Could ‘Cancelled Christmas’ Help Us Imagine a World Beyond the Nuclear Family?

by Sophie K Rosa

24 December 2020

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We’re fast approaching a Christmas marked by restrictions, separation and for many, increased suffering. In the UK, even before the government’s U-turn on temporarily allowing travel and household mixing, many were planning to stay at home, foregoing their usual intergenerational gatherings. For others, who were planning to spend Christmas with family, often following prolonged absences, the government’s cruel snatchback of loosened pandemic rules spelt heartbreak.

But cancelled Christmas does not mean the same thing to everyone. At 19, Jamie, who asked that we didn’t use her real name, is about to spend her first Christmas without her family. When she realised that she would not be able to travel home, she says she was relieved. “I wish I felt comfortable setting boundaries with my family without the additional justification of a pandemic,” she says, but instead she feels like she is “treading on eggshells”, dodging “sighs of disapproval” and the unhealed, silenced trauma of historical domestic violence. “I’m not able to express myself around my family,” she says, adding that her mother did not even accept her decision to avoid travelling back this year because of the pandemic, attempting to pressure her into visiting regardless.

While dealing with difficult or abusive families makes Christmas – “the ultimate family time” – an ordeal for some, writer Sophie Lewis argues that the dominance of the nuclear family as a social unit can in itself be a source of trauma. This is particularly true for queer people, who commonly face violence and rejection from their families of origin.

Sam, who asked us not to use her real name, described not going to her family home this Christmas as an act of care towards herself. Even though she has gone for up to a year without speaking to her family in the past, they have always asked her to go back at Christmas, she says, to keep up appearances and to be in the photographs her mother posts on Facebook. “Behind my smile in the photo, I’m fucking miserable,” she says.

As a queer woman, Sam says she finds going back into a “setting that is so heteronormative” harmful, and even more so at Christmas. “The more comfort and joy I’ve sought from my queerness, the sadder it is for me when I go back and it’s ignored,” she says.

“Christmas is all about straight couples who have kids,” she continues. “Despite the fact I make mature life decisions and care for a lot of people, in my family, as a 30-year-old woman without children at Christmas, I’m put into this weird category of ‘not quite an adult’, it’s so demeaning”. Indeed, traditionally, the only acceptable reason not to attend a family Christmas is if you are part of a heterosexual couple and visiting your partner’s parents instead.

“At my family home, it’s like I open the door, it’s closed, and every part of me is on the other side,” Sam says. “There’s a lot of pressure, a lot of not being myself”.

Instead of going home, this Christmas Sam will be volunteering with homeless people in her local area, and relaxing with “chosen family” in “a space where people are looking after each other”. She hopes that among the devastation of ‘cancelled Christmas’, we are able to collectively imagine ways of “resting and being comfortable around each other” that embrace everyone – including those who are excluded from or unsafe with their biological families.

The risks we’re willing to take.

Acknowledging that, for many, the nuclear family is not a source of community or joy – even at Christmas – does not undermine the experience of those for whom it is. “Very often, family-critical discourse is met with horror and defensiveness,” says Lewis, due to the mistaken belief it is “about telling people who they should love, live with and hang out with”. But, “that is not the point at all,” she stresses, adding that personally she is “devastated” that she can’t spend Christmas with her brother this year.

This year, people have had to make tough decisions about the risks they are willing to take in order to celebrate Christmas with their families. “It is ideologically fascinating that the patriotic priority of ‘family values’… this Christmastime will sadly result in a great number of people dying Covid-19 deaths,” Lewis says.

But for some people, going home for Christmas has always been a risk. The nuclear family household is the most common site of subjugation and violence against women and children; queer people are often rejected by families, ejected from homes. Both of these realities have intensified due to the pandemic. The cultural insistence that family symbolises sanctuary for all is simply not true. Indeed, many people experiencing homelessness and migrants seeking asylum are fleeing familial violence.

Part of the problem for Sam is a close family member who has been consistently homophobic and verbally and physically aggressive. One year, when she chose to leave a family Christmas due to feeling threatened, she was told: “If you don’t come back then you’re not part of this family.”

The adage ‘you can’t choose your family’ is sometimes used as a justification for enduring unchangingly toxic relationships – ones most people would avoid if they were with people they aren’t related to. And whilst repair is possible in most relationships, it is often the intransigence of family dynamics – without the will to communicate and heal – that makes reentering nuclear households harmful.

“This year my parents have spoken to me less than ever, yet they’ve brought me so many presents,” says Sam. “But I don’t need this stuff, I just need to have meaningful conversations… watching Christmas film after Christmas film, depicting idyllic families, whilst you all sit around in silence… just kills me.”

Security and collective joy.

‘Christmas is cancelled’ has become shorthand for the state’s mishandling of the pandemic, leading to the loss of an opportunity for feelings of security and collective joy. But these things are not always synonymous with family, Lewis points out.

Many people believe “there is no alternative to the scarcity, the emotional blackmail, of the genetic ‘pod’ lottery,” she says; we have been convinced that it “would be crazy to ask for something more abundant, more equitable, less arbitrary, less lonely” than the nuclear family as our dominant form of kinship.

“Sometimes people are like, ‘But I love my family!’ as though that’s a counterargument” to dreaming up more enriching forms of community, Lewis continues. But this misses the point: if the biological family feels “joyful and mutually liberating” for some, we want everyone to be able to access those same feelings.

“The private nuclear household is actually of quite a recent invention,” Lewis adds. “But even if it were somehow universal, eternal and trans-historic, queer and/or colonised people, and other refugees from its violence would still be dreaming up alternatives”.

This year, Lewis will spend Christmas in her pandemic ‘pod’: “my partner, my boyfriend, three assorted local queer leftists, a minimum of two belligerent cats…”

Jamie says that spending Christmas with friends this year means “being free from judgement and having people impose their ways of being on to you”. She says that, where family imposes expectations and conditions, her community of friends “is a more equal playing field, with a mutual respect that isn’t predetermined by hierarchies of power”. With friends, she says “you expect kindness, you expect understanding, you expect a judgement-free relationship where you can be yourself”.

Whether we are currently mourning a traditional Christmas with family or not, we are all mourning this year. Those intimate things we are grieving the most – sharing space, holding each other, feeling safe, communal celebration – give life meaning. As we process the pain of this Christmas, whether or not we are yearning for our biological kin, could we imagine forms of connection and care beyond the nuclear family? Ones that might keep us all safer and feeling loved in crises to come?

Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media, she writes for the Guardian, VICE, Open Democracy, CNN, Al Jazeera and Buzzfeed.

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