Feeling festive and up for more holiday content? Check out our holiday series here.

We all know the classic Hallmark line: The holidays are a time for family and everyone comes home. But is that really true? 

For a lot of us, the holidays are a chance to celebrate, catch-up, and make the most of the season’s celebrations with our loved ones. But more than often, we hear about Thanksgiving brawls over the dinner table, passive-aggressive comments about what everyone should be thankful for, political arguments with your grandfather, or an aunt locking herself in the bathroom after someone made a snarky comment about her fourth divorce. It’s not just Thanksgiving.

Christmas is also a time for judgemental comments about the decor by in-laws, an uncle who refuses to use your niece’s pronouns, or pointed glares at the cousin who buys themselves a Christmas present but conveniently forgets everyone else. Some of us feel worst off after the holidays, almost excited to get back to work and just put the entire year behind us. 

But of course, we’re all family. So the next year, we drag ourselves back to the same hellhole. 

For some reason, “family” seems to cover up a multitude of sins, especially around the holidays. And perhaps, it’s also covering up the most obvious of solutions: just don’t go home for the holidays. 

But it’s more complicated! You don’t understand! There is an expectation! You say. Fair enough. Family is always complicated. But it is worth seriously thinking about where those expectations are coming from, and if it is worth the stress and toll on your mental wellbeing.

For some families, no matter how well-meaning everyone is at the beginning, it’s just a bad combination of personalities that end up being more toxic than a hit Britney Spears single. Yes, maybe some family members will be hurt by your absence, but there are other ways to make it up to them.  

Kindle Unlimited Membership Plans

Look, I’m not trying to rob the season of joy and happiness. I believe that the holidays are a magical time for celebrations. We often seek other people because, otherwise, it can be lonely.

For a lot of us, family does fill that gap. But sometimes family is what makes you feel lonely. If anything, this is about remembering what joy and happiness really look like, rather than simply slapping that label on top of a Thanksgiving fight and a sobbing, messy Christmas.

Last year, I didn’t head home for any of the fall or winter holidays. I spent my fall break in New York, staying in Chinatown and meeting up with Barnard friends for dumplings, noodles, and coffee. My mom even traveled with me, walking around Central Park and visiting museums. On Thanksgiving, I spent the day at my professor’s house with a few other students as she hosted her family too. Although I did go home for Christmas, I turned down an invite from my family to celebrate together in Toronto. Instead, I spent most of that holiday in an empty house, working on my thesis, dancing to music, and watching comedy specials. When New Year came around, I celebrated with friends in San Francisco and stayed the night at their apartment. 

In the end, it was the best holiday season that I had in a long time. Part of it is about celebrating with other friends but, even without other people, sometimes being alone is still better. You don’t need to have other plans or excuses to not show up. Admittedly, even I had a little bit of guilt for not having alternative plans as an excuse when I could have been with family during Christmas. But I was much happier at home and that was reason enough. Rather than arguing with a family member and then storming out into the Toronto snow, I was in California playing with my dogs, eating Chinese takeout, and dancing in our living room. 

Yes, it’s fair to say that you owe family some measure of your time and care, but you don’t owe people your happinessespecially during the holiday season. Winter is tough, whether it’s because of the weather, end-of-year burnout, or simply the pressure to have a good time. It’s important to have people in our lives, but we also need people who are good for us.

So if there a holiday gift you should be giving yourself, think about being in an environment that is best for you.

Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!

  • Helena Ong

    Helena Ong is a freelance writer and journalist from San Francisco, California. In the past, she's worked at San Francisco Public Press, World Policy Journal, and NBC4 Los Angeles. She graduated from Pomona College, where she served as Production Editor for her college newspaper, The Student Life.