Since before Thanksgiving, economic forecasters have been warning that holiday travel would be way down this year, at least ten percent. People just can’t afford the airfares, the hotel bills, the meals out on the road.
Well, we sure were ahead of the curve on this one. Since our daughter has been old enough to slip her fingers beneath the edge of a wrapping paper seam, my husband and I have refused to leave our house for the holidays. So, why did we turn down all those invitations before we had the economy as a scapegoat? Because we finally realized we could.
Thousands of advertisements are hitting TVs, mailboxes, newspapers and the Web right now depicting families gathered ’round the tree, families lighting the Menorah, families out caroling, families carving the ham. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s the time of year when you’re supposed to play nice and act like you’re one big happy you-know-what.
But when I became a mother it finally occurred to me that I ‘d never had an experience even remotely like those ads. My most vivid Christmas memories are of a hallway at my grandparents’ house. I am huddled in the darkest corner, tears streaming down my face. My evil cousin, a smirk spread from one heavily freckled cheek to another, stands over me victorious.
What sadist said the best part of Christmas was the chance to bring family together under one roof?
Or under a few roofs. Our holidays were spent shuffling from one tense family gathering to the next. We loaded up the family wagon and took off over the river and through the woods. Or so the song went. Ever notice that song leaves the directions in the hands of the horses? Maybe it’s because Mom and Dad were busy knocking back some liquid courage to handle the scene at Grandma’s house.
We still take our daughter to see Santa at the firehouse in the days before Christmas. We drive around town to check out the light displays. We stop in at the library for story hour with Mrs. Claus. We read books about the Maccabees and the oil too, just to round out her education, and we let her sprinkle red and green crystals across the cookie sheets and counters to help us get ready for the big day. We aren’t the Kranks. We haven’t shut down the holiday machine. We’ve just shut out the family.
So how do you shut family out of the most family-centric time of the year? Simple. You do what your parents always told you to do when the pusher man came around. You just say no.
As in, no, we won’t drive from New York to Virginia this year with a toddler wailing in the backseat, the holiday traffic making an eight-hour drive into fifteen. No, we aren’t spending the personal days we’ve held off on using all year – in case the baby got sick – in a car packed to bursting with suitcases and boxes we were still up wrapping at two a.m. because we had to wait until the baby Tylenol kicked in.
I’ll give my in-laws credit. They took it well. Bets were on them – located four states away from their only granddaughter – to put up the biggest fight. Instead they’ve taken to visiting friends for Thanksgiving, and taking a leisurely week off to drive north for an abbreviated December visit.
The distinction for holiday hissy fit goes to my own – boisterous, obnoxious, Catholic-sized – family. My dad has six brothers and sisters, five of whom have kids or step-kids. Among the cousins, four of us now have kids of our own to throw into the mix. Our decision to strike out on our own was met with a few threats.Add to that a grandfather who believes so strongly in the meaning of Christmas that he runs an ad in the local newspaper every December to thank Jesus for his blessings. You can see how our decision to strike out on our own was met with a few threats.
For example, I’ve heard this might be my grandfather’s last Christmas for three years running. But he seems okay. He’s already called the paper to run this year’s ad. The out-of-town aunts put in their yearly warning that they’ll only be in town for a limited time, and they’d like to see that little great niece of theirs one of these days . . . Oh, and did they mention they’ve brought along a Hefty bag of hand-me-downs it would behoove me to pick up? They’d like to see that those clothes are going to good use. You know, they’d cost an arm and a leg if I had to buy them brand new in a store . . .
With a large enough family to field a football team, we’ve never been the gifting type (even before the economy tanked), but I’m sure to hear if someone violates the policy with a present for my daughter. They would have liked to see what Jillian thought of her new baby doll/fairy dress/stuffed animal.
The emails from the cousins usually come after the fact. “Thought we’d see you at Christmas dinner. You know, didn’t want to bother you with the in-laws in town. We would have called, but we were afraid we weren’t welcome.”
The truth? They weren’t.
The past two Christmases have been blissful for their lack of activity.
When we climb out of bed, we’re in the comfort of our own home. We head downstairs to watch our sleepy-eyed pre-schooler attack the pile under the tree with reckless abandon.
There is no time limit on our Christmas morning, no pressure to hustle her off to the bath and into a snowsuit so we can get on the road. We can spend an hour reading and rereading her new Madeline book before she gets around to unwrapping the new baby doll – or she can tear through every last wrapped package before I’ve managed to get through one. There’s no dress code for holidays at home, no morning argument over pigtails vs. braids and no call for switching out the pajamas and bathrobe for anything fancier than worn jeans.
There’s no requirement that a three-year-old spend her day carefully avoiding fun lest she stain her dress or tear a hole in her stockings, that she wistfully bid her new pile of toys goodbye moments after opening them, so she can be shuttled to the next set of relatives.
What else is missing? The sniping. What else is missing? The sniping.The uncles camped on either side of the house because even at Christmas they refuse to let bygones be bygones. The eldest cousin moaning that the little kids won’t leave her alone, then pushing one into the tree just to see if those pine needles are as sharp as everyone says. The excessive pounding of shots of, er, milk and cookies.
In short, we’ve turned the holidays back into what they were meant to be, a time to truly enjoy each other’s company and let the kids be kids.
We haven’t shut out the family entirely. My parents and my husband’s are welcome to drop in on Christmas Day, along with my brother.
They can personally watch their granddaughter open her gifts without distraction, eliciting the thank you she’s been well trained to offer up in exchange. They can join hands with us around a small feast that we’ve cooked in our own kitchen.
We’ve traded the “are we there yet” chorus for Handel’s “Messiah.”