I think I was probably in high school when I started celebrating holidays with other people’s families. As I described a few weeks ago in an earlier piece, my home life back then was rather difficult, which made the idea of spending a bunch of extra time there, alone with my family, a pretty unappealing option. Luckily, I usually had at least one really close friend whose family was aware of my situation, and they would always graciously invite me to spend whatever holiday was coming up, with them.
For those of you who have ever spent a holiday with someone else’s family, you are probably already familiar with the strange sort of in-betweenness that one often experiences in this situation. You get dressed up in whatever you think is going to coincide with the appropriate level of fanciness for that particular family, and then smile and make polite conversation with the various relatives and other strangers who are also there that day. At the meal (because there is always food), you eat whatever is put in front of you, and bear witness to (or sometimes even partake in) the unique set of holiday traditions that are observed. If it is Christmas (or some other kind gift-giving holiday), you may even get that random $25 gift of lotion or a candle when they open presents, which is a super sweet gesture that basically says, “we don’t really know you that well, but want you to feel included.”
The irony is, of course, that you rarely ever do. No matter how hard everyone (including you) might try, you cannot quite escape the recognition that this is not, in fact, your family. Instead, you remain at the outskirts of the celebration; a friendly interloper who is primarily there only to witness and appreciate the festivities.
In my case, at least, growing up, this was always a somewhat bittersweet realization, because on the one hand, it meant that I could relax and enjoy myself un-harassed for a few hours, but on the other hand, it also made me feel out of place and alone. The food was different, the traditions were different, and there was always this unshakable feeling of separation that hinged on the knowledge that these were the very same practices that made everyone else around me feel certain they belonged. I found it a captivating kind of sadness to witness, up close, these holiday family traditions, knowing that the warmth and acceptance I experienced there was only on loan to me, and that in just a few short hours or days, I would inevitably have to leave it there and return home.
Beginning sometime during my mid-twenties, I started traveling to the Bay Area occasionally to celebrate the holidays with my aunts and grandfather. At first, this too, felt like just another adventure into the holiday practices of other families, because even though they actually were my family, their traditions were not a part of my experiences growing up. In large part, this was due to both the physical and emotional distances between California and Wisconsin, all of which was compounded by my father’s own complicated relationship with his father.
However, over time, my feelings of separation began to subside; particularly since moving in with my grandfather to help care for him in 2014 (you can read more about those experiences here). In the last few years, I have gradually begun to find a sense of belonging in my California family. We celebrate each other’s birthdays, get together for major and minor holidays, and consume a wide variety of foods that we all prepare together. The traditions that are undoubtedly holdovers from when my aunts were growing up, have begun to merge with the new traditions that we have cultivated together.
At the same time, I have also begun to cultivate a new set of holiday traditions with my little brother. Starting about ten years ago, he and I began to meet up with each other and spend Christmas with one or the other of our divorced parents. This eventually developed into the institution of a “Siblings Thanksgiving,” where we basically get together at his place in Texas and drink a shitload of sparkling wine in our pajamas while I watch him and/or his friends play video games. Occasionally, one of our parents even comes along for the ride, which has been its own intriguing thing to watch, as our old family holiday practices and dynamics are morphed into a healthier and happier 2.0 version.
This year, however, due to some scheduling issues, my brother and I are not able to celebrate our Sibling’s Thanksgiving together. At first, my plan was to join my aunts and grandfather instead, because, as I just described above, their holiday celebrations really have begun to feel like a new kind of home to me. However, recently, Grandpa’s needs have begun to increase significantly, such that (if I am being completely honest), I thought my staying home would probably mean a whole bunch of extra caregiving duties for me. I therefore also toyed with the idea of going back to Wisconsin to do the holiday with one or both of my parents, but the plane tickets were ridiculous and I just couldn’t bring myself to spend that much money on a few days of freezing my ass off in the cold.
Instead, I have decided to once again pack my bags, jump in my car, and head off on another holiday adventure. Shortly after making this decision, I realized just how long it had been since I had undertaken this type of journey, and how central a practice it has been in my life, and for such a long period of time. In fact, one might argue, this attendance as an outsider to other people’s family events was my first real holiday tradition, upon which all my other traditions have subsequently been built.
I felt compelled to focus on all of this, this week, because I realize that I am not alone. Although rates of family acceptance among queer folks is better than it used to be, far too many still experience some form of family separation. Of course, on top of these experiences you also have tons of other queer (and non-queer) folks like me, whose family tensions are rooted in other issues having nothing at all to do with their gender or sexuality. Thus, whatever the reason, I know that this Thanksgiving, there will be many individuals out there like myself, who are participating in a different sort of family gathering, whether it be the family of someone else, or one that they themselves have assembled with friends and partners on their own.
For me, I have only recently come to realize that through my frequent practice of participating in other people’s family gatherings, I have also, inadvertently, been building an alternative extended family network. Earlier this fall, when confronted with the impossibility of Siblings Thanksgiving 2018, I suddenly found myself overwhelmed by the sheer number of celebration possibilities. During my teenage years I found these alternatives to be somewhat sad and lonely; as an adult I have now come to appreciate them as the beautifully enriching opportunities that they are.
Who knows, perhaps it is just the sociologist in me who finds delight in experiencing the endless diversity of human life and interaction. Or maybe it is a sign of my growing comfort with my life in the in-between. Or possibly, it is just a simple product of getting older and having had more time to cultivate deep and meaningful connections. But whatever the reason, this Thanksgiving, as I look around, I am most grateful for the incredible network of people that surround me, both those with whom I share some DNA, and those others with whom my sense of family connection has been cultivated in other ways.