The Most Difficult Time of the Year

In December, our popular culture is constantly delivering the message that everyone is expected to be happy, indeed joyful, at this time — there’s probably a radio station playing “The Most Wonderful Time” as I write this. All the office holiday parties and family gatherings, good food and friendly company, are supposed to put us into a warm, pleasant mood, whether religiously contemplative or contentedly consumerist as our predilections dictate. I went along with this for most of my life, but I’ve been finding myself less and less able to go with the flow in recent years.

To start with, there’s the food — way too much of it. I like food at least as much as the next guy, and as I know all too well it is extremely difficult to not eat when it’s spread out in bottomless quantities for “free” in front of you. As someone who has problems with food even at the best of times, this surfeit of food (usually unhealthy and if catered often poor-quality) leaves me uncomfortable if not ill at the end of every event, and I’m frequently walking away with a profound sense of shame as well for having eaten so much. Yet I don’t want to entirely avoid these holiday parties (four this month at work alone), since they are often the only chance I have at socializing with anyone other than the coworkers I see every day around the lunch table — not that I’m much good at that. Of course, come the family holiday party, I’ll be contributing some myself to that surfeit of food — although I often get the feeling that it’s not much appreciated, when I end up having to chivvy people into trying my dish(es) at all. (My relatives like to have the same things year in and year out.)

If it’s not the food, it’s the crowds. Undoubtedly, part of the reason I frequently end up standing next to the buffet table is that I’m such an introvert; I have no facility whatsoever at making small talk with people I don’t know (and that includes lots of coworkers and family) — and if I do end up on the edges of some conversation, I can rarely contribute, either because it’s about subjects I know nothing about (like most of popular culture) or because I can’t make out what’s being said in the din. It’s worse by far at the family gatherings: forty to fifty flaming extroverts, many of them slightly sozzled, most of whom I have no personal connection with apart from being related by blood or marriage, since I only see them once or twice a year — but of course I’m expected to know who they all are, just because they’re family. At these events, I’m the one sitting down in a chair, backed up into a corner and trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone. Who is that, I quietly ask someone. Which “baby” cousin of mine is that girl holding the newborn? Am I supposed to know these people?

And then of course there’s the birthday. Coming right before Christmas, it weighs especially heavy on me at the family gatherings, where I am by far the oldest person there with neither a Significant Other nor offspring — and there goes that sense of shame again, feeding back upon itself, as I watch all my happily married younger cousins having fun, talking about their children, showing off vacation photos from some exotic locale, while for me that remains (as it has always been) completely out of reach.

Luckily, it’s only another ten days. Then the holiday music will be gone from the radio and the stores, and nobody will expect me to show up and be “personable” at a family gathering for another twelve months — and the pressure will be off (at least until commencement in June, when we have another big office party, and I say goodbye forever to those few freshly-minted Ph.D.’s I’ve managed to get to know over the course of their eight-year stay with us).

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