January 2, 2022
Emma Quackenbush (she/her/hers), Low Entropy Volunteer Writer
For some, December 25th represents significant time with family and friends and includes long-standing traditions and rituals. For others, the holidays can be challenging. I, like many, live away from my family. My immediate family lives thousands of kilometres away. This year on Christmas Eve, while my family shared COVID rapid test results and feasted on seafood, I was home wondering if my work would continue after Christmas or not, with another COVID-related shutdown looming. My family tries their best to include me in celebrations, but nothing will replace being there in person. In my experience, many things about Christmas, while pleasant, feel routine but not necessarily merry or bright.
I chose to live in my city, far from family, only because I got a job here. I work in a highly competitive industry, so you basically go where the job is. It is cold, the days are short around the winter solstice and it has a culture that I find unrelatable. I am puzzled by people who have grown up here who believe it’s the best place on earth. They embrace the numerous quirks and seem to love suffering cold winters (“At least it’s a dry cold!”) only to luxuriate in mosquito-riddled summers. Maybe you have to have been born here to understand the draw.
I have always felt like an outsider here. That feeling intensifies over the holidays because my work schedule doesn’t allow for time off around the holidays. I see everyone around me getting excited to put up decorations and begin their holiday traditions, but each time someone asks me what my plans are, I feel further alienated from this place and this season. I don’t have an answer that feels genuine to me.
Instead, I feel the financial pressure to buy and exchange gifts. I feel social pressure to have a home decorated just so, attend parties and gatherings and imbibe more than I would otherwise. I feel the emotional pressure to connect with family and friends in some significant way while still balancing one of the busiest times of the year at work.
As I get older, I have learned to set more and more boundaries around these pressures. I’ve learned to say no to food and drink that I know will make me feel off-balance physically. I’ve discovered that the busy work schedule is an excellent excuse for declining invitations, and fortunately, my family and friends understand, or at the very least have accepted, that they will most likely not receive a gift from me. These boundaries help me keep in check with my physical, mental and emotional well-being. Still, I always feel like something is missing.
The practice of setting my boundaries has made it difficult to create my own holiday traditions. Most years, I feel like I’m in survival mode. I am more focused on maintaining a healthy balance than planning activities, baking or decorating. I’ve learned to focus my energy on what makes me feel fulfilled and honours my mind, body and soul. That focus looks different from year to year. Still, those things include a lot of self-care, like drinking enough water, exercising, keeping up my writing practice and centring my energy on genuine connections rather than peripheral ones.
Over the years of separation from my family, I’ve discovered that if I don’t create space to establish holiday routines, no matter how large or small, I will easily be swept up into someone else’s vision of the holidays. I’ve always appreciated people reaching out to include me in their events and traditions; however, by accepting these invitations, I’ve found myself putting on a façade and conforming to other people’s expectations.
December 25th, in many ways, is just another day. If you don’t have a family structure where long-held traditions prevail, that’s ok. Maybe there is just as much value in writing yourself a letter to check in and pouring a cup of tea before climbing into bed early.
For those who come from big, happy families who embrace each other’s differences and have found ways to celebrate all together, I applaud you. However, the holidays can be difficult, even in the best of circumstances. I long to find a way to create my own traditions, and I know the only way I can do that is by cultivating my well-being. So if you invite me for dinner next year and I respond by saying, “I respectfully decline,” don’t take it personally. I guarantee: it’s not you, it’s me.
Emma Quackenbush is a freelance writer, professional cellist and educator whose focus is on the mind-body connection. Holding a master’s degree from the University of Michigan, Emma has worked in the orchestra field in North America for over a decade. Outside of writing and music, Emma lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she struggles to stay warm in the winters and finds any occasion she can to travel to more temperate climates.
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