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Finding Home in the Holiday Season

Oh, the holidays — that idealized time of year when life seems to stand still in the wake of the euphoric bliss that is a two-week hiatus from academia, spent in the midst of family, friends and good cheer. It’s a time to rejoice because finals are over and you don’t have to cook for yourself for a few weeks. Gifts will be given and received, laughter will be shared with loved ones, and if your family is like mine, you’ll always have a drink in your hand. But what happens when the holidays are not the most wonderful time of the year? What happens when seeing your family gives you more anxiety than finals ever could? What happens when your hometown feels more foreign than familiar?

If this description sounds outrageous to you, then I am happy for you. The spirit of Scrooge has spared you the holiday woes. I hope you continue to cherish and savour the holidays for years to come.

But if my bleak depiction resonated with you on some level, know that you are not alone. I’ve spoken to several people dreading the return to a home obscured by family issues or traumatic memories. The holidays are a difficult time for many who are forced to reconcile with the ghosts of Christmas past and present. Do not despair. I come bearing gifts in the form of advice learned from experiencing more than my fair share of holiday horrors.

I grew up in a Catholic household, so naturally, my family celebrates the birth of Christ each year. During a typical Christmas, extravagant meals are shared, gifts await a fervent unwrapping on Christmas morning and more time is spent in church than I’d like. Last year’s Christmas was atypical to say the least. It was the first since my parents’ divorce; my one brother was in and out of various mental health institutions battling drug addiction and psychosis; and I hadn’t spoken to or seen my other sibling for the better part of a year. My holiday prospects were quite bleak. And this year I face a fragmented family dynamic that unfortunately hasn’t changed much over the course of a year.

The way I look at it, there are two potential methods of surviving and hopefully thriving through holiday circumstances that are far from ideal. The first is likely for more extreme situations that pose a risk of detriment to your wellbeing; it involves removing yourself from the situation entirely and leaning on people outside of your family to make the holidays bearable. Of course, this option may not be available to everyone but I think it’s important to recognize that there should be no guilt or shame involved in doing what is best for you, even when it involves putting distance between you and the people you love most. During this time of year, the pressure to spend time with family is pervasive and unavoidable; whether it be popular media, religious institutions or your senile grandfather, everyone seems to have something to say about holiday time being family time. But the holidays are more than that — they’re a well-needed rest from school and work that is imperative to recharging and going on to conquer the new year’s challenges. If you know your home environment is one that will not provide you with the space you need to relax, reflect and ready yourself for second semester, that’s okay. There is no shame in staying in Peterborough or travelling home with a friend and experiencing their family’s holiday traditions. I chose the latter option last year and it was one of the most memorable Christmases to date.

The second strategy is one that poses its own challenges. It is also more broadly applicable as it can be used to grapple with issues both simple and complex — whether it be the never-ending line of questioning from relatives regarding your relationship status and career path or navigating the first holidays after the death of a loved one. This strategy involves patiently enduring whatever trials and tribulations arise throughout your stay at home. Of course, this is much easier said than done, but there are several methods I can recommend employing in the difficult pursuit of tolerating your tumultuous family life over the holidays.

My first piece of unsolicited advice is to take things in stride. Keep an open mind and try to maintain a positive outlook on any and all situations that may arise. Circumstances may seem dismal, but remain vigilant in the search for silver linings. I’m quite jaded when it comes to the holiday season, but even the Grinch’s heart grew three times its size.

In accordance with this, learn to find the comedy in the chaos. Let yourself laugh at how ridiculous your surroundings can be at times. One year, my family went into crisis mode because my grandmother lost her hearing aid in the midst of the mess that is Christmas morning. Relatives were at each other’s throats over something that seemed so miniscule; I found it frustrating until I sat back and watched it all unfold. It truly was a sight to behold: the frantic search, my impatient aunt yelling at my grandmother who could not hear her, my grandmother slowly becoming more and more content with being unable to hear us, and of course, my 7-year-old cousin rooting through the trash and finding my grandmother’s hearing aid stuck to a piece of discarded wrapping paper. Sometimes all you can do is laugh it off.

Of course, some issues lack the capacity to find comedic relief. When things get dark, turn to people you can trust and don’t bear the burden of bedlam on your own. Seek out family members who may be feeling the same way you are and find comfort in solidarity. Remind yourself that your family does love one another, yourself included, and that they are all just trying to find the right ways to show that love — even if they may not be the greatest at it.

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