In Praise of Small Families at the Holidays

When I was a kid, I knew EXACTLY what the holidays were going to be like when I had a family of my own. My big restored Victorian house would be packed to the rafters with family and friends, my antique dining table covered with a pristine linen cloth, extra chairs squeezed in to accommodate the crowd, kids coming in from playing in the snow in a tumble of wet mittens and (two) golden retrievers.

I was the only child of a single mom. Our family was small, our holidays often quiet, spent together in our trailer or at the one next door, which housed my grandparents. And sometimes, due to the poverty and chaos of our lives, the holidays were dark, serving only to highlight what we did not have. So, my adult holidays? I was going to make sure those were straight out of a TV movie.


As an adult, I was still an only child. Additional family members did not appear from central casting. My husband has just one sibling, a sister. She has two kids, we have one. Oh, and we live eight hundred miles apart. As for the rest of it – well, my restored Victorian is an affordable split level, my kitchen table seats six on a good day and has never seen a table cloth that was not disposable, and those two golden retrievers are instead a 14 pound rescue dog with issues.

But my family is not a consolation prize, just because it doesn’t fit the Hallmark-movie mold. There are a lot of awesome things about being a small family at the holidays; here are just a few.

We’re flexible. Because there are so few of us, we prioritize being together, but what that looks like shifts every year according to the needs of each family unit. That will serve us well going into the years when our children have families of their own. We’ll never heap Adri with guilt because she can’t make it to MawMaw’s house, where the family has held Thanksgiving since 1796. Our priorities can stay the same – being together, if and when and how it works best.

It’s easier to bow out when you need to. Last Thanksgiving found me an absolute wreck in the wake of a caregiving crisis that came hard on the heels of a difficult loss. I could barely function. So when Anthony and Adri got in the car for the 800 mile road trip to spend Thanksgiving with Sis, I stayed home. I explained to exactly one person (Sis), and Anthony didn’t spend the trip fielding questions from Great Aunt Zelda and Uncle Freddy about why wifey would abandon her family on this of all days. I spent the weekend with pajamas and Netflix, and when my family returned, I was feeling better and ready to enjoy the rest of the holiday season.

There’s plenty of room for chosen family. When you don’t have a lot of biological family, you tend to build your own. We’ve built a tribe of brothers and sisters at heart, and some of our best holidays have been spent with them.

In addition to these inherent up sides to a small family, there are things I can do to make sure that our holidays don’t feel small just because our family is.

Do the things! I do everything I can to make the holidays feel like the holidays, and not succumb to feeling like it’s somehow not worth the effort if it’s just us. I decorate the house, bake the cookies, make the dinner, knowing I will feel better (and Adri’s memories may be nicer) if I do.

Embrace where I am. Damn those Hallmark-movie families, they are insidious. But THEY are the problem – my family is not the problem. If I allowed myself to miss out on the fun that’s right in front of me for lack of a restored Victorian house and two golden retrievers, I would be a sad person indeed.

Shake things up. Each year I like to do something a little different, something that makes this holiday different from the rest. It might be big – a surprise trip to visit family, a big theatre outing – or it might be small; turning dinner into a family cooking challenge, or choosing ethnic dishes instead of a turkey.

So on this holiday season, I’ll be leaving the imaginary families in their imaginary houses, and choosing to appreciate the wonderful, loving, quirky, (and small) one that is mine.