When I look back on my childhood Christmases, they were generally happy times spent with my mom and younger siblings. We had a lot of nice traditions, such as decorating the artificial tree with handmade ornaments, making cookies for Santa, and reading about the Birth of Christ before bed on Christmas Eve.
But the holidays were also very stressful for my single mom, who desperately wanted to give us the lavish Christmas she’d had as a child. Even though we were poor, she always found a way to come up with money at the last minute to spend on tons of presents that we honestly did not need. While she did her best, those holidays with my mom always felt incomplete to me because my dad wasn’t there. Even though I don’t remember ever spending a holiday with both my parents, I longed for the complete family celebrations I saw on TV or in the movies.
I only spent one Christmas with my dad and his family when I was around nine. Although I loved being with him, I felt torn because I missed my mom the entire visit, and I remember not feeling quite welcome at my dad’s house, especially around my stepmom, who on the surface seemed happy I was there, but also bothered my intrusion.
I was reminded of this unwelcome feeling a few years go during the only other Christmas I’ve spent with my dad. This time, I was all grown up—a married mom—but that same unwelcome feeling hung heavy in the air, so heavy, in fact, that my husband noticed it too. One particular moment that made me wish we’d never come is when my stepmother asked everyone to gather for a family picture—except for me and my husband and our daughter. “Not them,” she said, “I want one of just our family.” Thankfully, my daughter was too young to understand the slight, but it cut me to the core, and reminded me why I’d never really feel at “home” at my dad’s house.
Now that I’m all grown up, and married with kids of my own, going “home” to my mom’s house presents a different set of challenges for me. During college and the first few years of my marriage, I continued to make it a point to go home for the holidays whenever I could. But when I became a mom, the protective part of my nature kicked in, and I began to want to protect my kids from the unhealthy environment in my family, where single motherhood, poverty, substance abuse or addiction, crime, and even domestic violence are rampant among my siblings and extended family.
The last time my children and I stayed at my mom’s house, there was a huge fight between my mom and a drunken family member that involved screaming, profanity, and some violence. It escalated to the point where I had to lock that person out of the house. After I calmed my mom down, I noticed my relative’s son hiding under the kitchen table, tears pouring down his face. I could not believe he’d witnessed the entire mess, but my mom shrugged it off as something he’d seen before. Thankfully, my own kids were still babies and had slept through the entire ordeal. But I lay awake in bed that night, trembling in anger, and thinking, “This is no longer normal to me! I don’t want my kids to ever witness a fight like that between family, or to grow up thinking this is normal.”
So in recent years, my husband and I find ourselves traveling “home” to visit my family less often during the holidays, although we always leave the door open for them to visit us. Instead of taking our kids into an unhealthy environment that we don’t want to repeat in our own family life, we are trying to build our own Christmas traditions centered on peace, love, and especially togetherness. Whether we are baking a birthday cake for Baby Jesus, building a nativity scene, or driving around looking at lights, the most important part of the traditions we are creating is giving our children the Christmas we never had with our parents—a holiday celebrated with their mom and dad together.
The other night, when I shared with my husband how much it sometimes hurts that we can’t really go “home” to visit my family during the holidays, he pointed out that one day, we will have that kind of Christmas—with our own kids. He reminded me that we are building a family that lasts so that when our kids grow up, they come “home” with their spouses and children to a big family Christmas, hosted by their mom and dad, where they always feel welcome and safe.
Flickr/ Jim Larrison