This year on Christmas morning, we four adult children will emerge from our various haphazard sleeping situations, my sister and I from the double bed we traditionally share, and my brothers from their makeshift beds in the unfinished basement, or perhaps one of them will have fallen asleep on the couch the night before. Likely a bit hung over and rubbing the grogginess from our eyes, we will gather in the living room without much rush or fanfare, and probably not before 10 a.m., where our parents will bring us coffee and bagels. The tree will be decorated mostly with homemade ornaments we made in elementary school—baked clay bells with chipping sparkly paint, snowflakes with our round little faces in the center—and we’ll muse, as we do every year, about how cute we used to be.
We are too big for my parents’ house. Well, calling it a house is a bit generous. It’s a condo, and we call it just that—“the condo”—to create emotional remove from the place which never felt like it deserved the title “home.” The two-bedroom is the last in the row of a dozen or so identical tan units with brick red shutters that makes up the subdivision called Heritage Woods. It’s far too small to fit six adult-sized people in it, and I can’t help but feel old sitting around this room with my siblings on Christmas morning. We’re in our 20s now, old enough to worry about health insurance and 401K contributions, old enough that two-day hangovers make reckless drinking less enticing. By the time my mom was my age, she was married and had two kids. But with no children of our own yet, my unmarried siblings and I instead try to squeeze into our old roles as kids, my mother asking us what we would like for gifts and packing the cupboards with our favorite treats. We cling to the traditions we created decades ago as guideposts to aid us through this murky family dynamic.
“The holidays are an anxious time for everyone,” sociologist Eric Klinenberg told me. “Kids are nervous that they’re being judged, and parents are worried that their kids aren’t growing up. Everyone’s a bit on edge.”
Klinenberg recently wrote a book called Going Solo about how, for many well-off millennials, the milestone of living alone has taken the place of getting married or having kids. The reordering of adulthood milestones means that many of us are single for much longer than our parents were, and without our own nuclear families to tend to, we find ourselves in a period of what Klinenberg calls “extended adolescence.”
“We use this concept to refer to a stage of life where people are in their 20s and 30s, a time where in their previous generations full-fledged adulthood set in,” Klinenberg explained. “But now people live like they did in college. They live with roommates, or if they have a place of their own because they’re doing well financially, they tend to be hyper social, going out a lot, drinking, dating, dining out, whatever.”
I may be old and alone, but I’m not alone in being old and alone. A U.S Census Bureau study conducted by demographer Jonathan Vespa earlier this year reported that in the 1970s, eight in 10 people were married by the time they turned 30. But today, it’s not until the age of 45 that eight in 10 people have gotten married.
Making things more complicated is that our parents might not be able to understand this new segment of adulthood.
“If you’re a parent of someone in their 20s, you probably don’t know how much things have changed,” says Klinenberg, who posits that it might lead to parents’ spiraling worries. “‘What’s wrong with my children? What did I do wrong? How come none of my children are married yet? Are they unlikeable people?’”
I’m not sure if my parents have lost sleep over whether I’m unlikeable, but I do know the awkwardness is magnified during the holidays, which for many of us is the only time of year we spend with our families. I wanted to know if I was the only one who goes home each year only to end up feeling old and strange, yet still subordinate.
“There’s a lot of guilt that’s tied to tradition,” one college friend told me. “I find the inability of my parents to change even the smallest tradition mildly oppressive. We always play the same classical Christmas music. We always make the same Christmas meal. But you’re beholden to people who are older than you until you start your own nuclear family.”
Another echoed those sentiments: “My mom explicitly told my sisters and me that there’s no excuse for us not to be home for the holidays until we are married and with children, including New Year’s Eve!”
Traditions are familiar and comforting, marking the passage of time and offering us acceptable ways to process our emotions. But it’s possible to outgrow traditions, especially when so many rituals related to the holidays are geared towards young children. “If everyone there is in their 20s,” Klinenberg pointed out, “waking up at 6 a.m. to see what’s under the Christmas tree doesn’t feel quite right.”
