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The holiday role I play


Perhaps no other time of year is as highly anticipated, and secretly dreaded, as that festive family time known collectively as "the holidays." For that clash of fake gaiety with Xmas's unrealistic expectations can become a train wreck, releasing both poles of our Jekyll-Hyde personalities.

We cope the best we can. Sometimes we slip behind familiar masks. We play comforting, nonconfrontational roles, or perhaps hide out in the kitchen behind a tower of dirty dishes. For example, I noticed how in recent years I had become "the entertainer." My job: make 'em laugh.

To see if this holiday ailment afflicted more than just myself, recently I polled my friends and select family members. I had them write descriptions of their annual performances, each titled "The Holiday Role I Play." Reported anonymously, here are their edited responses:

I am considered the queen of Christmas.

When I go home for the holidays I am the "good sport." No matter what game I am asked to play, song I am asked to sing, I never complain. There is time to get even later.

I am "the pretender" and enter into all they're doing and willingly going along. At some level, I know they know this.

Characterize me as "The Bartender." Everyone's glass is full -- which permits me to fill my own glass in the doing.

At mom's house I am the "organizer." Everything must run on schedule, all the dishes at the proper temperature, the gifts opened in descending order of seniority. My husband is the "cleanup guy." When all the gals are sipping their Bailey's he is quietly at the sink washing and drying.

I think I am the "son that needs to be spoiled." Whenever I come home for the holidays, my mom wants to spoil her "lost son" as much as possible.

I play three roles. With the immediate family, I am "the reminder of the love before." Mom sees my father in my face and usually loses her mind. The second role I play is "the project" -- everyone is eager to see me 50 and relatively finished. Finally, I am "the outsider." My family is a bunch of heartening, Midwestern hicks, barely anyone finishing college, lots of alcoholics, teenage drug addicts and runaways who try to commit suicide. To have become the quiet one who got out of Fort Wayne, Ind., without babies or a husband, is always unsettling.

I can tell you right off my role would be "moderator." Such choice therapeutic phrases such as "what I hear you saying is ..." and "what I think she is trying to express is ..." are commonly uttered by me. I try to avoid using language like "shame spiral" and "co-dependent." (Note: Variations on this was the most common response -- "the referee," "the sounding board," "the therapist," "the link repairer," "the peacemaker.")

I play the "honored guest," graciously bestowing my presence and allowing myself to be treated as such.

I have no idea what my role is. I think maybe I'm the guy who makes screaming faces in the bathroom mirror and then comes out all smiley.

I am the one trying to shed a little factual light on my family's highly distorted, historically rewritten views. I used to be the family clown. I don't think the two are that different -- just components of the same role.

As a child I was the anointed Christmas infant, responsible for displays of wonder. As a young adult my role shifted to being the one responsible for the continuation of our handed-down traditions of perfection -- Mid-Winter Monarch and Kitchen Queen -- she who secures the boundaries, mediates the squabbles and is provider of plenty. Now, in exile and older, I have become the contented ghost of Christmas Past.

My son is unable to type so I will attempt to respond for him. His role is to experience and share pure unadulterated joy during the holidays. He jumps with excitement when putting out a plate of cookies, eight carrots, and a glass of milk for Santa. He brings meaning to the holidays. Ask him this question in another five years and I am sure you'll get an answer more like what you were expecting.

-- Ethan Gilsdorf is Paris-based poet, freelance writer and critic. Domestic Bliss will return in the new year.

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