Polyamory at the Holidays
Oh, there’s no place like home for the polydays…
That’s not quite how the carol goes, but it’s that time of year when people start asking “How do you even manage holidays when you’re polyamorous?” all over the internet, and when (in real life) polycules start going “oh crap, we have to figure out a plan for this year,” so here are some things to consider in your holiday planning. There is no one size fits all advice here, but here are questions and answers to think about as you plan. (My examples are Christmas-centric because so is my holiday experience - please substitute in your own traditions where needed, but the larger society I'm operating in is, as previously mentioned on the blog, rather Christian-tinted, so a lot of us have time off and get-togethers in December to navigate)
How comfortable is your polycule spending time together? If you’re a very kitchen table oriented polycule, some holiday questions will be simpler. If everyone is comfortable being in the same spaces, and there are multiple options of spaces, it opens planning way up, all else being equal. Social and traditional pressures will be your major forces acting on your holidays as challenges, with a soupçon of “people’s schedules still exist,” as well.
If you don’t typically spend time as a group, feeling out whether folks are actually comfortable doing so becomes important. In a ’soft parallel’ situation where no one dislikes one another but they generally don’t have much in common, a shared holiday day, activity, or meal might be a welcome bonding event - or it might be an irritant, and that distinction is very individual. If folks expect the former, you can probably plan a couple holiday season events where people interact and adjust for the next set of holidays as needed. In the US, using Thanksgiving dinner or a Friendsgiving event as a sample for how Christmas-season interactions might go (if folks don’t have traditions or other obligations that place them elsewhere that weekend) can be helpful. In a ‘hard parallel’ situation where folks really don’t want to spend time together, you’re going to have to start thinking of holidays as multiple events for hinges, or multiple days for everyone, or generally expanding your definition of the holiday, just as many folks with parallel relationships do for birthdays, or many polyamorous folks do for Valentine’s Day.
What traditions do folks have, separately, that exist at the same time as one another, typically? Now we start to look at the external situations that are influencing your particular polycule’s holiday season. Does one of your families have a big cookie-decorating party the week before Christmas? Another has a Yule/Solistice event? One (or a pair) of you has always hosted Christmas and won’t be stopping just because you’re connected to a polycule - people come from out of state for this? Does someone have a big open house between Xmas and New Years? A Hannukah party whenever that holiday falls in the month? Look at the schedules and make sure that if things are on the same day, you don’t tie up your emotional expectations of your partners on their attending something, when they have an event they’ve got years or decades of investment in that exists opposite it.
As an example, when I lived in a nesting V, all three of our families of origin (who all lived within a 40 min drive of us) had Christmas Eve events/parties, every year. So, would we split up to attend all three? Who would bring the children? Would we all go together? The hinge’s mother’s party was a morning-into-early afternoon lunch event, so would we all go to that and then split and alternate years of who brought the hinge-and-kids along to their mom’s house, or would we alternate where we went? (Spoilers: with small children, after one year of two events we screamed NEVER AGAIN and made a rotating schedule of Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas between the three mother’s houses - which held for the three years until we were no longer living together and made a new schedule.) No one had Christmas Day events, so we held that at our home and invited people to come to us, family & friends alike.
Are there new traditions you can build together? Do you want to? So, that Christmas Day we hosted - it was our version of the parts of that holiday we enjoyed, put together for us and our kids and whomever chose to show up. We enjoyed that as a tradition we built. But when we started dating outside the V that lived together, our partners often had other events they needed to be at on Christmas Day, so even though they were welcome, and might stop by for a kiss and to drop off a present on their way to or from their typical event, they didn’t join us on the day of Christmas. My then-and-now partner Ken and I started getting together on December 23 to do our gifts for each other, the first and second year sort of by accident of scheduling - it was the day in the holiday week neither of us had an obligation - and then by the third year it ‘felt like our tradition,’ and now that’s when we exchange gifts and I give his family their gifts. If they don’t have them by then, I’m late. We’ve also started spending New Years as that branch of the polycule together - in a very unofficial way (and the pandemic kind of screwed up last year, but I’m drawing a veil over that) - all of us have a quietish night and a little champagne and maybe some board games and ring in the new year.
These don’t have to be huge traditions or ornate ones, just something you think you’ll keep doing. Some folks decorate for the holidays with one partner and involve another in taking things down, or do different important-to-them-and-a-given-partner activities with each partner, or do all their Big Holiday Events with a nesting partner and invite other partners to join them. Still other people don’t love religious-holiday-adjacent winter activities but are HERE FOR your outdoor winter events or indoor cozy events throughout November to February, and want to fit into your season. Talk with your partners and figure out how you fit into each others’ images of holidays and winter and make it work. Making it repetitive, traditional, or mutually meaningful can be a relationship milestone for both on- and off-escalator relationships, if you agree on that.