One friend told me that her sister “made a moderately-sized fuss about me staying at my fiancé’s parents’ house instead of my mom’s on Christmas eve.” The reason for the protest? If she wasn’t at home, she couldn’t partake in their family tradition in which all the kids gather on her brother’s bed, and her mom reads them “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
My friend who was expressly forbidden from not celebrating the holidays at home until marriage spoke of her own outgrown traditions they still dutifully enact: “Last year we did our usual tradition of pretending Santa is coming at midnight,” she said, “and having the kids hide until he leaves gifts—my mom plays Santa for this. But truly there was one hiding child, being supervised by all us 20-somethings.”
For my older brother, it’s the traditional holiday music that gets to him. “Hearing the stuff gets me all antsy,” he told me. “This chart got me fucked up.”
The chart, an XKCD comic drawn by Randall Munroe, points out that the most popular Christmas songs on the radio today are primarily from the ‘40s and ‘50s. Our culture aids our parents in their own Boomer-Christmas nostalgia, while subjecting us to sentimentality for a thing we never experienced.
The failure to connect goes both ways. My colleague, a senior product manager for a digital media company, explained that he can’t discuss his job with his dad. It’s not easy to explain what it’s like to build video products to someone from the generation that still uses Hotmail.
Another friend, a woman who lives abroad in Chile, thinks her perpetual singleness leads her family to draw their own conclusions about her sexuality: “Pretty sure everyone in my family thinks I’m a closeted lesbian since I’m the only one in the family that’s consistently single. The upside of that is no one asks me about my dating life.”
One friend, an only child, thinks her parents wish she had a significant other so that she wouldn’t be a third wheel on their relationship. “The assumption is of course that by now I’d be swapping holidays with my partner’s family, or at least bringing someone home and making the adult coupling even.”
But how do we explain to our parents that we’re not failing to find love, we’re just subject to cultural forces beyond our control? “The lack of grandchildren is not due to failure, “Klinenberg says, “it’s due to a widespread social transformation.” If only Klinenberg could call all of our moms and assure them.
Vespa’s Census Bureau study offers an explanation for why we’re getting married and having kids later and later.
“The focus is on economic milestones: getting an education, getting a good job, a level of financial stability,” he explained about the current generation of “young people” ages 25–34. “Most Americans believe that being financially secure should come first, and then marriage and family come later down the road.”
Interestingly, Vespa explained that the new financial-stability-focused value system cuts across age groups, which means it affects our parents too. Which brings me back to the condo: my parents downsized to it a few years ago, once they were empty-nesters and looking to save money while figuring out their next step. Only, that next step didn’t materialize. I think they were hoping that one of their four might settle down so they could then decide based on that where they wanted to move. But instead, the years roll on in vague stasis.
But is having our own offspring the only chance to recapture a well-adjusted holiday season? Hopefully not, yet it does seem like they help rekindle the more traditional joys. A college friend with two older sisters who each had their first kids this year says he’s looking forward to going home because the children will be the focus—especially for his parents.
“As new grandparents,” he said, “they’ve definitely reignited some of the old traditions we used to do, like going to my hometown’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony. There’s something to be said about how fun it is having people around who are potential Santa-believers and general holiday-spirit enthusiasts.”
I don’t ask for things for Christmas anymore. My apartment is small and doesn’t have any closets, so I am forced to look at everything I own at all times. And besides that, I feel guilty enough as it is that I spend most of my salary and my time on myself. When my mother was my age she was broke and saddled with infants, and I belong to a fancy gym with eucalyptus-scented towels.
In an era where most days contain a week’s worth of bad news and there is no end in sight, there are dozens of reasons I can come up with to not engage in the ritual that is exchanging gifts on Christmas morning, especially now that we’re all adults. But I know that providing material comforts for their children is something that my parents like to do, so it seems selfish to deny them that. I also know that these gifts are a way for my family members to show that, despite years and distance, we still understand each other. Or at least we’re trying. And our imperfect, clumsy attempts to recognize each other feels like reason enough for the holiday.
Catherine LeClair is a writer from Maine who lives in Brooklyn, like everybody else. Follow her on Twitter for some reason @catherineeclair.