and the one expected to return, no matter the circumstances. Sharing these experiences has given me a healthier perspective on familial expectations and responsibilities.

I’ve arrived at a place where I now regularly make the case for not going home for the holidays.

Even those without strained relationships have a weight to their words when they talk about “going home” this time of year. I think it begins right there with that phrase.

If I have lived somewhere else longer than I lived in my hometown, why must I call it “home?” The first time I said I had to “go home” when I was already at my parents’ house, bystanders would have thought I’d socked my mom in the stomach and declared I was leaving forever. I hadn’t done it intentionally; usually I was more deliberate with my words and actions in her house so as to make it through without a blow-up of any kind. It would take a few more years before I unapologetically called the city in which I had lived for more than a decade “home” in her presence.

While my mom may be atypical due to a likely undiagnosed mental illness, I have heard similar stories over the years — and not just about parents.

Extended family members participate in the guilt trips as well, and theirs can come with consequences beyond just making you feel bad for not showing up. If we aren’t there at the required moment, we can lose our relationships with them over time — not maliciously, but as a result of our not being physically present at the appointed time(s).

If I have lived somewhere else longer than I lived in my hometown, why must I call it ‘home?’

Aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. often don’t make an effort to maintain connections — even with the current ease and prevalence of social media. And some of our older relatives understandably never bothered to sign up for Facebook and don’t have the hang of texting. As such, we’re told that our relationships with them, their significant others, and their children — not to mention our place in our families — is largely contingent on our physical presence.

But while this may have made sense 20 or 30 years ago, it’s absurd now. Expensive long-distance phone calls are a thing of the past, easily replaced now with free FaceTime chats. And airline tickets are generally far more affordable during non-holiday periods than during the hectic holiday season. So why engage in the Come Home Or Else holiday theater?

The idea of getting EVERYONE together at the designated day and time is rooted in a way of life that is extremely rare. We allow nostalgia and guilt-tripping to convince us that there is a right day and time to be with family. More and more I ask myself: Who cares when we see each other as long as we see each other? And wouldn’t the loving approach be to set aside a time when those who are coming together don’t experience hardship to make that time happen?

I’m not saying not to go home or to cut off those family members who can do little more than send a card, but I’m not here for the traditional practice of guilting those of us who have left. That guilt is unnecessary in a day and age where travel works in more than one direction — and is likely easier for the older members of the family who don’t have jobs without paid time off or children in tow.

Perhaps if those people fueling the guilt trips cannot engage with you throughout the year — cannot support your life and your choices and your happiness — they’re not all that important. Maybe our holidays should be spent with those who make room for us in their lives whether it’s convenient or not and no matter the distance between us.

This year I will be with my chosen family, rather than the one that raised me. True, it’s not the first season I’ve spent away from my hometown, but it finally feels like this is happening on my terms. I’m not joining up with others who have nowhere to go in a group effort to not feel alone; I have made an affirmative choice to spend time with my loved ones here.

I’m looking forward to this holiday more than any other in my adulthood that I can remember. I have found community with people who value me — and I can’t imagine anywhere I’d rather be.