There’s no Holiday Tradition Quite Like Fighting with Your Family

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

When it comes to holidays, some families have time-honored recipes passed down from some great aunt or grandparent, dishes the table feels incomplete without. In lieu of a similar tradition, my family has apocalyptic fights.

It’s not that we don’t have those go-to dishes, because we do. It’s just that if you so much as suggest changing the stuffing recipe my mom has made every year since before I was born, she will grow sour and refuse to talk to you until the thing is on the table and you admit that yes, the old way was the best way all along. One year, someone asked my dad if we could eat an old-fashioned turkey instead of turkey tamales; I can’t remember what the eventual fight was about — it wasn’t turkey or tamales — but it all seemed connected anyway.

It’s not great that we’re all so tense during the holidays that a burnt crust on the candied yams can send us into defcon one, but the more I’ve accepted my family’s default mode, the better equipped I’ve been at navigating it and de-escalating when necessary. I’ve had to do a lot of mediation in my time; my parents divorced when I was 8, and as bad as they were at raising their kids together, they were that much better at raising us apart. Make those sides of the family reunite — for say, a holiday — and we’d splinter and crack until something gave way. It was often up to me and my siblings to knit things back together.

So every year when I head home for the holidays, I make a small bet with myself to see how long it takes until my family winds up screaming at each other. The record is three hours; my then-stepfather was bitter I asked him to pick me up from the airport (this was pre-Uber). The following year, my brother and I fought my mom about her new ex-husband, because she wanted to invite him to dinner and we didn’t see what good that would do. There are fights about who wears what to the table, and why it’s ridiculous that sweats wouldn’t be allowed; fights about eating dinner at 2 pm or 7 pm (both times seem monstrous to me); and fights about how inconsiderate it is I won’t eat meat and can’t I get over this phase already (this one has been an annual event since I was 12). Most fights end up light years away from where they began, and because we are very good at them, they usually end in at least one person crying.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that we’re often fighting to cope; the pros have also found that couples who argue have a better chance at staying together. (This probably doesn’t extend to everyone and for every fight; if your SO is rude to your mom this season, leave them.) We’ve all been in therapy since about the time of that great big divorce, so each of us has picked up a lesson or two about discussing how we feel. Social media has also helped break down the stigma of belonging to an otherwise dysfunctional family because we’re all dealing with our shit. They don’t make Pillsbury crescents commercials for multi-household families, but small glimpses into those kinds of setups on Instagram or Twitter can help you feel less alone. And if you feel less isolated, you’re less likely to lash out at the people around you.

The most crucial part about this tradition — the fights, the arguments, my brother sullenly watching football in pants he didn’t want to wear — is that we fight because we trust each other enough to air out the dirty laundry right then and there. In a strange way, it’s how we let each other know we care. You can’t fight with someone half so well if you don’t feel a certain way about them. I see my family only a few times a year, and while we catch up on the phone and through social media, we’re still cramming a lot of memories into the few days I’m back home. That’s a very small amount of time to make up for weeks without each other, and it can be stressful to try to remind one another that just because there’s distance doesn’t mean someone is any less important. So, we fight — but we also apologize for letting the stress get the better of us.

Because this is the unspoken rule at our dinner table: we always say sorry by the time dessert comes around. Someone will offer to do the dishes, or take the next generation of kids to the movies for the after-dinner special. Fighting keeps us close, sure, yet it’s the apologies and making up that makes us even closer, and we find, in our own ways, small gestures that show we didn’t mean what we said, and that it’s going to take a lot more than a fight about green beans to mess with a family like ours.

Ella Cerón is Teen Vogue’s Deputy Editor. She lives in New York, but please don’t hold that against her.

Ella Cerón