Staying Home for the Holidays

This is the first time in 17 years I will not be travelling anywhere for Christmas. For my husband, it’s been 18 years.

For the first stretch of those years, I returned to my parents’ house in Michigan and gathered with my sisters and brother and usually some extended family in a raucous gathering with too many cookies and constant music in the background, attending midnight mass and also making a trip down to Toledo, Ohio to see my father’s sister, who is afraid to make the two-hour drive.

For the latter stretch of years — perhaps eight or nine? — we’ve alternated Christmases between visits to my parents in Michigan and my husband’s parents in Vermont.

The first year we spent the holidays together, we went to both places, and vowed, after returning, exhausted, that we would never do that again.

This year, we were supposed to go to Vermont. Usually, we fly out a few days before Christmas and stay a few days after. It’s a quiet holiday, spent, usually, with Dan’s parents and his brother and our niece. We sit around the woodstove and stare out at the snow-covered valley beyond the backyard. We might go snowshoeing or sledding, but otherwise we don’t really leave the house.

But my mother-in-law recently finished a round of chemotherapy to treat her non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and she isn’t feeling up to having visitors.

And so, for the first time in half a lifetime, we’ll be staying in Chicago.

It is strange to be 35 and contemplating what we want our Christmas traditions to be for the first time.

We don’t have children, and for reasons both complicated and mundane, we may never have any. We do have a dog, a rambunctious and terrified hound-mix with a crooked tail. And the three of us will be waking up in our bed on Christmas morning.

I’ve been thinking lately about how we define home and family when it comes to holiday traditions. There is, for so many of us, so much obligation wrapped up the tradition of “going home” for Christmas.

But staying home feels, oddly, like a privilege I haven’t yet earned.

I remember having conversations with friends when we crossed the threshold into our thirties about when we would no longer be obligated to travel to a parental home for Christmas, and the consensus seemed to be that it would be when we became parents ourselves.

And surely, I understand that travelling with a baby has significant challenges. But I wonder why we assume that adults without children don’t deserve their own Christmas traditions?

The first December after Dan and I officially moved in together, I found myself desperately wanting a Christmas tree. It was a desire that caught me off guard. I had been largely indifferent to them for many years before that. I couldn’t see the point of going through all the hassle when we wouldn’t even be there for the holiday itself.

And yet, that year, I felt the need to locate some part of the holiday spirit in the place where we lived. I needed the scent of pine needles and the glow of lights as proof that Christmas wasn’t something that only happened elsewhere.

Dan surprised me with a tree that year — he literally showed up at the back door after work one day with a tree he had carried up the stairs by himself. We had one barely sufficient string of lights and a small hastily assembled group of ornaments. And yet it was one of the most beautiful trees I had ever seen.

This year, we have been having conversations about what we want our Christmas to be.

When we celebrate with my family, Dan tends to feel overwhelmed by all the chaos. When we celebrate with Dan’s family, I tend to feel like we haven’t really had Christmas. And so this year we are trying to find a balance between frivolity and quiet. We find ourselves in search of some secular way to mark the occasion, to sing carols and grab hold of some of the gauzy magic that makes it feel like a special day.

We will exchange gifts, fill stockings with bric-a-brac, watch It’s a Wonderful Life and listen to David Sedaris read “Six-to-Eight Black Men”. We will eat cookies and drink eggnog. We might go to a movie or we might simply stay home. We’ll luxuriate in all the time we haven’t spent at the airport or in a long car ride. It will be simple and perhaps hastily assembled, but it will be ours.

I can’t wait.

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