For many people under the age of forty, the days of sitting at one Christmas table have gone the way of the Waltons. Ma, Pa, and their handful of children make up far too simple a family scene. But the loss of the classic Christmas table may indicate more than the passing of an iconic TV family. Let’s follow the Christmas dinner travels of one average thirty-two-year-old.
Your first stop seems like it should be the easiest. This dinner is with your biological mother, the woman who gave birth to you and raised you. But in her later years she remarried. Your stepfather became your stepfather after you had left home for college. You don’t really know him at all. He and your mother met each other after failed marriages—they both had adult children, but wanted to start over.
They had an embarrassingly romantic destination wedding in Maui, which all the adult children were subjected to. (“Isn’t it nice for us all to be together?” they would say whenever an awkward silence filled the humid air.) The next spring, they announced that they were having a child. No one knew what to say until your mother huffed, “Aren’t you going to congratulate us?”
This toddler throwing mashed potatoes on the floor is therefore your biological half-sibling—or should be. The details are fuzzy, since you know that they used some form of artificial fertility technology. Was there a sperm donor? An egg donor? No one has ever said, and it feels like an intrusion to ask the happy couple about the origins of their happy child.
As you sit and look at the pictures of them and their baby on the walls of their new house (“Might as well start over somewhere new!”), you notice that it’s not just you who do not feature in this family. None of your stepfather’s adult children do, either. Apparently “starting over somewhere new” doesn’t just mean selling the homes in which the older children were raised. It means erasing the past as much as possible. Even the Maui wedding photos include only the couple.
Everyone is polite, but no one really knows each other. You realize that, as strange as this dinner is for you, it may be even stranger for your stepfather’s daughter, who is married with a baby of her own—a baby not much younger than her half-aunt. You slip away before dessert, claiming that your father is expecting you. No one protests.
Your second Christmas dinner is awkward in a familiar way. You’ve been spending some portion of your holidays with your biological father and his family for as long as you can remember. His family consists of your stepmother and three half-siblings (half to you—whole to each other). Since your parents were “young and stupid” when they had you, they never even tried being married to each other. When you were in preschool, your father married your stepmother, and over the years they had three children. They seem to have a happy and stable marriage, with a home straight out of a Hallmark movie, always sparkling clean and seasonally decorated.
Your stepmother was always kind to you on the weeks and weekends you spent here, and you got along with their children, whom everyone else called your “brothers and sisters,” though you never could quite manage to say it. In your mind, and for most weeks of the year, you’ve been an only child.
The family photos on their walls likewise bespeak your absence. Occasionally you’re visible in shots from that trip to Disneyland when everyone was in elementary school, and your senior portrait adorns the stairway along with the other three, but most of the frames show a biological family smiling at the camera. You would complicate that picture.
You know enough of everyone’s lives that you’re not a total outsider, but not quite enough to have heard the latest, so your stepmother will often interrupt a conversation to catch you up. Kind, but awkward. As you butter a crescent roll, you realize that there’s a new family WhatsApp chat to which you have not been invited. It’s not surprising—after all, unlike custody, they can’t limit your group membership to every other weekend and the occasional holiday.
You stay for coffee and then head out earlier than everyone else (Who are you kidding? Everyone else is staying overnight), claiming exhaustion. Tomorrow you have your last Christmas dinner to attend.
This third dinner is the one you most look forward to. Well, at least it will be less exhausting than the previous two: This dinner is at your grandparents’ house. They aren’t your biological grandparents, but you grew up with them as though they were. Their son was your first stepfather, the man your mother married when you were young, the man who primarily raised you. He’ll be here, too, along with his new girlfriend, who seems nice enough. This time there are no-half siblings—technically no step-relations of any kind, thanks to the divorce. You aren’t related to anyone at this table, and yet this (minus the girlfriend) is the family you have known since early childhood. Your mother and former stepfather no longer speak, and he kind of drifted out of your life, so you haven’t seen him since last Christmas.
You have, however, kept up with your “grandparents.” In fact, they seem to be the one element of your family who are genuinely and consistently interested in your life and well-being. Your face appears regularly on their walls, which haven’t been repainted since the 1980s, alongside childhood photos of their son and black-and-whites of their wedding and of bygone generations.
