This Christmas you’ll find me sitting around a crackling fire with my family: my mum whomping down her third mince pie, my sister searching for bubbly, and my stepfather burying his nose in the sports pages. One of my ex-boyfriends will be making us die with laughter while another ex polishes off the cava, and a completely different ex tries to pull focus from the first ex, who is on all fours pretending to give birth to a penguin. My actual boyfriend will either be in hysterics or dreading his turn at charades. Christmas is complicated.
People start moaning about how stressful Christmas is around the time Pret release their new festive sandwich. Single gay friends, especially, worry about travelling to towns they left as soon as they could, populated by people they hid from on Facebook and hoped never to see again. I know this feeling, because for years it’s what I did, too. Back in the early noughties, the thought of going home to Jersey was so gloomy that I was forced to take action. I was single, but had stayed pretty good friends with an ex who had grown up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, so I asked him to come home with me. He was thrilled to have an invite, and that year proved that just because turkey is dry it doesn’t mean the holiday has to be. Having an ally took the edge off, and the lively addition of a guest with ADHD and a gift for candid storytelling meant we all had the most fun we’d had in years.
When I met my next boyfriend, he got on brilliantly with my ex, who was now also my best friend, so spending the next Christmas together was a no-brainer. When we split up, we remained good friends, and a couple of Decembers later he was spending Christmas with me, the original ex, another ex and my current boyfriend. These days, there are so many of us at my family Christmas that we have to rent somewhere big enough. We’ve spent it in a cliff-top fort, a 14th-century castle, a Tudor cottage and an actual abbey. This year we’re off to a medieval manor house in Shropshire.
Is this all a bit weird? It doesn’t feel weird. I don’t know if it’s a gay thing or a “me” thing, but it seems likely that gay people sometimes stay friends with the people they sleep with, or else face a pretty desolate social circle. When you’re young, randy and searching for validation through intimacy, it’s easy to misdiagnose kindred spirits as potential mates, and my guess is that about half the people we go out with should just be friends.
It took time for my present boyfriend to assimilate. He is younger than the rest of us and it must have felt overwhelming entering our coven with its shared history, habits and nonsense language. Initially there were arguments: between him and me, and between him and certain exes. But a year or two later we were laughing about it. He admits that when he spent his first Christmas with us he felt lost, but he quickly carved out a role as the cook and could disappear to the kitchen for a breather when it all got too much, with my mother often hot on his heels.
I asked my mum about the situation I’d imposed on her before writing this piece, and she was typically Aquarian in her response, saying: “That’s just the way it is.” When pushed, she did agree that it must seem strange to other people, but she’d never really thought about it because she’d met everyone and got on with them before they showed up at her door. And that’s worth pointing out: these are all bona fide long-term partners. Casual dalliances get an Insta follow not a turkey dinner.
Because my mum lives on Jersey and my sister and I have emigrated to “the mainland”, things are pretty quiet for her most of the year, so when she jumps off-rock and joins the annual circus of my failed love affairs, she welcomes the change of pace, the constant chatter, filthy stories, dance routines, games and amped-up gaiety. She lived through the 70s, so I’m sure we seem pretty tame.
My younger sister has never known Christmas without my plus ones and, like mum, never used to give it a thought. But she assures me that it is odd, because even among her group of trendy pansexual Brighton millennials, exes rarely stay friends, let alone make a date to spend every December together. Despite this, the ex thing has rubbed off on her, and she is now best friends with her ex.
I’ve never understood why more people don’t stay friends with their exes. No one ever did me so much wrong that I never wanted to speak to them again. Of course I’ve been cheated on, but you’ll get over your boyfriend having toilet sex while you wait on the dancefloor with a vodka and cranberry, really you will. After breaking up with my exes I forgave any indiscretions because I really enjoyed their company – and because being righteous is lonely and dull.
There are downsides to Exmas. It gets competitive at jigsaw time, and we’ve worked out that three exes is too many: they make pacts, take sides, and eat all the After Eights. Three upsets the dynamic, dividing one healthy group into bickery factions until we’re so annoying that my stepfather is driven to passive-aggressively clanging the coal scuttle as he cleans out the fire – which absolutely needs doing at 6am on Boxing Day. We are a lot and no one is offended if somebody makes a temporary escape – though the time one ex disappeared to go on a Grindr date halfway through Doctor Who was a plot twist no one saw coming.
Another year, an ex made amorous overtures to one of my sister’s friends. The sot was so soused that the friend gallantly helped him to his bedroom. Finding himself alone with the young man, my ex wrongly assumed he was there for one thing. The next day was awkward, but it was something to talk about over leftovers.
My Christmases have not always been like this. When my parents split up and my mum remarried, I was a belligerent teenager and resisted the new family. I was angry at my dad and didn’t want to be with him, either. One Christmas I said no to everyone and stayed at home alone, Macaulay Sulkin’. Shrinks might call this the “inciting moment”. I’m not saying that I’ve done everything in my power since then to make Christmas all about me, but I’m also not not saying that either.
Because I feel comfortable at my curated Christmas, I can be myself in a way I might not with my extended family. The dressing up started off small – it was easy enough to coax everyone into a fake moustache and comedy teeth – but things have since escalated. My finest moment was luring everyone to a fancy-dress shop and convincing them to hire every historical costume they had. Watching my mum baste a giant ham dressed as Eleanor of Aquitaine is something I’ll take to the grave.
The Jehovah’s Witness thing means one of my exes may never spend Christmas with his family, but he’s made peace with that. The one who bore the brunt of the coal scuttle incident has never returned, and another is torn: for many, Christmas is family time, and he admits that spending it with mine can lead to moments of melancholy. Perhaps out of guilt, or inspired by our trips away, he is taking a sabbatical from this year’s Exmas to go on holiday with his own mum. I hope he has a lovely time, but I fully expect him back in 2020 – and if he ever wants to bring his boyfriend, I’m sure that would be fine.
We grow up with stories where the ex is either a villain or the one that got away, but I’ve found that to be a lie. Our beloved becomes the one: the one we love and the one we can’t live without; meanwhile, the ones that got away should be able to come round for a wine whenever they like, although a text first would be nice. Like many gay people, when I left home I created a new “chosen” family. But it turns out I wasn’t replacing my actual family, I was adding to it. Bringing both together at this time of year means I get to have my Christmas cake and eat it, too.
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