Christmas as kin work — and its opposite

Post in: German

I write this Blog in honor of all those who spend this Christmas in the active, exhausting, important work of “kinkeeping” and also those who spend, for any reason, this most sacred “family time” of the year alone.

My students were shocked at first when I introduced the concept of kinkeeping or kin-work as a third type of work, alongside paid work and unpaid (household and childcare) work. Anthropologists, among them Micaela di Leonardo (1987), identified kinkeeping as work in the 1980s. Kin-work has been largely unconsidered within the sociology of work, probably due to the fact that kinkeeping is a type of work that remains strongly female-dominated, and the sociology of work has been male-dominated for decades. But anyone who ever shopped for a long list of Christmas presents, organized people for visits, kept up with friends’ birthdays, sent and kept track of Christmas cards, and prepared and delivered a holiday with all its logistical and emotional components knows what kin-work is. And just as paid work and unpaid work can be enjoyable, so can kin-work – but not necessarily. And yet it must be done. Kin-work has been largely unconsidered, invisible, within the sociology of work.

The radio DJs are full of emotional stories about how important it is to be home with family for Christmas. I wonder if they are saying these things as support for those stuck in hours-long traffic jams on their way to visit, or those preparing homes for the coming onslaught of chaos that family brings, or as part of the broader imagination of what Christmas is supposed to be. In Germany, tonight by 6 PM everyone had better be where they belong and settled in for a nice hot mulled wine among lit candles and a sparkling tree. And family. According to the Radio DJs especially. Otherwise, where are you? Who are you?

Sociologists and anthropologists have identified rituals as important ways of affirming group membership and continuity. Christmas is one of the strongest such belongingness rituals in the year. I have observed that Christmas, in particular Christmas Eve in Germany, is designed to affirm membership in the “primary nuclear Family.” Many couples, even those who have been together for years, go separate ways for Christmas Eve so that each can spend it in the family of origin. It is as if we have to leave behind the new constructs of belongingness that we create as adults to spend one evening reaffirming where it is we came from, and that we still belong there too, even if only for one night a year.Christmas rituals affirm membership in the “primary nuclear family.”

The primary exception to this rule of return to the family of origin seems to be if a person or couple has children of his or her own. Suddenly the presence of children means there is a new nuclear family whose membership should be affirmed. Grandparents may be included, as invited guests or even the hosts, but they play supporting roles to the parent-child dyad.

Thus it strikes me that Christmas, more than any other holiday, is a time when children are used to define family relations. Some years ago I noticed that Christmas seems to be in this sense about either being a child or being a parent. If one cannot play the Child role for ones own parents on Christmas, and one cannot play the parent role for anyone, where does one land? One can tag along someone else’s holiday, or one can find other such “non-parent, non-children” individuals to get together with. And here is where it’s interesting: why is this group defined by what they are NOT on this holiday? I think that absence of socially acceptable identity, on a holiday that’s defined by this parent-child identity, is part of what makes it feel lonely for those outside of it. Single parents who don’t have custody of the children on the holiday, single people, people far from family, all are in the same situation in this sense. And the emphasis on this role configuration is part of what can make the holiday overwhelming for those who are playing either the parent role, the child role, or both. Consider a parent of young children spending the holiday also with his or her own parents. This person is simultaneously negotiating boundaries of belongingness in the original core nuclear family as a “child” and developing new identities for him or herself and family as a “parent.” A new parent is simultaneously negotiating boundaries of belongingness in the original core nuclear family as a “child” and developing new identities for him or herself and family as a “parent.”It’s no surprise that the holiday is complicated and stressful under these conditions – so much emotion work, so much role negotiation, so many ties to the past are being either affirmed or destroyed and precedence for the future is being set. Every minute. Stress is nearly inevitable.

Theodore Caplow, Sociologist, did an interesting study in 1979 about Christmas gift-giving as an example of people following rules without anyone enforcing those rules (Caplow 1984). The study gives an example of the complexity of the Christmas family ritual. Caplow wonders why we all go along with the Christmas rituals without any “Christmas police” coming around to punish those who don’t conform. He concludes that gift giving at Christmas is a language of its own, and people participate in the rituals because they have learned the symbolic language from childhood onward and cannot ignore it. The symbolic value of a gift is high – the cost, meaning, amount of thought and care going into its selection correspond to the meaning of the relationship between the giver and receiver. Comparing these symbols within a family unit enables family members to reaffirm family relations hierarchies. This reaffirmation is one reason that gift exchanges take place in gatherings, so everyone can see what everyone got and where everyone stands in the hierarchy. The sacred order Caplow identified is first that spouses (especially the wife) get the best gifts, followed by own children – who must be given gifts of equal value and meaning. Then come parents and parents-in-law, who also must be handled equally, though mothers can be preferred over fathers – but own parents cannot be preferred over in-laws. The list goes on. This gift-giving language affirms the core relationships in the family and affirms my observations about the centrality of the parent-child relationship to the Christmas ritual, but Caplow identifies also the centrality of the marriage / partnership relationship.

The idea of spending Christmas alone arises pity from many people. And yet, millions do it every year, quietly and out of notice. Many of these millions who spend the holiday alone do so for work-related reasons, so that important infrastructure functions no matter what and that others can get to their families or be safe in their homes: For example, plant operators who provide electricity, water, and heat; police, firefighters, truck drivers, train conductors and engineers, pilots, flight attendants, ground personnel, everyone in the travel industry who makes wheels and engines turn, security guards, soldiers, restaurant service personnel, hotel service personnel. Others are working far from home and cannot make it back for the holidays. These may be students, young workers who have the lowest seniority for taking days off, workers who have heavy responsibilities or deadlines and can’t spare the time away.

Often recommended (see below) for a Christmas spent alone is to reach out to other people, through hosting other “orphans” (the journalists actually use this word) or volunteering. I agree these are noble pursuits and essential for building a good society. I would add, there is also a need to reach out to the person inside. I suspect that the inner person in most of us in this over-stimulated modern world is craving some quality attention. I suspect that the din of modern life — with its high-tech gadgets, permanent reachability, and constant status updates –robs too much of our inner connectedness time.

I have some advice for those who are not spending Christmas among family under a tree in the living room. I believe the difference between that Christmas image and the reality of a single Christmas is in the expectations. If one adapts expectations of the culture, the radio DJs, or the family, or even ones own expectations of “what things are supposed to be like,” and then lives it differently, disappointment can follow. By taking these days as a gift of time, and thinking deeply about “what would I most like to do with this quiet gift?” one can create completely new, innovative, deeply personally meaningful memories.By taking these days as a gift of time, and thinking deeply about “what would I most like to do with this quiet gift?” one can create completely new, innovative, deeply personally meaningful memories.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a noise? If you light a candle for yourself and sip a cup of tea in its glow, and no one is there to share the moment with you, is it any less meaningful? Is an individual life only a performance for others, or can it be an experience for the self? Is Christmas only a performance moment to connect to, and reaffirm, others, or can it also be used to connect to the self? When do we stop putting on the show for an audience, and instead take to the stage also when the auditorium is empty, simply for the joy of being? Christmas is an unusual time to do just that, but while so many others are very busy with wrapping and traveling, timing their baking and setting the table, it can be the perfect time for it. I wish all those engaged in various kinds of kinkeeping work this Christmas a wonderful experience and a successful affirmation of all the important ties, and those engaged in “personal kinkeeping,” building the relationship with the self, you’re in my thoughts too. In both cases, the payoffs can be big and life-long. Enjoy the journey.

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