My family is really small — think Gilmore Girls not Parenthood. My parents got divorced when I was 5, my dad moved out, my mom subsequently painted the house magenta pink, and every Friday night involved chick flicks and take-out. Our tiny clan is now mostly made of myself, my mom, and my twin sister.
And while I love my family and they are my everything, come the holiday season, I sometimes have a hard time recognizing the value of quality over quantity. My mom, sister, and I celebrate together, of course. And while my parents are divorced, my dad has tagged along for the festivities in recent years. It's unconventional, somewhat civil, and only slightly awkward. My mom's best friend, our anointed aunt and godmother, plays a large role in our lives, but she always spends the holidays with her blood relatives. All of my grandparents are no longer with us, unfortunately, and the rest of our relatives either live too far away or do their own thing, so it is most often just our little bunch.
Like most things, there are absolute joys as well as partial anguishes to having a small family during the holiday season. For one thing, the dress code is completely casual. We mostly just stay home, which means I get to pick when to change out of my pajamas (or if I even bother). We have holiday movie marathons all night long; the feast is flexible since there is no need for a fancy menu. By the same token, it is a lot cheaper.
But my favorite part about the holidays are the traditions my itty-bitty jolly crew has formed. We are Jewish and in true stereotypical fashion, we celebrate Christmas by going to the movies and then out for Chinese food. Mornings start with bagels and lox and then onto the movie, which was presumably debated over for months — my dad is a historical-drama-slash-indie cinephile while my mom always lobbies for a feel-good (the 2017 dispute between The Greatest Showman and The Darkest Hour will forever live in infamy). Christmas dinner is always had at our favorite Szechuan place where we make our reservations in September but somehow we still have to fight through a crowd in the lobby to get to our table. I couldn't imagine how much harder it would be for a big family to go through all that: finding seats together in the theater or waiting for a table for a party of five or more — so I'm grateful that my small and nimble crew makes my favorite tradition possible.
Another favorite holiday tradition is the gift exchange my mom, sister, and I have with my pseudo-aunt. Every year, after my aunt returns home from visiting her family across the country, usually after Christmas but before New Year's, we get together at her house for a post-holiday fiesta. We wait until then to exchange our carefully picked out presents and enjoy my aunt's famous elaborate cheese boards. My sister and I still wear the ribbons from the gift wrap around our neck like we did when we were little. It is the perfect testament to how we can make our own family sometimes.
But while I wouldn't trade our idiosyncratic rituals for anything, I still tend to get lonely around this time of year. I have in my head this idyllic holiday image: a warm and fuzzy shot of a big family sitting at the big table sharing a big feast wearing big smiles across their faces. I love the idea, and can't help but feel a bit of resentment towards this image. I'm very used to my small family, but that's because I don't know anything else. I always wondered what it was like to be close with cousins or have so many aunts and uncles you mix up names. The last time I watched Home Alone I actually felt jealous of poor little Macaulay Culkin — what a joy to be in a family so big they forget you at home.
But when it comes down to it, I'd never trade away my magenta childhood with Friday night romantic comedies and quirky Kosher Christmases for a picture-perfect Christmas. There is, however, a melancholic downside to family gatherings in small volumes; all of that togetherness can sometimes create tension and bring about uncomfortable confrontations. When we first started spending the holidays with my dad, it brought up past resentments and bad memories. (The thing about families is that they're complicated, and that doesn't just go away when you serve a slice of homemade pie at a holiday gathering.) And while I wish that my family lived up to that image in my head, I've learned that it's more important to make our own families and our own traditions. And at the end of the day, it's a privilege to be here and to all be together, whether your family is big or small, and I believe that alone should be celebrated with courage and with care.