How to survive being on the “kids’ table” at Christmas in your 20s
By Jenny Rowe
A game plan can make the whole thing more bearable.
"Things are going to be a bit different this Christmas”, my mum said the other day, her eyes wide. She patted me on the shoulder gently, as if worried I might suddenly start shouting. “Your brother isn’t coming home for Christmas this year,” she said after a long, X-Factor pause. She was right to be tentative. Any change to our family "Christmas day formula" has historically been enough to cue a full-scale emotional tantrum about how "too much is changing" and how this is "a sign that we are moving into a new era of 'grown up' Christmases" that I'm not ready for. But before I could get too upset or nostalgic, I was hit by a perhaps even more startling realisation: nothing is actually going to change. Despite my brother’s absence, I knew I'd be able to rely on one thing this Christmas: I’d still be sitting at the kids’ table come Christmas day.
Being put on the kids’ table, though comforting at times, has irritated me beyond belief at recent Christmases since I left home.
My cousins and I are now almost all in our 20s, but no matter how old we get, we’re still "the kids” when we all get back together. That’s a fact that has bothered me ever since I’ve felt grown-up enough to think I'm deserving of a seat at the adults' table.
Going home and slotting into my allotted role of little sister and middle cousin hasn’t always come naturally, but it’s become easier since I realised this simple fact: I won’t be promoted to the top table until there is someone else to replace me. We are still the youngest generation; none of my cousins have yet had sprogs of their own to dress in antlers, novelty Christmas sunglasses or Santa hats, so we must continue to wear the ill-fitting antlers, near-opaque sunglasses and itchy hats, until they do. There aren't any vacancies at "top-table management level" and there haven’t been any “new starters” in our family household for years. This has little chance of changing this year.
I'll just need to embrace my regression back into my "kid" role this Christmas, and to make things bearable I have created a shiny new game plan, using tips and tricks I've gathered at more recent Christmas day dinner tables.
When the turkey has been eaten and the seating plans begin to weaken their hold over the slightly merrier guests, there are a few ways I’ve discovered that I can make myself feel more validated as an honorary member on the adults’ table in-between courses, or, if I’m lucky, for the entire pudding and cheese course. Here are the tactics I’ll be using this year in an attempt to be taken more seriously as a semi-adult (feel free to steal some for your own Christmas day game-plan).
Firstly, mimicking adult behaviour and body language is key.
You have to play the long game with this one. For example, writing your own Christmas cards this year, rather than being added to the bottom of your parents’ cards, is a sure-fire way to seem like a proper grown-up. If you don’t, you risk being perceived as lazy by your relatives, which immediately marks you out as a “young’en”, destined for the cheap plastic and odd, mismatching chairs surrounding the kids’ table. For extra “adulting” points, and for the sake of saving the planet, try an e-card, or if that’s too cringey why not make your own card with a pot of green paint and a potato print in the shape of a holly leaf? It might even seem like you have children already that way. See, crafty?
Secondly, think about gifts.
One thing that will be different for me this year is, for the first time, I will have no Christmas sack (to other, less greedy people, these are called stockings). I, of course, did my research before writing this piece (like a proper grown-up), and can confirm that it seems to be a perennial headache for mums the world over in every corner of the internet. “Stockings - when do you stop?” is one of many threads on the topic on Mumsnet. (NB: it does seem that mums take the brunt of the present-buying burden, with one replying, “I do stockings for all of us. Well, [my husband] is supposed to do mine, but I usually end up getting most of it.”
The truth is that, in the last few years, I’ve grown up enough to understand the true value of giving to all involved and also the lengths parents - usually mums - go to to buy and wrap gifts for their kids. I don’t want my mum going through that again this year. It’s a huge effort, and now that I have a bit more money to spend, it seems only right and fair that we rebalance the scales of giving and receiving. Saying no to stockings and yes to treating your family is probably the biggest step you can take towards getting that promotion and leaving the kids’ table.
Thirdly, there’s the dinner. This Christmas I'm going to make sure I'm seen by all adults in the family at some point during the day, wearing an apron and carrying a wooden spoon.
It’s vital that you help (or at least look like you’re mucking in) to be seen as a semi-adult rather than a kid. If not the turkey, which might be your mum’s, dad’s or big brother’s 'Holy Grail' of Christmas jobs, then there’s always the bread sauce, the veg peeling, or, at the very least, the desserts for you to own. You could buy the cheese or bring in the wine. This year I just want to find some way to take on my portion of the responsibility. If you follow me in this Christmas culinary mission, you’ll find yourself drawing up a seat next to Grandad in no time - and on equal terms! A Christmas miracle!
Finally, for once this Christmas, I’m going to make it my mission to do away with my attention-seeking around older family members.
In our family, the “Christmas Eve show” was the event of the year. We’d each showcase our "special talents" with a string of solo performances, and then put on a Christmas play, often (badly) written by the older cousins. For example there was “Modern Mary”, one of our more woke and critically-acclaimed works from over the years, which starred a smoking virgin mother. The adults truly did love it, and we did too - what ten-year-old doesn’t lap up a healthy dose of attention from their entire extended family?
It might be tempting, but getting out your guitar to play that one Ed Sheeran song you know off-by-heart aged 25, or singing Taylor Swift’s new Christmas song to the crowds at 22, is a little desperate. Nothing marks out a kid from an adult more than a desperate need for approval and attention from elders, and this is at a conversation level too. Why leave all the question-asking to the older family members? Why not allow my aunty or uncle or parents a little therapeutic conversational offloading onto me this year?
No matter how vulnerable or uncertain being 20-something can make us feel, we quarterlifers shouldn't feel like we need any kind of attention anymore to prove our own worth to ourselves. I now have a far better understanding of the depth of the love my family and friends have for me, without needing to hog the conversational limelight or pull any embarrassing, attention-seeking stunts that were cute as kids, but not-so-cute when you’re over five foot and already getting crow’s feet, thank you very much.
I think what I have realised this year above all else is that traditions might change, and that while our families might some December in the near future be waving goodbye to Christmas as we've always known it, it’s important to remember the things that never change. Not to get too soppy, but it’s true that the love families and true friends share is unwavering. As babies are born and sadly some of our closest relatives leave us, love encompasses everyone at this time of year - through Christmases past, present and future. So, if you, like me, really are stuck on the kids’ table, remember, in-between eye-rolls, to savour your seat, where you’ll at least be surrounded by those that love you for who you are. And one day you’ll be looking back on these times with misty eyes and a soppy smile, wishing your own children were as talented as you were at re-imagining the Nativity’s cast list.
Image by Schuyler Erle.