If pop culture pushes one message from Halloween through New Year’s, it’s that holidays are for family. Television, movies, carols, and commercials bombard us with joyful moms, dads, kids, grandparents, and enthusiastic pets showering one another with love, turkey, and an entire 401(k)’s worth of gifts. In these portrayals, mothers don’t spew homophobic slurs, uncles aren’t inappropriately handsy, and nobody’s drunk, high, or hostile. No one’s alone.
But if you have a toxic family, balancing the dictates of holiday culture with what will keep you emotionally healthy and happy can be challenging. The holiday season “can be a tremendous source of stress and can trigger or exacerbate depression, anxiety, frustration, and loneliness,” says Adrianne Traylor, a CUNY administrator and therapist who has worked with families and at-risk youth. This can be especially tough, she says, if you come from “estranged, abusive, or dysfunctional families, or don’t have the types of social bonds we expect adults to have, like a spouse or extensive friendship network.”
I can relate. Thanks to a tumultuous relationship with my parents, for most of my life I experienced the winter holidays as painful and isolating, producing a depression that could make working, socializing, or even getting out of bed feel overwhelming. Even when I was swimming in holiday invitations from friends, I was too steeped in family trauma to realize they were asking because they wanted me around, not because they felt sorry for me. When I’d accept a one-off invite, I’d feel like a wistful outsider. I craved a holiday ritual with the same loved ones every year. Something consistent. Something that felt like mine.
What finally allowed me to break the cycle was a gathering at a small South Slope bar that, every Christmas Eve, becomes the Island of Misfit Toys. Brooklyn playwright Stephen Gracia, who co-founded the independent theater group Dialog With Three Chords (D3C) in 2011, is the island’s Rudolph.
Ten years ago, as a last-minute “screw it, let’s see if anyone’s around” attempt to squeeze one non-stressful night into the obligation-filled holiday season, Gracia and his wife, nonprofit fundraiser Sara Beinert, invited some friends out for a low-key Christmas Eve at a local bar. “We needed a pause,” Gracia explains. “Not just from family pressure, but also how hectic the holidays are, how stressful on every level.” Three people showed up, but it was enough to plant the seed.
Though he always loved the aesthetic of Christmas — the decorations, the carols, the weather — Gracia found that the holiday came “wrapped up in a real sadness and depression underneath the surface-level joy you’re told is supposed to be there. You can dwell on, and sometimes you’re forced to confront, familial relationships that are not good. That can lend a bitterness to the holiday, no matter how earnestly I wanted to connect to its secular aspects.”
That alienation subsided after the bar night he started on a whim became an annual tradition treasured by twenty actors, musicians, artists, and activists. Some of us are Jews, atheists, or lapsed Christians; others celebrate Christmas Day with their families but are free on its eve. Whether we have nowhere else to go or use Friendmas to avoid certain relatives, each of us misfit toys embraces the tradition. As an agnostic Jew who rarely drinks, I didn’t expect to slake my craving for an affirming, loving holiday ritual at a bar on Christmas Eve, yet joining this community for seven years proved transformative.
“The first year I came, my father just died. Last year, my long-term relationship was ending,” says Edie Nugent, D3C’s producer. She found “enormous comfort” in celebrating with friends who didn’t arrive weighted with expectations: “You don’t have to hide failure or perform happiness for friends the way you might for family.”
In 2013, the experience inspired Gracia to write The Krampus, a play about a group of holiday orphans in a bar, which D3C performs annually. (This year’s took place at the Dramatists Guild of America on December 13.) In a pivotal scene, a bartender works Christmas Eve because he “can’t find anywhere else to fit.” His family wounds leave him feeling stigmatized, like the fruitcake no one likes but everyone takes out of pity:
I tried going home, but that was a fool’s fucking errand. Every year, I’d be prepared — expect the best but accept the worst — I couldn’t get my arms to extend wide enough to accept it all. [My friends] have their own families, and they can’t host me every year, so I started to get passed around, from friend to friend. “I’ll take him this year, and you’ll get him next year.” I became the Re-Gifted Man.
