It is the day before Christmas and the bitingly cold Chicago streets are bustling with families and couples crouched together like sardines beneath the twinkling lights of Michigan Avenue; our very own Magnificent Mile.
The consumerist frenzy has reached it’s crescendo and groups of people squeeze along the crowded streets bundled to the brinks in a mix of waning holiday bemusement, intoxication of overspending and the sort of slow creeping low grade agitation that emerges when our personal boundaries are offended far too long by an uncomfortable proximity to strangers. Bright-eyed young couples intertwine gloved hands as they adeptly navigate the crowds. Proud family units stick like glue as they amble along like one multicolored organism with the littlest kids trailing behind in zig-zag formation, creating the tail to this genetically linked creature. American Girl Dolls are often in tow and multiple shopping bags burst through the crowds.
Families wait all year to rack up credit card bills and they goddamned well better enjoy the season. Intoxicated by the holiday spirit, the plastered smiles easily demonstrate how well this carefully laid plan of memory-making is working. Expectations are high and the air swirls with electric, tinsel-draped excitement.
On the outskirts of this scene, almost in the shadows, there are other people looking in from the outside trying to feel their way through the noise and creating their own meaning this holiday season.
We are the Holiday Misfits.
Like lone wolves one may catch your eye. Entry into this club can come about in a number of different ways. Some are adult orphans with one or both of their parents gone too early and a family structure that has been thrown up in the air like a matchstick house never again fully intact. Some are adults who are distinctly single; the sort of single that has lingered on longer than is culturally expected; the sort of single that singles you out at the family dinner table. With all the friends and family paired up and propagating the species, it can be that suddenly your fabulous single life seems to be off pitch and too complicated to enjoy explaining.
Some families may be misplaced by distance yet full of big love and some families are very much intact but smeared by old patterns of trauma that leave a bitter aftertaste. Or the Misfits may simply be strewn across the country for “training purposes” – seemingly simple life events like say a medical residency will create this rift. Suddenly you find yourself on-call at a hospital on formerly much prized holidays –Skyping with family, sleeping on a cot, and usually with a strong hankering for a homemade turkey dinner with all the fixings but instead gnawing a protein bar.
Another group of outliers are our LGBT brothers and sisters who may not even notice a palpable family pothole until the conformity of the Christmas season rolls around. Speaking to my good friend on this topic, I learned that he knew upwards of 25 young men all avoiding the trek back home for Christmas. Many of these men were not belligerently shunned from their families, it was explained that many just felt that the entire traditional holiday scene was somewhat mildly inhospitable. The phrase “I don’t quite fit in and I just don’t feel like being the spectacle” was offered up as a contributing factor.
I will avoid even discussing all the wonderful people in this country who are not Christian and do not celebrate this self-sustaining beast called Xmas, yet are forced to suckle from the glittering breast of holiday cheer. When not being accused of waging a war on Christmas they can be seen flashing an obligatory smile and waiting patiently for January.
And lest we forget all the traditionally ebullient consumers of holiday cheer whose recent past was tragically met with loss, mourning, or trauma in the form of death, miscarriages, divorce, illness, mental anguish, and all the other events shrouded in the deep pangs of black cheesecloth. We need to make room for all the life events that simply do not adhere to the adage that this is the most wonderful time of the year.
In fact, the Dionysian frenzy of holly berries and Nog can be juxtaposed with the stark facts of real life - producing a deep chasm of self-doubt. While the mass populous is being pumped with merriment to the point of nausea a single Misfit can be seen in the distance. They can walk outside under the swaths of twinkling lights into complete stillness, a stillness so great that it can seem apocalyptic. Once all the hurried cars make it to the warm embrace of their destination you may see one or two brave souls wander out into the emptiness of Christmas Day: glassy-eyed and darting to find a place. Our sympathetic friends who proudly epitomize the expected family values and the “clear message of the season” will adopt many within this Misfit band. With a mix of pity, charity and the search for entertainment, one or two from the band of Misfits can be taken in-- like a fuzzy young puppy salvaged from the stainless steel pound of singlehood.
Christmas Eve appears to be the most popular day for men to fall to one knee and pop the question with a glittering piece of carbon that shines with the promise of a an ever happy future. Baby’s first Christmas memories can make us all smile with the ridiculous cuteness of a red and green striped onesey. And all the family and connectedness that is often times available can certainly provide a protective factor for many who are experiencing real angst. It is quite surprising, but true, that Christmas boasts lower suicide rates than one would expect due to the propensity for family and friends to reach out during this time.
However, this little window of holiday cheer can leave a significant swath of society feeling a bit out of sorts. The good news is that anecdotally, the last few years I have heard a rising voice from my own band of Misfit friends, carrying a message of joy that steps outside the bounds of the once traditional adherence to plans. There is a banding together so to speak, which is becoming a real cultural phenomenon. Instead of clinging to the dining room tables of convention many more people are constructing their own meaning with their own brand of celebration.
I see bands of these proud Misfits forgoing events that feel like an obligation and coming together to have their own dinner party, church venture or to possibly hide out in the smoky corner of an open bar. Some may just rock out in pajamas on the couch, enjoying the fact that world has shut down for a moment.
There are families being constructed today and tomorrow not bound by blood or bonds of carbon-promised monogamy but by likemindness, no drama contracts, and the comfortable sort of low maintenance friendship that accompanies a distinct air of acceptance--- so that you can come as you are.
Today is Christmas Eve, before all the plaques and tangles ravaged our life, my mother and I always exchanged gifts, splurged on an opulent dinner under a grand tree and shuffled through the snowy city streets to midnight mass to hear an angelic choir under a gold gilded sky. That is a distant memory this year. Friends will instead be doing Christmas Eve shopping punctuated by ducking into friendly establishments to imbibe on some holiday cheer of the carbonated variety. Midnight mass may still happen and the night will likely end with pajama-ridden movies riddled with popcorn. That sort of Misfit Mayhem may be exactly what the doctor ordered. It is not quite planned but it is beautiful in it’s own way.
The heady expectations of the holiday known by parents of small children and the parading we see by beaming couples with hopes to marry all have their own place. However, with the band of Misfits there is a certain freedom and camaraderie. Like a patchwork quilt we can cherry pick from the holiday the parts that nurture our well worn hearts. Instead of coyly trying to fit in- sometimes it can be about finding connection and comfort in a pair of cozy pajamas on a snowy night.