When most people think of the holidays, they imagine a plentiful bounty of food at a formally decorated dining table surrounded by a loving family.
But for me, a holiday is just another day, except the stores are closed, my friends are busy and I’m left with nothing to do but brood.
While I enjoy the spirit of the holiday season and the days leading up to Christmas, the day itself always falls flat.
Growing up, it was my favorite holiday. The week after Thanksgiving, my family would drive to our local Christmas tree farm. Wielding a saw, my dad would cut down an 8-foot tree after an hour of perusing through hundreds of evergreens. We’d pick out ornaments from the gift shop, eat sugar cookies and drink hot chocolate.
After they closed one year, we stopped buying a real tree. Although my mom had finally gotten her wish to have a fake tree, Christmas was never quite the same again.
I filled this void by going to Koziar’s Christmas Village, a massive light display in Bernville, Pennsylvania. Strolling through the miniature town, I’d press my numbed face against the glass and peer at the dolls in their own little worlds. I was far too young to have anyone to kiss when I crossed over the Kissing Bridge, but the destination I looked forward to the most was the small shack at the end of the path.
Inside was a myriad of glistening, hand-made ornaments, fresh popcorn and hot dogs and a large model train set with tiny Christmas trees and spray-painted snow.
As I got older, however, the attraction gained more attention. Soon the line of cars would stretch miles down the road. The wait became so excruciatingly long that I didn’t bother going anymore.
Every Christmas, I was dragged to my aunt’s and uncle’s houses for dessert. We never hosted Christmas at my house because it was too cramped and dilapidated. Being a shy child, I kept my eyes glued to my phone the entire time for fear of talking to my older, cooler cousins.
My dad was always in a rush to leave, but still, I wanted to stay. The inground pool, the hot tub, the finished basement — I didn’t have these amenities back home. All I wanted for Christmas was to switch families.
As a result of some tensions between my dad and his siblings, we stopped going to their homes for any holiday. While I was partly relieved, despite missing their home furnishings, I also lost most of my family through no fault of my own.
Although I was never very religious, I did find some comfort in going to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve with my dad. The church would be beautifully decorated with poinsettias and white lights, and my dad would sing — albeit not very well — in our church’s choir, which I enjoyed watching.
Afterward, we’d stop at a local diner for breakfast at one in the morning, and I’d order a heaping plate of chocolate chip pancakes doused in maple syrup and butter. In spite of the sugar rush, I’d make myself go to sleep so Santa Claus could deliver my presents.
As the years passed by, the pile of neatly wrapped gifts was replaced with a few scattered, sloppily wrapped boxes. Money became tight, and my parents could no longer afford to spoil me with an extravagant Christmas.
Eventually, I stopped going to Mass on Christmas because the holiday had lost all meaning. The only tradition my family kept was going to my grandmother’s house for an unconventional Christmas dinner of barbecue sandwiches.
Once I moved to Philadelphia, an hour and half away from my hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, I avoided going home for Thanksgiving or Easter. But Christmas was inescapable. I couldn’t bear to disappoint my grandparents, and my parents guilt-tripped me into coming home for the holidays.
While other students go home for the whole winter break, the most amount of time I can tolerate with my family is Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. If I stay any longer, an argument is sure to erupt.
I try to stay off of Instagram on Christmas Day because my feed is one picture after another of happy, dressed-up families in their spacious, immaculate homes with expensive presents under an ornate 20-foot-tall tree.
Given that I have to travel far to be trapped all day in my unpleasant home with people I don’t get along with, the holidays are more of an inconvenience than a celebration to me. I can’t do anything but begrudgingly “like” pictures that remind me of everything I don’t have.
I know the holidays are a difficult time for many others too, and I am very grateful to even have a family and a house to go home to, but I’m sick of feeling guilty for complaining about a holiday that is centered around spending time with family.
I would rather spend the day alone in my apartment than be forced to be at home.
Although the holidays will look a lot different this year with the COVID-19 pandemic, I will still be going home for a mere 24 hours for Christmas. While others may feel isolated this holiday season because they can only see their family virtually, I will feel alone even though I am celebrating in person.