Note: This is a blog post for the Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse. The theme for November and December is holidays.
When I think of the holidays with my family, I get a mixture of nostalgia and horror. There were certainly good times, but there was also torture of a special kind. In general, I hated family holidays and am happy not to have to endure them anymore. During the holidays, you’d think people were more relaxed, but in abusive families, holidays are often a time of greater stress. Abusive family members gather together, and many have a field day with subtle and not-so-subtle abuse. Others will put on a fake facade of warmth and kindness, only to vent their nastiness and anxiety later. Either way, holidays in abusive families are a challenge, and mine were no different.
Family Holidays in my Youth
Up to the age of 16, I lived away from my extended family. It was just our 5-member family unit on the holidays. I was born Jewish and my parents came from a country where they don’t celebrate Christian holidays, so that created a weird experience in addition to the usual holiday issues.
My parents did not understand Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas and were usually determined not to let American culture invade their home. We kids, however, were taught in American schools, and it was difficult for us to experience the celebration of holidays when at home there was no attention paid to them. It was yet another way my parents isolated us.
As we got older, we did bug them to celebrate certain holidays. Christian holidays were, of course, out of the question, but we did do Thanksgiving sometimes. They didn’t mind it so much since it wasn’t Christian and it took care of the menu for my mother for several days. Might as well cook a turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, etc., for dinner and leftovers as cook something else.
Jewish holidays we usually spent with other Jewish families. I almost never knew these people well. My parents would scramble to find people who would add us to their holiday table. We were expected to hang out with kids we’d never met before. But you know what? It was OK. Kids being kids, it was a little awkward at first, but eventually we’d find something to connect us. Board games were big when I was a kid, and that was an easy way for us to occupy ourselves and get to know each other. Usually, though, I never saw these kids again.
No visit to others, however, could end without my parents saying nasty things about the people who had been kind to them only hours before. I now realize that they had a desperate need always to feel superior to everyone around them. There was no question in their eyes that they were superior to American Christians, but they even looked down on American Jews. I’m grateful that their snootiness never influenced me.
My parents were desperate to spend the High Holidays and Passover, the two most important Jewish holidays, with others, which is strange when I think of it, given their isolation for the rest of the year. Perhaps they felt there was something wrong with spending holidays with just our small family. Appearances have always been important to them, even when no one gave a rat’s ass except them.
I do, however, remember Hannukah at home. My mother would buy a bag of M&Ms (the only time we were allowed to eat them) for the dreidel game. After dinner, she’d make sufganiyot. These are donuts, usually with jelly inside, though my mother would make small ones without jelly. That was always a treat for us because she usually didn’t let us eat fried things.
We’d have a few sufganiyot and then play with the dreidel for M&Ms. My sister always had a knack for winning the most, which annoyed my brother. I have trouble remembering specifics from my childhood, but I can say that even these times were never free of anxiety. Getting together for “family time” always meant it was a prime time to nag and lecture, which my parents did effortlessly. No doubt it was times like these that my parents remember and judge our family as close based on them.
Occasionally I’d spend Christian holidays with my friends. I had one best friend who was Catholic, and Easter and Christmas were something at her house. I spent Easter with her once, and it all seemed so beautiful to me. I loved my friends’ Christmas trees. Of course I understood nothing about what it all meant, but it all seemed so much more cheerful than what I was used to.
Family Holidays as a Young Adult
When I was 16, my parents dragged me back to their country of origin where my entire family lives. Holidays became a big deal then and much more burdensome. At least when we were isolated in the United States, I had contact with people who didn’t suffer from the mental health problems that are rampant in my family. I could relax with the other kids. That changed when I started spending holidays with my extended family.
Actually, it was my mother’s extended family that I’m talking about. We lived in the town where my mother grew up and where her family lived. My father’s family wasn’t far away, but it was small and not as close as my mother’s family, so he had no issues spending the holidays elsewhere.
My grandmother was the queen of the family holidays, and that meant a lot of anxiety. My grandmother was a narcissist and a high-strung person. For Passover, for instance, she would clean the house from top to bottom, including washing down the walls. That was to relieve her anxiety. She hated the muss and fuss of family holidays, but at the same time, she felt an obligation to make a big deal out of them.
Her anxiety placed pressure on my mother, who of course would help with the cooking and preparations. However, since everything had to be as my grandmother wanted it (as is typical of narcissists), it was always an unpleasant experience for my mother. Like my grandmother, she felt the burden was entirely hers because she was the woman of the house, so I can’t complain that my mother tried to drag me into these anxious preparations. But we still felt her anxiety for weeks prior to the holiday.
