Ungathered for Christmas

brown leafless trees on brown field

The Most Magical Hype of the Year

Christmas is magical when you’re a small child, and at some point it transforms from being a season of sheer delight into a season of hype. All the anticipation, then dashed expectations. Maybe it’s because there are people who make the magic, and then there are the people who get to experience it. You don’t get both. And it’s always better to not be the Man Behind the Curtain.

This year there was hype (beautiful and magical hype), then letdown. Not uncommon for big calendar dates.

I think the reason Christmas (and birthdays and holidays) can be a letdown comes down to the notion of having family. Having family is not an everyday thing. It’s an experience that I get to live a few times a year. And this year, Covid has fractured one large Christmas gathering into a handful of smaller ones restricted to just nuclear family (not us).

I’ve felt ungathered – as in scattered or undone.

It’s been suggested (directly) that I can find family online with my phone. Which is not untrue. And since I’m not a “person of faith”, it’s absurd to have hopes or expectations related to Christmas. Not being a “person of faith” means Christmas is only about  presents and commercialism. This could be true, too. 

But it feels dismissive. Even the careful designation, “not a person of faith”, feels like a euphemism. It’s just a woke way of saying “You’re not [even] a Christian”. Like how people say “people of color” instead of “coloreds”. 

Unlike me, my family are people of faith. A large extended group of relatives who love me, but most of the time most these people don’t like me. I know this. In my 20’s it cut me deeply. Now, it only bothers me a few days out of the year.

And Christmas, a holiday for People-of-Faith, is one of them.

My Tribe 

My family is a group of relatives who can be divided neatly into small nuclear pods. Cousins who have a spouse and kids, and two sets of siblings with kids and two sets of parents. And aunts who have kids and grandkids, their own established line.

My unit is my husband and our two kids, and my brother who lives across town. I wish my kids had one or more grandparent and one or more cousin in town. I want them to have those connections – even though they don’t guarantee future relationships. I just want them to have family.

Having Family

Having family means that first Tinder dates aren’t painful. That you haven’t pre-rehearsed a natural-sounding excu- response.  

Having family means you have people who help you during college. Not just tuition. It means care packages. It means never wondering who will drop you off and pick you up from your dorm.  It means knowing where you’re crashing over break. (And that it will not be a source of controversy or contention.) It means there is a clear-cut person to call when you’re having surgery, and you know who’s going to care for you during your recovery and the task doesn’t awkwardly fall to roommates who don’t want you there. It means you have built-in attendees for graduation. However reluctant. Because no one (else) could possibly want to sit through a long, hot, boring ceremony.

Around the holidays, having family means you don’t wonder whether or not you’ll have family for your family (spouse and kids) to gather with. On the contrary, it usually means balancing obligations because you have too much family.You have to choose between smaller gatherings with just the grandparents, their kids, and the grandkids. Or stressful, large, free-for-alls. ie Thanksgiving Dinner alumni class of 1999.

Clarity of Mind: Knowing the Other Hostages 

This is what I want for my children – this sense of clarity and definition in their life as they navigate their way into adulthood and beyond. Having family isn’t everything. I know. Other friends and family members who have family tell me this often – gently, or with blunt indignation. 

Family can still pass out drunk. Or cause scenes in restaurants and theaters. Or tell their niece they want to fornicate – amid a sea of ringing casino slot machines. 

But it seems better than wondering if you should awkwardly crash your friends’ Orphan Potluck Dinner. Because everyone else there is from out of state. (Where’s Courtney? Oh she didn’t come. Turns out she has a niece in town. Or a second cousin.)

I’ve reflected a lot about the notion of having family over this past Christmas holiday. The holiday holds great meaning for me in a broader, ecumenical and cultural context. No Virginia, it’s not just about Santa. I’ve hijacked Christmas with millions of other atheists. Maybe it’s all those years of closed schools and banks and seeing garland and tinsel hung everywhere. I’ve drank the egg nog.

And at Christmas it’s better to have family than not have family. 

When you have family, you don’t think about it as a luxury or privilege. They’re just there. These people in your life you love unconditionally, holding you hostage every year for Christmas and the ten other bank holidays of the year.