Before Friendmas, I’d always felt like the fruitcake. Lots of people feel that way this time of year, according to Manhattan clinical social worker Jennifer Haus, whose practice addresses anxiety, addiction, and chronic pain. Holiday pressure to “return to the scene of the original crime,” she explains, can cause anxiety and depression and threaten the sobriety of people raised with “personality-disordered parents, homophobic family members, alcoholism and substance abuse, domestic violence, neglect, or sexual and physical abuse.”
Therapist Susan Pan, who treats addiction and family discord, assures patients it is not their duty to prioritize relatives’ wishes above their own mental health needs. To avoid traumatic family reunions, she suggests you “create a spoken record, a line or two, and stick to it no matter how they try to trip you up. ‘I’m sorry you’re disappointed, but I’m staying in Brooklyn this year. I’m going to Marsha’s.'” Don’t overexplain, warns Pan, and “don’t deviate. If they say, ‘Oh, but your uncle from France is coming! You have to,’ just repeat your boundary sentence.”
People who’ve escaped abuse “deserve to create new holiday traditions,” Haus says, whether that’s going to the movies, getting a massage, or hosting a holiday party of your own. “If you don’t have friends, volunteer at a food pantry,” she suggests. “Travel to another state or country.” Most of all, give yourself permission to create your own family.
Creating unconventional holiday rituals can be healing. Holly, a computer programmer from Champaign, Illinois, has hosted a huge annual “Thanksgiving Dinner for Wayward Souls” since 1992. “I like providing for my friends, letting them know they’re welcome, they have an alternative,” she says. “Sometimes the most important thing is knowing there’s an option out there.” After she and her husband moved, a friend walked into her new place on Thanksgiving and said, “Home!”
The key to forging fulfilling alternatives to one-size-fits-all holiday culture, according to those who’ve attempted it, is to celebrate on your own terms. When her mother first refused to acknowledge her female partner, reporter Chris Lombardi found a crowd that would: the annual Bay Area alternative holiday institution, “Kung Pao Kosher Comedy: Jewish Comedy on Christmas in a Chinese Restaurant.” New York writer and artist Swati Khurana says she’s spent many a New Year’s Eve vacationing with her best female friends for bonding time that had nothing to do with boyfriends, husbands, or kids. San Diego journalist Rafael Ramirez joins a large group at a diner each year to leave a huge holiday tip, sometimes hundreds of dollars.
Kate Barnhart, director of the harm reduction organization New Alternatives, spends the holidays with the group’s homeless LGBT youth, mostly ages 16 to 24. This Thanksgiving, Union Square restaurant Craftbar hosted thirty New Alternatives clients, “creating a sense of family and community, and decreasing some painful and negative moods,” says Barnhart. New Alternatives stays open on Christmas, and this year Barnhart will host Sunday dinner.
“People always ask women, ‘Why don’t you have any children?'” Barnhart, not a parent, laughs. “I can say, ‘I have a lot of children!’ We are a family, in an unusual sort of structure. It’s really important to find your own family if the family you were randomly assigned to wasn’t a good fit for you.”
Traylor couldn’t agree more. Creating traditions with “chosen family who bolster our self-esteem and sense of connectedness can turn [an upsetting] period into one of celebration and joy,” the therapist says. But what if you absolutely must spend the holidays with toxic relatives? Haus advises calling a friend before and after to “take your emotional pulse”; making a firm plan for arrival and departure so you don’t feel trapped; setting strict boundaries for topics you will not discuss; and allowing yourself the freedom to leave early if things get too heated. And above all, she says, “Lower your expectations — so you don’t get disappointed if Mom lights the Christmas tree on fire or Dad gets drunk and forgets the Hanukkah presents.”
Still, if you find yourself crying over commercials intended to be heartwarming, it may be time to interrupt the routines that have made the holidays feel traumatic. Not everyone has access to the unconditionally loving and supportive family that Hollywood, advertisers, and Facebook pretend are universal this time of year, but everyone deserves an emotionally healthy holiday season.