No matter how old, how many educational degrees or how many milestones in my career, there is something about being home for the holidays that time-warps me back to high school. Over 80 million Americans travel during this time of year for a similar privilege. But there is a subculture that seems to be increasing in numbers (at least according to my Facebook feed) of those who travel to exotic lands in lieu of the traditional family celebration. I like to think of it as "Four Christmas-ing," after the movie with Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn. In the film, a couple vacations to tropical islands instead of spending the holidays with their families. A snowstorm foils their trip to Fiji, and what ensues is a tortuously humorous holiday, from getting pummeled by older brothers to being questioned for life choices. You know, the usual family drill.
Even for those of you who are living the Norman Rockwell dream, the coveted Christmas-to-New-Year's week is a prime time to travel. Year-end bonuses have been decided, so there's no upside to being a hero by holding down the fort. In fact, many offices are closed. If you're one of those who travel to see family, that could mean that it's a choice of one or the other: a visit home or that extended trip to Southeast Asia.
Vacationing over the Christmas holidays has its pros and cons. First, the pros:
1. You're on vacation. Because your office is in holiday mode, there will be no conference calls to interrupt that grueling schedule of massages, poolside and sleep. You can really do the vacation dance. The office grind is not the only lack of work over the Christmas holidays. Resorts pull out all the stops to relieve you from cooking, dishwashing and cleaning. For once, someone is taking care of you.
2. Expense. Plane tickets and gas prices are expensive. Priceline.com estimates that holiday travel prices will increase 4 percent this year, as compared to 2011. Also, heading to Paris or another international destination can be less expensive if you're able to fly on Christmas Eve or Day. Anything after Christmas becomes part of New Year's travel, and prices skyrocket. Also, if you're bold enough to play the Scrooge, not being home for the holidays means no gift exchange, and hence more to spend on your vacation.
3. No drama. The holiday is on your terms. Skipping the trip home means no holiday travel delays, no over-served relatives, and no awkward silence with siblings, wondering how you ever grew up in the same house. In every family, there are always those relatives you can never win over, no matter what you do. Christmas with some families can set you back years in therapy.
1. Loneliness can set in. Holidays on the road can be soulless. Your hotel may be welcoming, but you're away from holiday gifts, gingerbread houses and competitive chess tournaments. While the Four Seasons makes a killer lobster ravioli in the Maldives, it's tough to beat Mom's eggnog.
2. The guilt. Don't think that you're going to get away without a guilt trip for not coming back for the holidays. Be ready to endure mention of it for many years to come. Also, becoming part of the Four Christmas club can be a slippery slope. You may never want to come back.
3. No drama. Drama is part of the beauty of being with family, and you're missing out on it if you're not around. From the inappropriate behavior, heated political discussions and overly competitive games of Monopoly, family drama contributes to the stories that will have you laughing all year.
This article is a personal one for me, though if you say soul search I'm paying the tab and heading for the door. When I graduated from college in the Midwest, I never would have dreamed of spending Christmas without family. In my wealth of experience, I only knew one couple who traveled for the holidays. Over dinner, they talked about their trips to Istanbul, Phuket and Paris. And to think I came to their home with my contribution of Kendall Jackson chardonnay in my best Banana Republic, ready to make friends. Fast-forward 15 years and many world travels, and I finally get it. I'm wondering if I still have their number, to compare travel notes.
This year, South Africa is calling to me. The optimal booking time is to fly on Christmas Eve or Day, which will save me both in miles and cash. We've just seen our families for Thanksgiving, and strategically dropped off all the gifts. They've made out like bandits again this year, with pashminas from India, handmade lace table runners from Nicaragua and ceramics from Morocco. I'm feeling pretty good that these presents will make up for the lack of our presence this holiday.
The challenging part of going Four Christmas-ing will be breaking the news. But hey, let's face it. In our 35-plus years, we've disappointed our parents many times. I decided to test the waters with one of my best friends from high school, who with restraint reminded me "South Africa will be there in a few months." Responses were similar from cousins and even my six-year-old niece, who was the most vocal about her disapproval. What surprised me was how much people cared; I didn't think it made any difference if we were there or not.
The moral of Four Christmases didn't turn out to be to avoid family. Quite the opposite, actually. You go to a dark, sad place if you start alienating them. To suck it up with the relatives is a character-builder, no matter what heartache you feel in the awkward gift exchange with your sister, who tried to ban presents from Christmas. You have to show up to be a part of your family's life. The emotional toll is all part of connecting with those you love. And you can't get that even with the most beautiful sunset in the world.