This year, we are taking a year off from Christmas. The Girlfriend and I resolved at some point this summer that we would not travel to see either of our parents over the holiday — a choice made easier by the fact that it was my family’s “turn” for Thanksgiving this year and her family was planning on coming to visit us at some point — but she felt we couldn’t simply sit at home if we were skipping. We needed an excuse, and hence we planned a trip to Paris, which various considerations led us to reschedule for New Year’s. Hence we will wind up sitting at home on Christmas, in our own apartment, in the city we’ve chosen to live in, doing the kinds of things we enjoy doing.
For me, the lack of travel for Christmas almost overshadows the trip to Paris. I’ve hated Christmas at least since I was a teenager, and I’ve dreaded traveling home since college. I don’t like the long drive to Michigan, I don’t like being in the suburbs, I don’t like feeling like I have to hide a lot of things about my life — aside from the occasional game of ping-pong or Mario, I derive very little pleasure from any of the proceedings and am constantly counting down the hours until I can get back to my actual life. I can’t imagine that I’m adding much joy to my family’s holiday, either. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt judged or looked down on by their fancy academic son from the city, or at the very least can tell that I’m systematically minimizing my time there.
I realize this all makes me a terrible person. I’ve come to terms with that. What has been bothering me in the last few years is: why do I still do it? Why did it take the elaborate excuse of a European vacation to embolden me to skip out on Christmas when I have been longing to do so for literally decades at this point?
Hence while my attitude is idiosyncratic and extreme, I think it does open out onto more general questions of family obligation. I can understand why close-knit families have been the historical norm, and I understand that they continue to provide a valuable support network for many people, especially people who are raising children. Yet it seems as though there are social forces at work in contemporary America that render the whole thing an increasingly empty gesture. For increasing numbers of people whose families are geographically dispersed, the obligation is still there, but it carries with it none of the benefits. The holiday season is the clearest example: millions of people are traveling, at great expense, at the most physically dangerous time of year to travel — all so that they can navigate an emotional minefield, always threatened by the possibility that the fragile adult relationships between parent and child will revert to more familiar and humiliating patterns.
If I had to venture a theory, I’d say it’s because the family bond, for all its faults, is the only durable bond available. We live in such an atomized society that nothing else has the opportunity to arise and fulfill those same functions of support. The only viable supplement is religion, which connects family units to a broader community — and again, though increasing numbers of people find traditional religion unappealling and even damaging, no alternative has arisen that can reliably produce bonds of support and obligation within and across generations. So we are thrown back on these outdating and restrictive social forms all the more, because their breakdown only highlights the fact that there is no alternative to them. And even when we try to create alternatives, we wind up aping the old forms, putting together atheist churches or, more commonly, groups of old friends that are “like family.”
What we need is the excuse of the trip to Paris, but on a society-wide scale. I might not even be joking.