By Ryan Bellinghausen
I have never celebrated Christmas on December 25. When I was younger, if you had asked me when Christmas was, I would have told you the 21st or 22nd, depending on the year. My sister and I never had the luxury of waking up to a relaxing Christmas morning, running downstairs to our awaiting gifts, and reveling in the rest of our Christmas breaks. Our Christmas was always a production—a whirlwind of bows, baking, and busting our asses to make sure we saw each and every family member. A holiday that was supposed to bring us joy ended up feeling like a big, tiresome chore. I know this sounds like a first world problem (yes, I agree), but I have a point.
Every year, we loaded up the car and made the strenuous trip to visit extended family members. You know how they say you can drive all day and never make it out of Texas? That’s not a joke. I have 20+ years experience to prove it. My dad grew up in a small farming town named after the worst day of the week. To this day, if anyone says, “God, I hate Monday,” I respond, “Try having to go there.” Munday, Texas (which I’m sure is a deliberate spelling decision made to prevent people from thinking of the worst day of the week) is your quintessential, small southern town. Football is a second religion (because everyone is very religious to begin with), there is one main road through town, and the arrival of a Dairy Queen is met with the same excitement as the president coming to town—only if he’s Republican, of course.
I never felt like I quite belonged in a town like Munday—even as a visitor. Each time we passed the city limit sign, I would turn into a stranger in an even stranger land. The male members of my family would talk guns, trapping hogs, or this foreign subject called “sports.” My attempts to arouse a lively debate on Britney Spears vs. Christina Aguilera fell on deaf ears, even with my female relatives. My homosexuality was obvious to everyone—including me—from a young age, but never discussed during these Christmas trips. I only saw these people two, maybe three times a year. In a way, they were essentially strangers. I didn’t care what these people thought of me just because we share DNA. I was probably closer to the Blockbuster video clerk than I was to them. And I was at peace with that.
But each year, around December 22, we’d begin our trek to Munday. The SUV was weighted down with luggage, wrapped presents, and enough food and distractions for two children with ADHD. The red nose attached to the front was the only thing designating this as a holiday sleigh, instead of a family on the run that didn’t have enough money for a U-Haul.
My sister always got to ride up front because she claimed to get carsick. (I believe she got sick one time, but that was after we stopped for breakfast at a McDonald’s in Brenham, Texas, so you be the judge that). My mom and I, on the other hand, were confined to the backseat with no direct air conditioning, lumbar support, or leg room on account of my dad’s 6’4” stature and absurdly long legs. Mom usually had her nose pressed in a book, while I played my Addams Family videogame on my clear Gameboy. Our drives were also peppered with car games like 20 Questions or the alphabet game. 20 Questions taught me the definition of the now-extinct contraption called a breadbox because our first question was always “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” We’d split into teams of front seat versus backseat—or as I called us, the readers versus the jocks. To this day, I’m still mocked for this astute characterization of my family, but if you saw how many Cliff Notes my sister owns or saw me try to throw a ball, you’d have to agree. Sadly, the game fell out of popularity after the now-infamous and highly-debated 20 Questions answer from my dad and sister’s team of, “A barking dog standing on top of a roof.”
After a grueling eight hours in the car, most of which had Bruce Springsteen or David Allan Coe blasting in the background, we’d finally arrive and be freed from our Ford Explorer prison. Once we got there, our final destination was never that bad. Thanks to my dad’s family’s Catholic upbringing, I have lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins. A lot of us would stay in my grandparents’ house, and the young ones would make palettes out of old dusty blankets and pillows on the floor. We would spend our days playing Blindman’s Bluff, which is basically tag, but one person has an old bra over their eyes. We would jump from bed to bed in “The Blue Room” (named for the fact it looked like a Smurf exploded everywhere), dodging each other and the sharp edges of the furniture. I’m still surprised none of us ever got hurt or lost an eye. We’d also plan our annual Christmas skit in which, one year, I was baby Jesus in a Radio Flyer wagon—to which you can hear my dad on tape saying matter-of-factly, “Baby Jesus he is not.”
While those are all fond memories, times have changed. I’ve changed. I recently made the decision to eliminate added stress during the holidays—to forgo the endless hours in the car and to stay close to home. As I enter my 30th year on this planet, I am already starting to hear my bones crack in the morning. I have no idea how my parents made—and continue to make—that trip year after year.
In all honesty, I don’t see the point. Those folks aren’t my real family. Remember when RuPaul cried during Roxxxy Andrews’ tearful confession that she was left at a bus stop by her mother at a young age? Ru said what makes us great as gay people is that we get to choose our own families. Well, she couldn’t have been more right. I’ve always felt a deeper connection to my gay friends than my biological family members. In my high school, there were 10 to 15 other openly gay kids. Luckily, we hung out as a group and rarely experienced any type of bullying or harassment. When six of us—two being a couple—decided to room together on our band’s spring trip, the directors sat us down and said, “We can’t stop y’all, just don’t be crazy.” I believe our response was, “Okay, we will keep it to one orgy a night.” We kept that promise.
My parents routinely preached that friends come and go, but family is forever. It was their one of their favorite justifications for taking these tiring road trips. But I’ve been friends with many of the same people since middle—even elementary—school. We’re a tight-knit group and, while most people say that’s a good thing, I tend to think of it as a double-edged sword. Yes, they know everything about me and accept me for who I am. They also know how many Grindr hookups I’ve had that have ended in me getting robbed.
Through thick and thin, though, my friends are my chosen family. They are the ones who provide much-needed comfort and acceptance in a world that is rapidly becoming a scarier and scarier place. My friends were there for me when I was in the ICU, getting a hip replacement at a young age, and even more recently when I spent my 30th birthday in the hospital. They are the ones I want to give my time to—not to people who are so far removed from me that we’re not even Facebook friends. Now that every day feels like we are on the brink of another world war, there is no time to waste on those we don’t hold close in our hearts. So spend the holidays with your own chosen family. You might even get a few gifts along the way.