Today, on the morning of Christmas Eve, I will say goodbye to my husband and daughter, grudgingly put in a half day at the office and come home to just the dog, who will slowly rouse herself from the dog couch to greet me when I walk in the door.
And then I will do whatever I want.
Because when I arrive home ready to start my winter vacation, my family will be airborne, hurtling toward balmy Toronto from Martian Winnipeg. “I’ll be home for Christmas” for sure — it’s just that no one else will be.
I grew up celebrating a traditional enough Christmas. My family was a group of churchgoing Catholics, with an enormous extended family, and this often meant layers of children in sleeping bags strewn all over some farmhouse floor during holiday gatherings. Before I could read and write, I made Christmas lists by cutting pictures of toys out of the Sears catalogue. To keep Christmas under control, we were only allowed to start playing Christmas records on Dec. 1, and we always put up the tree on Dec. 18, after a trip out to the wilderness to cut one down.
On Christmas Day I’d get an early start to open mounds of presents, Mom would make brunch, we’d go to church as a family and then we’d play board games while Mom tended the turkey.
As a young adult living away from home, I could return and still reap the benefits of board games and Mom’s cooking, but traditions evolved. For one thing, many of us became vegetarians in the sensitive ’90s, so we had Tofurkey and nut loaf. I could also look forward to long airport security lines while trying not to drop the unasked-for slow cooker I was for some reason trying to lug across the country in a carry-on.
No longer sequestered in Catholic school, I had a wider view of religious tradition. I settled down. My husband is Jewish. I started learning to make latkes. At first, badly.
Slowly, over the years, my Christmases have become almost a new species, barely resembling those of my childhood.
Ten years ago, I became “Mom,” and things were never the same. The traditions that had already been evolving began to collapse. I tried. I tried to make tourtière, the traditional French-Canadian meat pie, but it turned out soggy. I baked shortbread, gingerbread, sugar cookies and fruitcake and purchased an army’s worth of fancy cheese, chocolates and snack food, only to find that I had to eat most of it myself. There are only three in my little family, after all, without extended family around to celebrate with, and for my husband, the holidays don’t trigger the same nostalgic urge to pile on the Christmas food. For Hanukkah, one round of latkes and a half dozen store-bought sufganiyot for all of us suffice.
So slowly, over the years, my Christmases have become almost a new species, barely resembling those of my childhood. The tree is a houseplant, a big Norfolk pine that I decorate every year — but still on (or about) Dec. 18. It’s been years since I traveled home to my mom’s in December. Winnipeg, being far from everything, is expensive to travel from, and I’d much rather save trips for the summer. It’s been at least a decade since my mom and sisters and I exchanged gifts, having realized long ago that we no longer really knew what the others wanted. And church? Church was really my dad’s thing, and he died nearly 15 years ago.
What I want to keep carrying forward is the ability to say no to tradition for the sake of tradition.
Do I miss having a traditional Christmas? Not really, though I feel that pull of nostalgia. I don’t miss the crowded airports and malls. I don’t miss the mountain of wrapping paper and plastic toys. I do miss being around my large family, the music and the food, but I play board games with my daughter all the time like I used to as a child.
I live smack-dab in the middle of Canada, and this December, like most Decembers, both my family and my in-laws want us to visit. I’ve been invited in two directions. I could go west, where my mom and sisters and their kids are going skiing. I don’t ski. Neither does my mom, but I guess she gets to babysit. This trip was an easy no, and though my daughter would like to see her cousins out west, we spent weeks there this past summer.
I could go east with my husband and daughter to visit his family. Hanukkah coincides well with Christmas this year, and there are sure to be parties, board games, food, crossover events and a pretty solid Christmukkah vibe. But if we all go, it doubles the cost, because in addition to the third airfare, we’ve got to pay for a dog hotel ― we’ve been bitten by unreliable dog sitters too many times (and there have been unexpected vet and dental bills lately).
Is my husband happy that I want to stay home? Not exactly, but he knows it’s an extra expense we didn’t need.
