Last year, my wife and I hosted my entire family for a week over the Christmas break. All told, we had eight people in the house: me and Sara, my three brothers, my younger brother’s girlfriend, both my parents. If you add two full-sized dogs, which makes sense in light of the hassle they can cause in a crowded house, the number of warm bodies rises to ten. That is a lot biology crammed into the four corners of the building, and it led to a high volume of eating, drinking, snoring, farting, laughing, singing, crying, washing dishes, cooking, coordinating, joking, re-arranging, and otherwise making do.
If memory serves, it was also the biggest family Christmas I’ve had since the 1990s. The year before had been close, when we were almost all together at my parents’ house, but my brother’s girlfriend had been in Michigan that year, and so we were seven people instead of eight.
When I was naught but a little whippersnapper, my maternal grandmother often hosted the entire extended family come Christmastime. Doing some quick math, and probably forgetting a cousin or two, I remember Christmases with 20 people. I realize that’s modest by some family standards, but it’s not like there’s some contest out there for who can have the biggest family gathering. At the very least, it establishes a kind of historical holiday high-water mark for me.
After Mom’s mom passed, the average size of my Christmas gatherings dropped to the six members of my immediate family. At that point, I like to think of us as being “between” generations, with the youngest generation (mine) still caught between child- and adulthood. All the little family units of aunts and uncles and cousins, formerly united under one roof for the duration of their holidays, spun off into their own orbits. And so we celebrated just the six of us together for a few years, at least until geography interceded.
For a while after that, my brother and I were living too far away from the rest of the family to conveniently reunite for the holidays. Thereafter followed a series of Skype Christmases such as would not have been possible just a decade before. Those were pretty good, all things considered, but I always had the idea that my parents would have liked their kids together under one roof, a line of reasoning that led to the First Christmas All Together Since Forever (2015) and the Biggest Christmas Gathering in Recent Memory (2016).
Part of the reason behind our decision to play host last year was that my wife and I bought our house over the previous summer, which provided an excuse to drag my parents out (and my brother and his girlfriend down) to San Diego. They couldn’t resist seeing the new home, and the holiday helped because people get time off from work or school, and thus traveling becomes in some ways easier. And so last Christmas marked a personal milestone for me, but I think it also indicates a kind of sea change, because I can see my family growing again.
Thinking of it as a sea change seems particularly apropos, because the way a family shrinks and grows through generations follows the pattern of the tides. I don’t believe my family is the only one to have been stretched thin and diminished in number during those neap tides between generations, but now our tide is rising as the younger generation weds and feels the pull of family togetherness that seemed somewhat less important ten years ago. There is a comforting rhythm and certainty in that.
The other image that springs to mind is of a dandelion. I admit, dandelions, which will always be flowers in my book, are not the most Christmaslike plants. They are creatures of the hot summer, of long days and bright sun. Yet, in their season, the dandelions grow full, each one hiding a little family of seeds at its core. Each seed will, if it has some luck, take root elsewhere and grow anew. Families are like that, too. They can only grow so big before the wind blows the individuals off in all directions. If anything, we are all more successful than the dandelion because, while the plant relies on chance and numbers for its continued existence, we get more say in our lives. The families we grow are all tailor-made to fit our little corner of the world, and nothing serves a sharper reminder of that to me than bringing my whole family together.
I imagine that future Christmases will grow in size, shape, and composition. To what extent? I can only speculate, and I don’t particularly care to guess. I wouldn’t want to impose a limit on something that reflects the grand movement of the tides or the inevitability of the seasons. Besides, the fun part is being there while it all happens, one Christmas at a time.