Family Privilege 

Having family reminds me of the concept of White Privilege. 

White Privilege is not the suggestion that white people have never struggled. Many white people do not enjoy economic privilege, and they have struggled. White people have been touched by drug addiction and alcoholism and joblessness, loneliness, despair, and economic plight. Most white people who have achieved a high degree of success worked hard to get there and it is not an unearned accomplishment. White privilege could be considered a built-in or innate biological advantage that is completely separate from a person’s wealth or personal efforts.

Let’s change the word “White” to “Family”.

Family privilege is not the suggestion that people with family have never struggled. Many people with family do not enjoy economic privilege and they have struggled. People with family have been touched by drug addiction, alcoholism, joblessness, loneliness, despair, and economic plight. Most people with family who have achieved a high degree of success worked hard to get there and their success is not an unearned accomplishment. Family privilege could be considered a built-in or innate biological advantage that is completely separate from a person’s wealth or personal efforts.

It’s similar, right? Family privilege is related to economic advantage, social mobility and inclusion, and mental health. White privilege is related to economic opportunity, social mobility and inclusion, and racial justice.

You could tell people without family to quit whining and demand for more inclusion within their own families (assuming it’s possible to build stronger networks), and to use their phones to create families in online communities.

That’s not invalid. That’s just as valid as telling people of color to quit whining about white privilege and work harder and not focus on inequity. And with enough makeup and cosmetic surgery, can’t anyone can “be” white?

Having family is no big deal in the same way being White is no big deal.

Someone Else Coined the Term First (Damn)

Family Privilege is not a term I’d ever heard myself before I articulated it a few days ago. But I googled the term and found that it was coined by researchers in 2001. Damn! The phenomenon of Family Privilege has been researched and studied. Whether you “believe” in family privilege or not, there are real, measurable impacts from being a member of a constant family unit.

  • U.S. laws, practices, and policies (including healthcare coverage) are all created to benefit and support traditional nuclear family structures (grandparents – parents – children).
  • Married couples are granted 1,138 rights, benefits, and protections that unmarried, cohabiting couples are not granted. There is an argument that these couples should just get married. Just adopt a social position that runs counter to your beliefs and personal values, or accept that your married peers will receive privileges and unfair enrichments. (I mean my husband and I would convert to Islam or the Church of Scientology if it meant we could claim 1,138 benefits we don’t have. And I say this in all earnestness.)
  • Children and young adults who do have an established bond with a caring adult parental figure are more likely to exhibit anger, depression, anti-social behaviors and to experience food instability, poverty, substance abuse, and homelessness.

If you start digging into specific figures – education achievement, eating disorders, incarceration rates, and beyond – it gets bleaker. 

Figured it Out 

But what’s not bleak for me, quite the opposite, is being able to articulate why I am so disquieted. Most of the time, I don’t have to think about not having family for my kids to gather with. I don’t have to think about my open wounds. But there are deeper implications for my kids – and it has nothing to do with Christmas loot.

What the hell happens if I get hit by a bus? My kids have no cousins and no aunts around. They have an uncle in town who loves them but is afraid of diapers. And they have a grandmother who lives 2,000 miles away. She’s moved over 6,000 miles in the past 4 years to live in the same town as her chosen everyday family pod – which does not include my two kids. I’m terrified for them.

  • Will they have friends at school? 
  • Will they make it through college or trade school?
  • Who will go to their life events? 
  • Where will they live?
  • Who will love them? 

If I die, who will love my kids?

That is what keeps me up at night. Maybe that’s a normal fear that every mom has.


I’m just going to focus on giving my kids the sense of family I want, and creating it for them and for me.

And if I do my job right, they’ll grow up resenting our family gatherings. Eyes glued on tablets and phones. Counting the minutes until they can skulk away. And when they’re old enough, they’ll want to just order in Chinese instead of having to go to some lame holiday dinner that Mom fought tooth and nail for.

But if you happen to see them one year on Christmas or Easter, drinking at the casino bar or eating Indian buffet, tell them to at least make a plate for me.

PS: Yes, I’m batshit crazy and ridiculous and in need of help. Yes, I have psychologist to talk to (about you. Her name’s Nicole, tell her “hi”. She knows all about you.)