You've been looking forward to it all year. So why does it feel like you're under quarantine?
The room is too hot. The floor is strewn with new toys, already discarded. Dirge-like carols are playing on a loop. And my family? One parent is launching into an anecdote I’ve heard 500 times. The other is merrily spooning chocolate spread that was best before 2013 into my sugar-high children (Why must my parents hoard moldy condiments? Didn’t they hear me say the kids have had enough chocolate?). Said children are rolling on the floor, half-dressed, half-wrestling, periodically screeching. My husband is escaping via his co-workers’ group text. And I think to myself: I love this place, I love these people, but I feel trapped.
There should be a word for the peculiar claustrophobia that descends over the holidays. It’s a distinctive love-hate, push-pull restlessness, which bizarrely makes you feel safer than anything in the world. It’s like half of you wants to flee, while the other half wouldn’t be anywhere else. They’ve probably found a term for it in Scandinavia, home of hygge and eternal winters.
This emotion was the spark for my novel, Seven Days Of Us, about a family spending their Christmas in quarantine. Admittedly, the home I gave the fictional family was a rambling manor house. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that every family holiday is a quarantine of sorts. I could just as easily have had them snowed in or marooned on a Caribbean island. The bottom line is that forced happy time with your loved ones, however much you love them, can feel oddly oppressive.
To start with, there’s the basic obligation to stay put. You can’t pack your bags and leave, without causing offense and being tagged a drama queen for eternity.
Second, the rest of the world is in the same boat. Your friends are stuck in their homes with their own relations. By Christmas Eve a spooky hush descends on the streets, like the world has gone underground, leaving you with nobody but your next of kin. It’s freezing outside, and pitch dark by mid-afternoon. Yes, the elements ought to make the indoors feel deliciously snug. But there’s a fine line between snug and cramped.
Plus, the outside world’s depiction of Christmas can be pretty unhelpful. There’s nothing like schmaltzy movies, or commercials featuring model families to put everyone on edge. Just the knowledge that you should be having a joyous, photogenic time can cause tension (cue hissed comments about how everyone should try to be NICE to one another, just for one day of the year). And squabbles are like muscle memory. The same spats play out, year after year. One of my friends thinks of bickering with her sister the minute she hears the “Holidays are Coming…” Coca Cola ad.
But the crux of the issue, I think, is the way we slip into well-worn grooves with our family. A friend of mine, for example, has a high-powered job in a major law firm. But to her family she will forever be “the baby,” talked over and incapable of making any decisions. The fact that her job involves public speaking, and that she now has children, is irrelevant. She still clams up around her siblings, and then resents them for speaking over her. By the same token, she acknowledges that for all she knows, her brothers may complain that they’re expected to be the family “chatterbox”, or “the sensible one.”
This regression, simultaneously infuriating and reassuring, underpins so much holiday tension. We’re riled by the same traits in one another, year after year, but we don’t allow anyone to change. Meanwhile, we resent our family subscribing to an out-dated version of ourselves, while defaulting to our teenage selves on arrival. It’s like we’d rather be proved right than be pleasantly surprised or try to surprise others.
That said, by the time I’d finished my novel I had a new take on Christmas being a kind of quarantine. The family in my story finish their week of forced togetherness stronger, happier, and wiser. In short, they are in better emotional health. The same goes for the holiday season. It shouldn’t be a test, but in a sense, it is. If you can survive it together, and emerge in tact, you’re OK. Not perfect, perhaps, but well enough to return to your normal life.
Another friend of mine is a psychologist, which makes her a great sounding board for these issues. I once expressed my frustration about the fact that I could predict a close relation’s response to any situation—down to the offered anecdote. My friend’s reply? “You’re lucky,” she said. “There’s nothing so damaging in family as unpredictability.” It stopped me in my tracks. It was the best home truth she could have delivered, and one I’ve never forgotten. Consistency, reliability, sheer presence—these are the great unsung qualities among family. Aren’t they, in the end, at the heart of why we love our nearest and dearest? They’re there. Nothing else matters.
Francesca Hornak is the author of the novel, Seven Days of Us, and the nonfiction books, History of the World in 100 Modern Objects and Worry With Mother.