Holiday traditions are an important anchor in our lives, connecting families and friends through time-honored customs, foods, music, decorations and gatherings of familiar faces.
A Christmas tradition in the Strub family was to share Christmas dinner with people who might otherwise be alone on the holiday. For as long as I can remember, our family Christmas dinner has included these “holiday orphans.” And sometimes, when I couldn’t be with my family on Christmas and was such a holiday orphan myself, I was fortunate enough to be invited to join another family or a group of friends.
Many families share this type of hospitality toward holiday orphans, but for my mother it had special resonance because she was literally an orphan. Her father died in 1932, right before she was born, and her mother died when she was two years old. She grew up during the Depression without any singular mother or father figure in her life, no one to call "Mom" or "Dad". She and her orphaned siblings were separated and raised in institutions, convents and sometimes by various relatives.
Holidays were the one time of the year when my mother felt truly welcomed into a family-like environment, sitting at the same table with others, sharing a celebration. It was that sense of welcoming that meant so much to her and that she made sure to impart to guests at our family table. Whenever I organize a holiday meal, I try to emulate her example with my guests.
But the reality for many people, especially LGBT people and other non-conformists, is different. They are often not fully welcome at their family gatherings -- or their participation is conditional. They must avoid certain subjects. They know not to bring a partner -- or even talk about them. Ultimately, their place at the table is secure only as long as they perform the role expected of them, even if that isn’t who they are or what their life is about.
Sometimes the holiday orphan at the dinner table is actually someone you’ve known all your life: a sibling, neighbor or cousin. But underneath the familiarity is someone isolated, feeling out of place, alone or unwelcomed.
This year, as we prepare for our holiday dinners, I hope we’ll each take the extra moment to reach out, understand and welcome everyone, especially those whose lifestyle, sexual orientation, values, political views or other characteristic differs from our own -- and especially if we have a difficult time understanding that difference.