Does anyone have +1 events to bring someone to? How will they choose?+1 events are technically a year-round challenge (especially for those of us in the mid-20s to early-40s “wait we’re still getting married?” age sweet spot) but at the holidays you get the pile on of Official Work Parties, Unofficial Work Parties, Coworker Partner Quite Likes Throws a Party, and Family Parties With Limited Capacity on top of the usual possibility of weddings, vow renewals, and engagements. The first concern is whether the person invited is out as polyam, and whether the invitation is issued by a person or place that’s friendly to them bringing any partner, or only an officially sanctioned, heterosexual-looking, monogamous-looking partner. If the person invited works in a conservative field where their job might be affected by being out, or bringing someone other than a nesting partner who fits the expectation of “this is my mono spouse,” then external forces functionally make the choice for them - they bring that partner, or no one, as per their preference.
If you’re all in fields where being out is no big deal, or if you’re unmarried so the “my partner” dance at work means no one really knows who to expect for “your partner” even if you aren’t explicitly out (for years, one of my partners had just “my partner”ed about two of us to the point where he had one eclectic manic pixie sounding girlfriend with a VERY wide variety of hobbies, as far as his officemates knew), you and your partners can probably just see whose schedule the event fits in and pick one - or if one person has big family-of-origin Day of The Holidays plans and the other doesn’t, take the one who you won’t spend an actual holiday day with as your date. It’s all about personal preference. If you are out and it’s not a paid-by-the-plate banquet hall deal but more of a casual “happy hour with the coworkers and gift exchange, bring your partner,” maybe check in to see if bringing more than one is an option if you’re typically kitchen table and might be spending a lot of this season together anyway. To be honest, the only +1 events where I’ve had +2s be an option are polyam commitment ceremonies and Ren Faire cast parties, but some casual parties at folks’ homes or bars welcome everyone anyway, it’s just a matter of asking.
Who wants to involve whom in their holidays? In what parts? This is the question past comfort. It’s to balance wants and needs. Not “would it be ok / comfortable enough to have this or that holiday event with your meta along as well?” But “which parts of this holiday season would feel better or more joyful for you if extended parts of our polycule were involved? Who and which parts?” I get a lot of joy out of seeing people at some point in the holiday season for big cozy events with food and games and silliness - one of my ex-partners used to host an adults only event themed around Krampusnacht that was good for seeing telemours & friends I didn’t see often at the holidays; and another hosted a big cookie swap event in the week before Christmas that was kid-friendly and very community-building - so making sure people I’m connected to even sort of tenuously have an opportunity to pop up in my life while I’m in a positive frame of mind is really good for me. But some people don’t feel that way - they want quiet, private holidays with their nearest & dearest only. They recognize that it may improve their partner’s holiday to see some people who don’t improve theirs, but metas or extended polycule become like those cousins they only see three times a year.
Are there extenuating circumstances for some members of the polycule? Is there someone who has recently had a major circumstance shift? Who is or isn’t in contact with their family of origin, in contrast to previous years, and may need support around that? Who would otherwise be alone over the holiday? What other avenues of support do they have and how can you be supportive of them using all their avenues of support while still respecting your own boundaries around your holidays?
Sometimes the answer is that you’ll change traditions, incorporate that person, and spend the bulk of the “big days” of the holiday season together. Sometimes you’ll spend a little extra time on “off days” in the same month, or give them extra energy, or phone calls, or just be around as a backup in case this time of year is harder in the ways it is different right now. I think a lot of us got some practice at one form or another of this last year thanks to COVID, and I hope we can continue to apply that forward.
What forms of typical polyam event problem solving apply well to the holidays for you? The biggest and most obvious one is “Make it a festival! Nothing is one day! Celebrate all week! All month!” This is a strategy we often apply in networks and parallel relationships for birthdays and Valentines, so why not also for thanksgiving (which some folks do anyway, with friendsgivings and then family-or-family-of-origin celebrations) and Christmas/Yule/Hannukah? Fudge schedules around people working (especially if some of you are in essential fields that don’t shut for the week between Christmas and New Years) and around kid obligations (does anyone else have kids with more of a life than them, or is it just me?), and plan as much fun time as you want or need with various partners - and as much down time. Use your calendars. Plan for introvert time for the folks who need it. Give people time to sleep. Let this be a recharge and a joy as much as possible, and not just a series of obligations heaping up.
Use the idea of building customized expectations based on mutual joy and not fear - fear of missing out, fear of not meeting cultural standards, fear of under-capitalisming the season, whatever - lead you into a version of late November through January that brightens the fact that these are the shortest days in this half of the year. Relationship anarchy tells us we can’t let fear guide us - let’s not.
As someone who has definitely looked at a packed December family calendar and sobbed while knitting a gift with frosting from a sugar cookie on my nose, I can recognize that adding more partners seems like a massive extra stress on a time of year that can come with lots of expectations. But looking honestly at what everyone realistically has on, what is important to each of you, what people’s boundaries are, and what’s then left as options usually leaves fewer choices than you expect - and more fun ones. You get to design personalized traditions around cookies or snowmen with people you can’t spend “the big holiday” with because they go out of town for it every year - and if you have some moments of envy or FOMO around moments you aren’t with a particular partner, you have an opportunity for growth. (Or at least that’s what I tell myself when I have them, and pour myself an egg nog.)
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