Hiraeth: Going Home for the Holidays

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Thanksgiving was yesterday in the United States. For the next month we will live in a miasma of pine branches and things colored red and green. Snowy photographs with arms outstretched, hands around steaming mugs, and an endless number of cheery social invitations. We will live less in a physical realm of people, places, things, than in a collection of feelings and intentions. It is a time where nostalgia compels us to smile and laugh and engage. A time to grin and white knuckle your way through cringe-inducing family gatherings, hoping that Uncle So-And-So doesn't make his annual shitty joke about your gender. A time to cross your fingers and hope your mom doesn't poke at your body. The time of "hiraeth".

Hiraeth is a Welsh word that perfectly describes the month(s) of family-oriented winter holidays. It is a malaise, a homesickness for a home that you've lost or perhaps never existed. You may remember an article I wrote about being my family's Special - someone loved by people who also hate a certain part of you. Being in that position means that I never know exactly where I stand with my family, never know when a discussion will turn into an argument. I'm someone with a found family, a large and loving group of friends that I've gained in the 10 years since I moved with my husband to Chicago.

I feel lucky to have that. Many Specials don't have a physical found family. They are unmoored and searching, very often finding community across the globe via the internet. While that's just as valid and important as a family you can hold, I speak from experience that it doesn't feel the same. To me. In my experience. (Save your emails.)

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I find myself with the annual urge to return to my family for the holidays, to eat our food and watch our movies and tell our jokes and hug our people. It's an urge born out of nostalgia and social expectation, surely, but mostly I believe it is hiraeth. I think it is a part of me that doesn't want to believe that my childhood was a lie, that the smiling faces in old photographs represent a real place to which I can return. And, in a way, it isn't a lie. Those people existed. Those times happened. That was my reality...for a while. But, as a child, you only remember the rooms you were in and the conversations you had. Surely, the adults waited until we were outside muddying up our new clothes to discuss politics or gossip about the people in their lives who lived a life outside of the mainstream.

And perhaps there is something to the idea that our country and discourse have gotten more heated than before, but a big part of me doesn't believe that. I believe we've always been these people, but social media and current politics have allowed us all to be much more bold about our political, tribal identities.

Why go home? Why spend these days with family? Why take the chance that all that self-care you've done could evanesce under one withering look from an aunt or a shitty joke from a cousin? I can't speak for why others do it, but I can empathize based on why I do it. I go home when I can because there is a little blonde haired boy who loves his grandmother and misses him mom's cookies and wants to laugh with his dad while watching Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Subjective reality, rather than objective reality. The reality I remember is assuredly different than the reality that was, but...it doesn't make it less real. Does it?

For some, it is easy to dismiss hyperbolic social media posts that relay dread at impending holiday gatherings with family. For some, it's easy to say "if they make you so uncomfortable, don't go," but it's not that easy in practice. It's not easy to completely disregard that hiraeth, that not-wholly-definable need to return to a place and people that make up such an integral part of your identity. So, to those of you steeling yourself for a tenterhooks gathering with family, I just want to say... I get it. I get you. I get why you keep going back, and why you hug the people whose Facebook feeds are filled with memes that seem to disregard some part of your identity. Because no matter how old you get or how heated the politics, they sit at the center of your heart in a sepia-tinted photograph of remembrance. Going back is a high magic of liminal spaces and times out of time and places out of place.

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte


  1. I really feel this too. It is a beautiful sentiment. Thank you for sharing ♥️


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