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Humbuggery is easy, because Christmas is a holiday disconnected from its antecedent. It’s more American than Christian, and if you don’t feel like flying home to see your family, it’s convenient to just call it capitalist. On the other hand, if you are the one waiting at the airport, it’s equally convenient to declare Christmas as a day for family—a moment when you are meant to slow down and spend time with people from the same gene pool, who you were born to love. Neither attitude is fair, and both inflict undue pressure on the person owning it.
Like Christmas, the ideal of family is often based in memory and felt in the present as an abstraction. Just as we see our families grow by birth and marriage, we see them shrink by death and divorce. Family is a bedrock given to dissolution, a hypocrisy that when you are young tempts disenchantment. I recognize that privilege, more than anything else, breeds cynicism, and cynicism mistakes hope for naïveté. I also recognize that people and circumstances are forever changing; nothing can be relied on to stay the same.
A year and a half ago, I began dating a girl named Carly and we immediately moved in together. Most of my friends thought it was a bad idea—a classic near-sighted mistake on my part—and so far proving them wrong has been a joy. I spent last Christmas with Carly and her dad and stepmom, her brother and his wife and infant son. For three days, we watched football, cooked and ate and played board games. Like my family and so many others, her family was fractured and spread out, but they made me feel at home. They made me miss my own family, in all its strewn-about pieces. Eleven months later, Carly and I got engaged.
This Christmas, I am going back east. To say that my feelings have softened because I am getting older, my perspective wizening, is only partly true and a little bit of a cop-out. More at the heart is that again my family, like everyone’s family at various points in a life, is on the precipice of redefinition, and so too are my attitudes about time spent in December.
My dad remarried in July. His wife is from New Jersey. Her name is Jayne and she has sisters named Joyce and Joan and sons named Jordan and Jason. That my name is James, as is my father’s and his father’s, is a fact I’m still working through.
The wedding was pleasant if a little weird. Having not attended Christmas in years, it was the first time in a long time I had seen my aunts and his other relatives. Hugs were accompanied by looks that seemed to say, “Nice of you to join us.”
My sister Kate was also at the wedding with her growing family. Today, Kate has two daughters, Zadie and Naiyah. They are beautiful and smart and I think if Kate has any major anxieties about being a mother, chief among them is that her daughters will be raised without a strong sense of family.
Naiyah never met Big or Little. She was a tiny, memory-less baby when we still lived on the hill in New Canaan. When Naiyah was 3 my sister and her dad were divorced. When she was 4, my sister remarried and a year later, Naiyah had a new sister. Then her grandfather was also divorced and my mom, who Naiyah called Reenie, wasn’t around so much. Now her uncle will be married, and her family is changing again.
At my dad’s wedding, Naiyah was proud of her fuchsia dress and silver slippers. I’ve never really spent a Christmas with her. I don’t know what they’ve been like for her, but I remember Christmas vacation and the anticipation of Dec. 25 when I was her age. When I think about Christmases of the future, I imagine Naiyah as she was in the dress she wore to my dad’s wedding—laughing and blushing at things that had long ago become invisible to me. I’ll spend some of those holidays at Kate’s home in Brooklyn. Carly will be there, and maybe she’ll squeeze my thigh when my aunt reveals my phobias again. Maybe we’ll go for a walk before dinner and she’ll make a joke about all those J-names. And when all the grown-ups are sitting around the dinner table, maybe a candle will flicker out of control in the next room. Maybe Carly will be the first to notice Naiyah standing in the threshold to the kitchen. She’ll be wide-eyed and pointing through the doorway. Softly, she’ll say, “There’s a fire in there.”