But who am I kidding? Expensive, sure, but in my heart of hearts, I was immediately unenthusiastic about going. So I threw out the idea of my husband and daughter going to see family for Christmas while I stay home with the dog alone.
Is my husband happy that I want to stay home? Not exactly, but he knows it’s an extra expense we didn’t need and how much I have always hated traveling on my precious winter break ― the brief respite I get. I teach at college, and it’s a go-go-go job, not all the time, but in intense spurts during the height of term. Even on a regular day, there’s all the social interaction to contend with. I’m deeply introverted, and the mental effort it takes me to talk to students for hours a day (bless ’em!) often leaves me semi-catatonic when I get home.
Am I being selfish? Maybe. I’m contributing to Christmas food donation boxes — just don’t make me talk to people, at least not this year. I do feel a teensy bit guilty, but I can live with it. I know I won’t be able to do this every year, but our daughter is 10, and she is much less likely to throw up on the plane than she was when she was 10 months old. Her father can parent very well. And there will be plenty of family and big-city attractions there to distract her. She’s been to sleep-away camp, so leaving Mom behind isn’t new. And unlike me, she hasn’t grown up with a reliably elaborate Christmas at all.
From the outside, it can look a little weird, but I’ve always been one to march to the beat of my own little drum. My husband and daughter each have their own too, and together we’ve got a pretty eccentric marching band. Doing what’s expected doesn’t motivate me, and even less so as I get older. I’m so thankful for my beautiful family, and I know not every family will leave Mom alone once in a while. In a world of open floor plans and doorways without doors, at work and at home, aloneness has become a precious commodity.
I’ve got a stack of books to read and movies already chosen to watch. I have also firmly resolved not to work on my novel.
I know I am immensely privileged. I have the choice to travel if I want to. And I don’t want to downplay that profound loneliness at Christmas is a real social problem, not just something found in songs. Spending months, or years, alone, is not a good thing — even for me.
I need that week of winter break, and I need it not to include air travel, domestic duties, shopping, parties, crowds or quantities of other people’s small children. Now, during the precious days I have off work, I will not have to talk to anyone but the dog, and she will not talk back.
In avoiding Christmas with other people, I’ll actually get to play out some of my nostalgic impulses, including the blasting of Christmas music my husband can’t stand (I’m looking at you, “Silver Bells,” the venerable shameless shopping song) and the eschewing of healthy food normally provided for the benefit of my child (I could live on fruitcake, tea and Christmas oranges, but intend to supplement with wine, cheese and bacon). Maybe I’ll even get into deeper, non-Christmasy nostalgia, like watching “Four Weddings and a Funeral” or plugging in the old PlayStation from 1997.
I’ve made sure the house is reasonably clean before they leave. If it weren’t, I’d run the risk of spending my whole week cleaning, like I did that time the girl went to camp. What a waste.
My lonely Christmas isn’t for everyone, and that’s kind of the point -– it will be a Christmas for me.
I’ve got a stack of books to read and movies already chosen to watch. I have also firmly resolved not to work on my novel. No recharging will happen if I let myself reopen that behemoth. How many breakthroughs could I possibly make anyway, while sated on wine and bacon? I’m no Hemingway.
To help counteract the festive saturated fat, I’ve got to establish a solid dog-walking and pool-visiting routine. Separately ― they don’t let dogs in the pool. Just got to cross my fingers the weather stays above instant flesh-freezing levels, or I won’t ever leave the house.
My lonely Christmas isn’t for everyone, and that’s kind of the point — it will be a Christmas for me. Who knows when the stars will align this way again, leading everyone but me to Bethlehem. But what I want to keep carrying forward is the ability to say no to tradition for the sake of tradition — especially if you find yourself the one always basting the turkey, making the pancakes and watching the kids. Let your winter holiday, whatever you call it, be messy, irreverent, lopsided, incomplete, unexpected. Keep what you want to keep and throw out (or upcycle) the rest.
On Jan. 2, when I get home from work, I’ll find my family at home again, and I’ll be only slightly jealous of all the cool stuff they got to do in the Big Smoke. I’ll be all the happier to see them because I’ll be well-rested. And the dog and I will look at each other conspiratorially and smile.
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