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To the Mom Yearning for a Big Family Christmas

Photograph by Twenty20

Every Hallmark movie I've ever seen has taught me what Christmas is supposed to be like: at least two to three kids shrieking with excitement, romantic gestures between husband and wife, a big family gathering and lots of love to be shared. It’s a time when even the most dysfunctional of families come together and find healing in each other’s presence. At least, that’s what Hallmark tells me.

What I’ve learned over the years is that not everyone gets that. What I’ve learned is that Hallmark doesn’t always get it right.

My daughter and I started a tradition a few years ago of going to the movies on Christmas Day. You see, it’s just the two of us and by mid-afternoon we’re usually looking for something to do. We’ve opened presents, eaten, played with a few of her new toys and have hit a lull in our day. A lull that people celebrating big family Christmases don’t tend to experience.

It was there, in the dark movie theater, that I realized we weren’t the only ones celebrating a small family Christmas. If you'd asked me a few years ago, I probably would have told you that movie theaters were closed on Christmas Day. But they’re not. In fact, it’s apparently one of the biggest movie days of the year.

Some people are there by themselves, but mostly it seems to be families of two to four. They’re happy, enjoying each other’s company, but let’s be honest—they’re there because they have nowhere else to go. And because, like my daughter and I, they’ve reached a lull in their day.

I sometimes have to remind myself not to play the comparison game. I come from a large family and most of them spend the holidays together. But for me, it’s always been too much. Unlike the Hallmark movies I adore, no Christmas miracle has ever turned my family dysfunction into healing. The last time I attempted going “home for the holidays” was my daughter’s first Christmas. Let’s just say there were a whole lot of tears. There was even a point when I was desperately trying to bump our return tickets up. When it was over, I promised myself: never again.

I definitely prefer our quiet family holidays to the stress and tension of going “home.” And we do have an amazing village we’ve built for ourselves here—people we consider family, who we spend the month of December celebrating numerous holiday traditions with. It’s a good life—and it has become my favorite time of year.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I still sometimes feel a little jealous of my friends posting photos of their big family celebrations.

Maybe this isn’t how you ever imagined it would be, just you and your immediate family hunkering down together, heading to the movie theater on Christmas.

Maybe you’ve been there too. Maybe you wish you could be home, but home is thousands of miles away and flying your little family there is simply out of reach. Maybe you’re like me and you could have a big family Christmas, but for reasons all your own, you choose not to. Or maybe you’ve never had that big family. Maybe the fractures in your family dynamic go too far back to even hope to repair, and maybe your partner has experienced the same.

Maybe I’ve even seen you there in that movie theater on Christmas Day.

I’m guessing you love your little family as much as I do mine. I’m willing to bet your heart feels like it could burst every time you kiddo opens another present or flings into your arms for another hug. You love this holiday season, because being a mom kind of makes it impossible not to.

But maybe you sometimes mourn what could have been. What the Hallmark movies tell you should have been. Maybe you wish you could give your kids the big family holiday you secretly yearn for. Maybe you’d give anything for them to have cousins and siblings and friends to run around with, alongside dozens of doting family members. Maybe this isn’t how you ever imagined it would be, just you and your immediate family hunkering down together, heading to the movie theater on Christmas.

Or maybe it is. Maybe you grew up hating Christmas, because of the drama and dysfunction and tears. And maybe keeping things small, enveloping your own little family with love is part of what has helped you embrace the holiday season. And while the small family gathering you celebrate isn’t that Hallmark ideal, maybe it’s still better than anything you ever imagined the holidays could be.

Maybe sometimes you feel both: the yearning and the gratitude. The sadness over what you don’t have, combined with the love and appreciation for what you do. And maybe that’s OK.

Maybe Hallmark just hasn’t made that movie yet.

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