My holiday season always begins the same way — I sit impatiently in an almost-empty BART train car hurtling itself away from the chaotic streets of Downtown Berkeley to the sleepy suburbs of the South Bay. Phone in hand, I scroll absentmindedly through my Instagram feed, sifting through perfectly filtered images of happy family reunions and acquaintances posing in tropical vacation destinations like a catalog of Hallmark Christmas movie posters.
Year after year, however, the reality of my holiday season has never lived up to the “perfect” images I’ve seen on Instagram. Living in a single-parent, low-income household far removed from the country my mother left behind long ago means the holidays look different for me. Without family accessible by travel in the United States or the financial backing for us to spend time in India, my mother, my sister and I have spent every holiday season packed into our 1100-square-foot apartment.
For the longest time, the holidays felt like a bleak affair. Instead of expensive vacations or elaborate gifts, we had a sparse plastic fir tree adorned with haphazard decorations and a wobbly star topper. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of resentment as I spent days in our apartment with its peeling paint and poor insulation. My inability to construct that perfect Christmas morning or New Year’s Eve shot for Instagram felt like a personal failure.
I used to think the holidays would be a more festive affair if only I had been able to save more money for better presents or spend more time decorating around the apartment. Maybe then I would have been able to construct the illusion of a happy, “perfect” holiday season. Perhaps I would finally feel a sense of satisfaction with being home for the holidays. It was as if the false image I had inadvertently constructed about my life as an average Bay Area resident at UC Berkeley suddenly came crashing down when I returned home for the winter — I could no longer suppress the reality of my family and home life.
My sister, however, seemed to have an endless source of enthusiasm for our seemingly mundane holiday rituals, reminding me time and again that the winter break meant so much more than a few overhyped days. It took time to reframe my thinking and feelings toward the holidays over the years, yet I couldn’t help but be swayed by what I witnessed. She is an optimist who could make a simple boba run seem as exciting as a lavish New Year’s Eve party. In fact, my sister managed to weed out even my own stubborn pessimism in exchange for the holiday spirit.
As the years have passed, I’ve practiced putting my phone down for good during the holiday season. Constantly looking at images of picture-perfect family portraits and extravagant trips to Europe on Instagram made me feel severely unsatisfied with the reality of my own winter break. This unattainable idea of holiday spirit prevented me from cherishing what I do have to celebrate during the holidays — a supportive and tightknit family. While I couldn’t change the circumstances surrounding my lackluster holiday season, I could indeed change my attitude toward the smaller happinesses I had been granted.
I’ve grown to celebrate the seemingly insignificant moments of the holidays in lieu of the extravagant, family-filled festivities I craved when I was younger. I now busy myself with visiting old friends, practicing self-care, and spending quality time with my family, however short it may be. The holiday season is in fact one of the few times that my mother, my sister and I are reunited under the same roof — an increasingly rare occurrence after my sister began her career and I established my life in Berkeley.
This year, our Christmas dinner was an eclectic mix of Indian and American dishes served with mismatched dishes and silverware with a Bollywood film playing in the background. Our family visits were video calls to our relatives in India as we cracked jokes and dished drama while my nieces and nephews waved enthusiastically at the camera. My sister and I spent hours going through old, cherished photo albums and sharing boba while our mother worked.
Over the years, the feelings of inadequacy I once associated with the holidays have slowly but surely transformed into an appreciation for the seemingly imperfect form my holiday season has taken on. This year, my family may not have spent our holiday season in a traditionally “perfect” way, but even now, our most mundane moments feel perfect to me. Regardless of what our celebrations may be missing, I have been lucky enough to spend the holidays surrounded by the warmth of my loved ones. For a change, I’m actually looking forward to a quiet New Year’s Eve this time around.
My holiday memories may not be special enough to warrant a coveted winter-break Instagram post, but they’re certainly moments worth printing and carefully placing in the photo albums I treasure so much. Now, I can’t help but smile as my sister and I sit piled under blankets, watching “The Office” as per our holiday tradition. In our simple tradition, I realize we certainly don’t need to rely on the extraordinary to find happiness in our holiday. As Pam says, “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things.”