For a number of years, we all spent the holidays with my great-uncle’s family. They lived across the street from my grandparents. He was my grandfather’s older brother and my grandfather worshiped him. I did not like him from the very beginning. He was arrogant and self-righteous, and although I never experienced it first-hand, my intuition told me he was abusive (he was in fact, I later discovered, emotionally and physically abusive). He was a rabbi and much respected in the community, but I wonder if he was much liked. Although my memories of him with non-family members are fuzzy, I’m pretty sure his arrogance and self-righteousness spilled into his relationships with others.
My great-uncle definitely had ego issues and expected everyone to show him respect. My grandmother claimed he liked her a lot, but now I wonder. My grandfather was a passive, easy-going man who nearly always gave into my grandmother’s wishes. I think my great-uncle may have resented her for that and looked down on my grandfather for giving into her so often.
My grandfather was also disabled since childhood, and in those days and in that culture, a disabled man was less than a man, so my great-uncle may have felt embarrassed by my grandfather. My grandfather was very social and known to everyone in the community and well liked. My great-uncle might also have been a little jealous that people liked his younger brother more than they liked him.
In any case, we never felt comfortable in his home. He had three girls and one boy (well, really two boys, but one died when he was a soldier in the army), and they all had multiple children and some grandchildren, so they were a big family. I never connected with any of them. I basically sat in a group with my cousins, and we didn’t have much to do with his family.
However, after the meal, we were all expected to sit around listening to my great-uncle spew out words of biblical wisdom (he was, after all, the community rabbi). We had to be perfectly quiet. If you even whispered a word, he’d stop talking and give you a look that could kill. All I can say is that I feel really lucky that my grandfather was the kinder brother!
At some point, we stopped going to their house, whether because of my grandmother’s anxiety or because they preferred not to have so many guests, I don’t know. Holidays became a bit more bearable then. I got along well with my cousins, who I must say accepted my brother, sister, and me without much fuss, even though we’d been strangers to them for so long. Apart from one cousin, my cousins’ psychological issues didn’t disturb me, so I could relax with them.
My mother, however, still had to deal with my grandmother’s anxiety, and there was still something unbearable about these holidays that made me reluctant each year to go. It was the practice on my mother’s side of the family to relentlessly tease each other about every little thing, and one of my uncles (a narcissist, like his mother) was particularly persistent with that, so that got to me. And the cousin who had the mental health problems (a narcissist, like her father) could also make things difficult by constantly making everything about her and trying to bully everyone into doing what she wanted. So family holidays were still emotionally draining.
Family Holidays in America Before Going No Contact
When I was 27, I left all of that behind by moving back to the U.S. I lived with my sister and brother until my brother left for a couple of years to try living in our country of origin. He came back, and his girlfriend followed him soon afterwards. I shared an apartment with my sister, and they lived nearby. Family holidays then became mostly a matter of us all getting together.
None of us, however, were particularly excited about the Jewish holidays and didn’t celebrate them except when my parents were visiting. They generally came during the High Holidays in the fall because my father, who was working then, would combine his vacation time with the days he got off for the holidays for an extended trip of 3 to 4 weeks.
Those holidays were more tortuous than the ones I spent with my extended family in my country of origin because there were no cousins to draw me away from their nagging and needling. My parents’ mental health problems really came out during these holiday times: my father’s bullying and judgmental nature, my mother’s enmeshment and dependency.
They were never around, however, for Thanksgiving, which my sister and I spent with our brother and his girlfriend. Those were low-key, pleasant meals, in spite of my brother’s girlfriend’s issues with food. That, however, was her own affair and never bothered me. Let her eat her salad and dry potato while I pigged out on soy “turkey,” stuffing, mashed potatoes with butter, and buttered rolls.
I remember for one Thanksgiving my brother invited one of his friends and this guy’s fiance, both really nice people. We were all in our 30s, and I thought, This is how a holiday is when no one’s trying to manipulate you. Because that, ultimately, is what makes the holidays in abusive families so unbearable–manipulation, control, favoritism, and just plain reducing you to a worthless “thing” in the presence of an audience.
I guess I’ve been fortunate that I’ve spent most of my family holidays in the company of people who aren’t abusive (the children of my parents’ friends, my cousins, my brother and sister). But that destructive energy was still in the air, and that’s had an effect on me. Holiday get-togethers still make me cringe because it’s such a vulnerable time for everyone, which is just too tempting for abusers to resist. Even when I know I’m never going to have to endure a holiday with my abusers again, that pain is still stuck in my mind.