It’s that time of year again. Santa Claus arrived on 34th Street in New York City amid the usual fanfare of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—evidence to all that the holiday season is upon us. Something that might not be quite as obvious as Santa’s presence is the whirlwind of commercial and culinary celebration that has, for better or worse, come to define the holidays as much as a jolly man in a red suit or even a baby in a manger. One thing is certain: no matter what we celebrate this time of year or exactly how we celebrate it, the holidays invariably turn our thoughts and our travels toward home.
Family gatherings underpin the majority of our holiday traditions. That’s what makes this time of year such a struggle for those who are unable to be with their families. To be without or away from family during the holidays would undeniably be a painful experience, but to be fair, those of us who spend the season surrounded by our families can usually expect some pain of our own as we return to the craziness from which we came. If we’re lucky, the pain we encounter is caused by the sheer number of annoying habits present in the average, though well-meaning, family or in the number of corny jokes retold for the four score and seventh time. When we know as well and love as deep and expect as much as we do within our families, far deeper levels of pain and disappointment are inevitable. Our families, even at their greatest, rarely live up to everything we wish they were.
Perhaps no family currently on television demonstrates this idea better than the families that make up ABC’s Modern Family. The Pritchett-Dunphy clan showcases an impressive array of relational discomforts, disappointments, and imperfections. Examining their family tree from the roots up has revealed Jay (Ed O’Neill) simultaneously struggling to accept the full ramifications of his gay son Mitchell’s (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) long-term relationship with Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and to establish a meaningful connection with his younger stepson, Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Mitchell has his own disappointments to overcome, wishing his father was proud of him and missing the closeness of the past with his sister, Claire (Julie Bowen). For her part, Claire is, as yet, uncomfortable with her father’s remarriage to Gloria (Sofia Vergara). And these are only the big issues, saying nothing of the hundred smaller irritations brought on by the clash of cultures and personalities.
To say the least, Modern Family is not exactly the family any of its member characters always wanted. Each of them would change at least one thing about the family if only they could, but blood is blood. In their latest episode, the Pritchetts and Dunphys unite to celebrate Claire’s son Luke’s (Nolan Gould) birthday—a birthday the family barely acknowledges most years in the crush of the holidays. In an effort to make up for Luke’s lifetime of anticlimactic birthdays, each member of the family goes overboard in his or her own way, whether in a clown suit or on the rock wall or at the craft table. Ultimately, the gathering is memorable because the family is together at the party and at the hospital afterward. Only family …
In his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, John Ortberg writes, “When you deal with human beings, you have come to the ‘as-is’ corner of the universe.” We all have a flaw or two or 200. The effect of this truth is exponential in families. I’m learning that in life we rarely have the family we wish we had. Consequently, most of us will not spend the holidays with our ideal vision of the family. We will spend the holidays with our families—our crazy, chaotic, imperfect, one-of-a-kind families. The real challenge of the holidays is learning to accept our families as they are and to celebrate the gift they are, even if it isn’t exactly the gift we’ve always wanted.