I’ve always associated Christmas with feeling loved. When I was a child, my parents, my brother and I would get together with extended family in Connecticut or here in Toronto. We’d have a big dinner and the kids would open presents. I vividly remember getting my first cellphone at 11 or 12. My mother had wrapped my new Motorola C332 in a Burger King bag, just to keep me guessing until the last second. I can’t remember ever spending a Christmas away from my family. It feels weird knowing this will be the first.
My fiancée, Paula, and I have decided to spend Christmas together in our Toronto apartment, just the two of us. My mother and I are estranged because of her negative reaction to my engagement to Paula in April. She didn’t say congratulations and declined when I wanted to show her the photos. We haven’t spoken since I told her I was disappointed. My father has told me multiple times not to bring “that kind of thing” into his house. And my soon to-be mother-in-law may actually drop dead if Paula were to bring me home for the holidays. A mixture of Christianity, British colonialism and culture are to blame for our parents’ unrelenting homophobia.
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We also don’t want a repeat of last year when Paula and I each went back to our respective families in Oshawa, Ont. We weren’t yet engaged, but we were living together. It broke my heart to spend the holidays away from her; however, I knew it wasn’t the right time to tell her family about us. We had only been together for a year, and Paula wasn’t ready to fully come out. My family, on the other hand, knew we were cohabiting and that things were serious. I still wasn’t allowed to bring her over, and our relationship never came up in conversation.
So I borrowed my mom’s car on Dec. 24 to bring Paula her presents. I couldn’t go into her house, as her mother would have become suspicious. We spent all of 15 minutes together — Christmas Eve in a Chrysler. In that moment, I decided I never wanted to spend the holidays apart again.
After we exchanged gifts, I drove back to my parents’ house. I didn’t tell my mother where I had been and she didn’t ask any questions, but I had a feeling she knew. Part of me wanted her to ask. I desperately wanted to share with her how in love and happy I was. It was painful knowing she, at best, wouldn’t care or, at worst, would say something toxic and dismissive.
I hate having to choose between celebrating the holidays with Paula or with my family. But Paula accepts me fully. Being around her is fulfilling. Since the same cannot be said for most members of our biological families, we’ll just have to do things differently.
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Though I’m used to a large, noisy house for the holidays, I will gladly trade it for peaceful, meaningful interactions with my partner. I will decorate our apartment from top to bottom. I even found a brand-new seven-foot-tall Christmas tree on Facebook Marketplace, and I can’t wait to put it up.
We will build our own traditions that I hope we can share with our children in the future. Paula will make us Nigerian Christmas rice and puff puff, which is similar to Timbits but way better. I’ll bake Jamaican rum cake for dessert. We’ll add white rum to sorrel, a traditional Jamaican floral drink, and listen to our records. For the first time, I will get a kiss under the mistletoe while we wear matching pyjamas.
I have mixed feelings about these plans. I’m excited, but it pains me that we have to do this at all. Just as I have dreams for the new life we are creating together, a part of me hopes that our families will miss us at Christmas and come around. Maybe my mom will call and invite us both over for dinner. Maybe Paula’s mother will acknowledge my existence by wishing me happy holidays. These are the most minuscule gestures they could make, yet it feels like I’m asking them to move mountains. Ultimately, we just want to feel loved and accepted by our families.
Christmas 2022 is already shaping up to look very different than any Christmas I’ve ever experienced. But I know if I celebrate with Paula, I will feel the love I’m accustomed to every Christmas. The circumstances may be unfamiliar, but the love in my home will be the same.
Ashleigh-Rae Thomas is a writer and journalist in Toronto.
This essay first appeared in Broadview’s December 2022 issue with the title “Starting new traditions.”
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