how to beat the holiday blues: be nimble

by nikki meredith

via Terry Vine/CORBIS

There is a saying in Italian: Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con qui vuoi . Which means: Christmas with your family, but Easter with whomever you want! My parents weren’t Italian but they subscribed to this notion. The one and only time I dared to spend Christmas away from them was my honeymoon and they never quite forgave me for it. As a result, I vowed that, with my kids, I would never make spending any holiday with me compulsory.  In the beginning it was because I didn’t want to burden them. Later it was because I didn’t want to be so wedded to one way of celebrating the holidays that I’d be crushed if it didn’t work out. I do have a tradition, however, and it’s to be forever nimble on holidays. And I think it’s a tradition that might work for others.

I have a friend who was depressed for most of the weeks leading up to Christmas last year because her adult son and his wife decided to take their kids and join some friends of theirs in Hawaii for Christmas. Taking Grandma and Grandpa apparently wasn’t an option – either because they wanted a break from the old folks or because no one could afford the extra plane tickets. My friend and her husband are on a fixed income; their son’s wife is currently unemployed so the only way they could manage the trip was to cobble together a package of frequent flier miles and to trade their home in Marin County for a condo in Oahu.   “Christmas has always been at our house,” my friend said, “that’s our family tradition.” I felt sad for her but that always is a problem. There is no always in this life. People move, they divorce, they die, they decide they prefer palm trees to redwood trees on Christmas.

Wanting to relive the magic of Christmas from our childhoods – a season that had all of our senses in thrall — is hard to extinguish.  The fragrance of baking cookies, the sounds of Silent Night, the warmth of the fireplace, the excitement of opening presents is an overpowering combination.  For people with young children, it’s lovely to provide them with those memories. But for people who don’t have children, for people whose young children are no longer young, why not be open to new possibilities when the old ways don’t quite work any more?

After my father-in-law died, my Canadian mother-in-law decided that Christmas would be a lot more bearable for her if she took us all to Puerto Vallarta. The sights and sounds of Mexico at Christmas made the holidays bearable, and then some, for all of us. Mexico, at least that part of Mexico, celebrates just the right amount of Christmas. You hear the occasional Christmas carol, you see a string of lights here and there and street vendors sell Santa piñatas. On Christmas evening, families from the town walk down to the Malecon (the boardwalk) so the kids can show off their new toys or, in most cases, one toy: a dump truck, a doll, a tricycle. Christmas in Mexico reminded me of what Christmas was like in the 1950’s before wretched excess overwhelmed the season in this country.

For me, being away over the holidays, is always antidote to whatever wistfulness might creep in.  In Laura Shaine Cunningham’s compelling book Sleeping Arrangements, two bachelor uncles take over a little girl’s care after her mother dies. Though the memoir is filled with humor, there’s plenty of sadness and one of the uncle’s guiding beliefs is that there’s no problem so great that it isn’t made better by staying a night in a nice hotel away from home.  (I wish I could remember the exact quote but this is the gist.) I would amend  “nice” to say “nice enough”. Last Thanksgiving, our daughter was working in Nigeria with Doctors without Borders so my husband, son and I rented a little motel room with a kitchen in Palm Springs. If we had tried to recreate Thanksgivings of yore at home, I might have been sad but I wasn’t a bit. I loved cooking dinner in the little kitchen.  I loved making do with the inadequate pots, pans and utensils. I loved not worrying about presentation or timing. It felt a little like camping only with a comfortable bed and indoor plumbing.

I know being nimble can be more of a challenge if you don’t have a partner – partners are a built-in social system – but if I’m pretty sure even if I weren’t married and if my family and friends were not available, I’d be able to come up with something I’d look forward to. I like, for example, the idea of taking a Christmas road trip with my dog Alice. I picture the two of us driving north until we find a pretty town with a dog friendly motel where I would splurge on an in-room movie or two and take-out from a local eatery. When I imagine it, I’m pretty sure there’s only one thing that would be hard for me: telling people about it. If I detected even a hint of pity in the reaction, it would erode my enthusiasm. So I have my cover story:  “I’m spending it with my aunt in Eureka. You didn’t know I had an aunt in Eureka? Of course you do. Remember? She’s the one who smokes a pipe.”  (I’d add that detail for verisimilitude.)

Okay, so you don’t like road trips. Take a train. Take a plane. Or maybe your budget won’t allow for a stay in a motel or hotel. What about trading houses with someone who lives in a place you’ve always wanted to visit? (Here are some tips.) Or rent out your house on Airbnb and take that money to rent a house of your choosing. What if you don’t have the energy to go on any damn trip, road or otherwise? How about volunteering? I have friends who say that helping other people get through the holidays goes a long way in helping oneself get through them. In addition to the service you provide, there’s an esprit de’corps the develops among the volunteers.  I just checked a national volunteer matching service and in my area alone there are eleven opportunities to volunteer during the holidays, from delivering meals to the elderly to taking disabled kids on a camping trip. In every city there are churches who need volunteers to help serve dinner like Saint Anthony’s and Glide Church in San Francisco and St. Vincent’s in San Rafael, CA.

If I didn’t have enough money to go away and if I did my holiday volunteer work earlier in the month and if I didn’t have a partner and if none of my friends invited me over for Christmas – here’s an at-home Christmas day I’d look forward to:

  • morning: Take Alice on a long walk. We both have rain coats so we’d go even if it’s pouring.
  • noon: After a warm shower I’d go to a movie. No, I’d go to two movies. I grew up on double features so as a special Christmas treat, I’d relive that part of my childhood.
  • night: I’d get take-out from the best restaurant I could afford that was open on Christmas and I would definitely order dessert. (I consider myself evolved in many ways but eating out alone in a restaurant on Christmas isn’t one of them.)
  • Boxing day:  when people ask what I did on Christmas, I’d tell them that my aunt in Eureka and I roasted a free-range turkey and invited her neighbors over to play charades. It was a lovely day. (Again, I wish I were evolved enough to matter-of-factly tell people I spent Christmas alone. I’m not. I’m afraid my response to the pitiful expression comin’ back at me would be a blast of manic and unconvincing enthusiasm for the ecstatic day I spent solo  – a blast that would engender even more pity.)

If there isn’t anything in any version of my solo Christmas – either on the road or at home — that appeals to you, then maybe you aren’t a candidate for the nimble tradition. If this is true, then I hope your family and friends come through. If you think they may not, then stocking up on Prozac might be a good idea.

Endnote: As I read this over I realize that when I am old an infirm I may have to alter my nimble tradition. There won’t be any road trips and the double feature at the Cineplex will be video streamed. But, as long as the restaurant delivers, I’ll still be able to order take-out.  Also, I should add, that I don’t believe in imposing the nimble tradition on people in your life who are frail. We spent 10 Christmases in a hotel in Vancouver – the last ten years of my mother-in-law’s life – because by the time she reached her 90’s, she’d outlived all of her friends and we were the only family she had left. She died this year at 101. Christmas this year will be celebrated in the snow in the Sierras. Nimble.