By Emma Kobolakis
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, fifty pounds of potatoes to be sliced by 4:15, and something about mistletoe. For those of us working in food service, the holidays are a complicated time of year. Usually, it’s when kitchens are busiest, working overtime to serve friends, families, and couples out celebrating. I call it “gathering season”; when the temperature drops, and schedules open, our natural impulse is to huddle around some rib-sticking food with the people we love.
Of course, someone has to work. I have been one of those someones, along with many other someones, churning out holiday memories like it was, well, my job. While there are those wistful line cooks and sous chefs and pastry queens wishing for more time with their families, but that’s not me. Some of us who don’t necessarily want less work. Some of us choose, like a kid at Thanksgiving, to pile it on until we can’t move. We might feel our stomachs twist, but we know ultimately that powering through the season is easier on the gut than going home.
Work is an easy excuse. It lowers the raised eyebrows and shortens the guilt trips normally encountered when we break the news of another missed holiday. It’s much easier to throw up hands and feign helplessness than explain that years of tension and unresolved conflict have fermented into a seasonal cocktail of discomfort and disappointment. After downing one of those, all that’s left is to distract yourself with double shifts and dive into the happiness of other people.
At some point, ideally, the guilt of skipping out on going home for the holidays turns into relief. There is relief in knowing what to expect. In removing the chaotic variable that is family. When you know you will not be forced to sit quietly and listen to the racist tirades of that one uncle, or watch your father reach for one too many drinks, or revert back to the frustrated, hopeless teenager that thought she’d never escape, well, compared to that? Work is easy.
Working the holidays is an act of survival. Of self-preservation. When your work has structure and stability, when it is at least somewhat predictable, there is safety in it. It is a sign of mental health, I would argue, to gravitate towards an environment like that.
But every action has consequences. No matter how unpleasant or unstable home is, there is still an attachment. Some of us pay that tax in guilt—heaps of guilt that manifest as lumps in the throat no number of staff drinks can dissolve. Some of us aim for balance, picking one holiday to work, one to spend with family. Some of us lean on chosen family, or for those of us lucky enough to have partners, spend a quiet evening curled up with the ones we love. There are many permutations to this, many ways to make it through.
I myself find the choice easier every year. I want to be elbow-to-elbow with the people that make it a joy to work, laugh, cry, yell, and drink together. It’s an honor and a blessing, to look at their faces and know we all chose to be here. The kitchen brought us together, but the bond between us goes far deeper than that.
My prayer for you this holiday season is this: May you make it through.