We’re coming to one of the big family times of year. The American holiday of Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and Christmas is looming large behind it.
I have family flying in from the UK for Thanksgiving, and so the subject is much on my mind. I thought I’d have a go at putting words to some of what I learned about family growing up.
I can’t speak for other people’s families, but in my family we’ve always had a sense that family is important. And Christmas was always our big time of family getting together. We’d usually spend Christmas day with one side of the family and Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) with the other side, almost without fail. It was family. It was important.
We were never very demonstrative or I-love-you-y, either on my Mum’s or my Dad’s side; indeed, on Dad’s side we’d frequently spend Christmas teatime locked in battle over something meaningless like whose definition of a word was correct, but we were always there for each other. Family love was far less Hallmark and far more Three Musketeers: One for all and all for one.
Mum’s side of the family might not have argued like Dad’s, but we still spent most Christmas afternoons and evenings engaged in the combat-at-one-remove of one or other of my aunt and uncle’s collection of intellectual board games: Trivial Pursuit, or that weird geographical game Ubi, or something else.
Dad’s side may have spent hours in heated exchange over some foolish thing another family member had said, trying to get them to see sense, but at the end of the day we were all there for one another. It really was “nothing personal”.
As an example of this, there was a sort of never-spoken code to these family arguments that we all lived by. There were no ad hominem attacks. You didn’t refer to family behaviour past or present. You weren’t nasty, you weren’t vicious, you never made it personal. You grew a thick skin or you wouldn’t survive, but you only ever targeted the silly things the other person said or believed, never the person themselves. It never needed to be said because it was just the way it was. Family was too important to risk by really aiming to wound.
And if anyone from outside the family had threatened one of us, I have no doubt at all that the entire clan would have closed ranks against the threat. You mess with my cousin, my uncle, my sister, you mess with me.
Like I said, Three Musketeers. One for all, all for one.
It didn’t matter that we all had different ideas and all believed we were right, we were family. That meant that even though I’m fairly sure Dad wasn’t best pleased by my decision to answer the call of God that I felt to the mission field, I knew that if I really needed him, he’d be on the next plane to wherever I was in the world. Probably racing my mother to see who would get there first. It was family, therefore important. We could fight like cats and dogs over nothing at all, but at the end of the day, we stood shoulder to shoulder.
I always associate the high importance of family with my Dad’s side of the family more than my Mum’s, but I think that’s partly because of the way it was expressed. Mum’s side of the family were less demonstrative all round. Christmas at Granny and Grandad’s was organised, well-ordered and calm. Presents happened one by one so everyone could see what everyone else got. We said thank you. We played games. The TV usually stayed off, so that we could interact as a family. Everything had its place and everything was in its place. Christmas at Grandma and Gron-Gron’s was merry Bedlam. The TV was almost always on even if no-one was watching. Fourteen shouted conversations would spring up across each other and across the TV, which always showed a fuzzy picture with multiple echoes (it made snooker especially bizarre to watch). Presents were opened all at once and I seldom really registered which gift came from whom. And we argued happily into the evening.
But family was family. We were all there for one another.
As we got older, my maternal-side cousins increasingly skipped out on the family Christmas in order to be with friends. I never really understood this; it was their choice, of course, but it wasn’t mine. Friends were great, but this was more important than friends; this was family.
The older I get and the more I hear about some of my work colleagues’ family lives, the better and saner my own family appears. We may have argued a lot, but it really wasn’t anything personal. We may have been a bit of a monkey house at times, we may seldom have said the words, but we had and still have what counts: each other. We are family. One for all, all for one.