Although you aren’t related to them, you do carry their last name, since your mother took it for you both when she married your former stepfather. When they divorced in your late teens, she remarried soon enough and took on a new name, but you didn’t have that luxury. Your last name was the only name you remember having. It’s the name you’ve always been known by, and you couldn’t think of anything to change it to, so you kept it, despite your mother’s slightly angry offer of her maiden name if you wanted it. (“Why would you want to keep his name?”) Your “grandparents” had only one son, and that son seems unlikely to have any biological children (having had none with your mother, and disinclined to “start over” as she has done), so you’re the only one of your generation carrying on the family name—even though the family isn’t quite yours.
Your ex-stepfather and his new girlfriend make small talk about the latest Netflix shows and her interest in organic foods. (You notice she barely touches the canned cranberry sauce that has been sliced into discs, and you wonder whether she’ll convince your ex-stepfather to give up Diet Coke.) Fortunately, they leave early, allowing you to enjoy the pecan pie (made with half a bottle of corn syrup) that your grandmother baked specially for you. You enjoy settling into the plaid sofa and chatting as you watch football with your grandfather. They ask you about work, about the latest novel you read, and about the last date you went on. (It was a disaster.) This is the first time you’ve felt relaxed this Christmas, now that your “duties to family” are over. As you leave, they extend their usual invitation for you to join them for church the next day, and as usual, you demur. Religion just isn’t your thing, but you’re always comforted when they tell you that they’re praying for you. It’s nice to have someone take an interest in your life.
If you were exhausted or confused just reading about this Christmas, you’ve had a taste of how an entire generation-plus feels. This holiday tale is the story of Gen X and many older millennials. Is it any wonder that the next generation, Gen Z, appears to have some serious confusion over identity?
The building blocks of identity—how we figure out who we are as children, through our teen years, and into young adulthood—come primarily from the family. Is your mother your mother? Is your father your father? Who are your siblings? Do the ancestors on your grandparents’ walls belong to your history? Identity is handed to us, and we do with it what we will.
But what if nothing is handed to us? Not only no family Christmas traditions, but no sense of a family name or a family culture (“Why, the Smiths have always raised money for local libraries!”); no history of place or occupation (“My mother’s brother was the butcher in this town because their grandfather was the first to open a butcher shop on Main Street”); no biological markers of kinship (“My sister has the same mole on her left elbow”). For many in the younger generations, these building blocks have been lost, stolen, discarded, or broken.
The summer before Obergefell v. Hodges redefined marriage in American law, I was teaching philosophy to high school seniors. We discussed the Aristotelian definition of a thing: What makes a thing what it is? How much can you take away or change before the thing ceases to be what it is? Can marriage really be defined as a lifelong contract between a man and a woman, ordered toward having children?
My students reasoned: Marriage cannot be limited to man and woman, because marriage is not for life. Most of their parents were divorced. If one essential element of the classic definition could drop away, why not another? Surely with the removal of permanence, marriage was already a make-your-own affair. The existence of divorce had paved the way to same-sex marriage.
In an earlier meeting of the same class, I had walked into the classroom holding an apple and declared, “This is an orange.” Several students were commonsensical enough to reply, “No, that’s an apple.” But when I pursued my objective claim with personal belief—“I think it’s an orange. It’s an orange for me”—they were quick to retreat. “It’s an orange for you.”
We have an entire generation that is afraid to tell a teacher that the apple in her hand is not an orange. Why?
If I am told, from my earliest years, by the adults in my life, that certain things are what they are, who am I to question? The man at the table is not my father, but my mother says he is. As I sit at ever more Christmas tables, year after year, and begin to wonder at it all, what can I conclude but that what is true for them is not true for me? Orange for my father, apple for me. The people whose name I carry, who remember my favorite dessert, who display my picture on their walls, are my grandparents, though they are not related to me biologically or legally. Orange for me, apple on paper. The tiny toddler my mother proclaims is her child—whose is she? Apple? Orange?
And why should the toddler not grow up and think: I don’t really matter to you. Girl? Boy? What I am matters only to me. The rising numbers of young people experiencing confusion about their sex is yet one more result of a cultural disregard for the facts of life: how babies are made and to whom they belong.
We’ve had it coming. Identity is a complex and personal thing, but it is forged in community, especially in the family. There is no straight line from a grandparent’s divorce and remarriage to a grandchild’s confusion over identity. But we do have a culture that fails to acknowledge the legitimate anger and confusion children have over their very uncertain and unstable sense of belonging.
John Paul II insisted that “the future of humanity passes by way of the family.” We would do well to heed his warning.
Kerri Christopher is the co-founder and director of the Humanum Institute.