There’s something a little fraught about December. It hides in the background as the months drag on and the holiday seems like it will never come, and then pounces with the ferocity of a groupie onto an underwear model. You know you should expect it, but somehow you’re never prepared. Suddenly there are year-end functions and boozy after-work drinks with friends you haven’t seen since before winter set in.
There is the last minute, weekend-consuming Christmas shopping that empties your bank account of all your money, strips your will to live from your burnt-out body, and smothers any goodwill you have left for your friends in resentment and exasperation at not finding what you want. There are MCQP costumes to think of and travel plans to be made. There is too much food, too little time to finish anything and the very real, very horrifying prospect of Clifton 3rd with a stomach soft enough to be mistaken for marshmallow.
And then, of course, there is the family. December always involves family. I used to assume it was something we grew out of – that we stopped “going home” for Christmas once we reached a certain age or life stage. But with my mid-thirties brother still phoning to check what date I’m getting down without even considering the possibility that I might not be – or that he might not be – the tradition doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon. And actually it’s pretty cool.
For all the ranting I do against South African conservatism, I have to admit that our love of family is worth preserving. It’s one of the traditional values I’ll sign up for. I love driving to see my mom in the rural Eastern Cape and passing families picnicking at the petrol stations along the way, or seeing big fat mammas running to get into cars bursting with people that have pulled over to give them a lift. We criss-cross this beautiful country of ours in December, and often it’s to see our families.
Mine is the typical 21st Century mash-up of divorced parents and siblings scattered around the world. There is the standard-issue evil stepmother, a troupe of loud, younger half-brothers that demand activities when all I want to do is nurse a hangover, and the awkwardness of which parent gets the Big Day. One of my brothers is married now, and has a baby who is so ludicrously beautiful and adorable that she has successfully distracted me from the outrage I should feel at no longer being the baby in the family, with all the attention and adoration that that brings. Her arrival has tipped the generational balance, making my mom a grandmother and my brothers and I no longer the kids.
Christmas is the quintessential gay holiday. The bright, glittery things do something to us that our straight compatriots – and families – just don’t understand.
It’s a major shift in the passing years – I can almost see the montage of happy photographs set to melancholy music in the biography of my life – and yet it always feels so reassuringly the same at home. And that, I guess, is what makes family so special. We change so much, we go about our lives and take divergent directions and end up in different careers in different places and seldom actually find the time to catch up. But once a year, for a week or two, everything kicks off where we left it.
Sometimes all the family closeness can be frustrating. I know a lot of us bicker with our parents because it feels like they treat us like kids when we go home. And I don’t help that by relapsing into bouts of sulky, childish passive-aggression at my dad every year because he never listens and never enquires about personal things. The whole thing just amuses my brothers who seem quite happy to discuss work and politics and then go to the beach, making me feel a bit like the hysterical overly-sensitive gay.
But let’s face it; Christmas is the quintessential gay holiday. The bright, glittery things do something to us that our straight compatriots – and families – just don’t understand. Every year a silent war breaks out between me and my mother as to whether things should be understated and elegant (mother) or a bonanza of colour and tinsel on every available surface (me). It took some work even getting the family to agree to a tree – and since then I can safely be relied on to crack the whip and get everyone to decorate.
And Christmas is the perfect excuse for cooking delicious, elaborate and unnecessarily complicated food too. We get to try out the latest Nigella or Jamie fad, brainstorm new twists on traditional sauces or how to spice up the hors d’oeuvres. And most importantly, we can drink champagne at breakfast every day like we’re gazillionairres who’ve just stepped off a yacht, and continue this throughout the day with Pimms. (Tip: if your family is driving you crazy, lubricate the whole experience with booze. It makes everyone much more interesting and the pointed comments much less important.)
The holidays are full of anxiety and stress and tension. But they are also full of sunshine and laughter and love. I am lucky not to have to contend with a religious family or any weirdness about my partners, but I know many gay guys do. Sterkte to all of you! And try to remember that families all have their shit, but no matter how dysfunctional they are, they do the best they can. I hope in all the excesses of the December holiday you feel the excess of love that they feel for you. If not, there’s no better motivator for getting fit than wanting to flee the house and run the frustration off, so some good will come of it.