If you have a family, chances are, you have holiday rituals. Some people look forward to them all year long, others about as much as a colonoscopy. But however you feel, at least you know what you’ll be doing for Christmas and New Year’s.
I grew up Jewish in a Christian community, but that doesn’t mean I’m not steeped in holiday traditions. Christmas was a vicarious celebration — helping decorate the Rodgers’ tree and baking cookies with them.
In college and in the years after, I’d wrap Christmas presents with my non-Jewish boyfriends and attend midnight Mass. Then I married an Irish-Catholic, and when we had a son, we forged a Judeo-Christian compact: We’d celebrate all the holidays, doubling an only-child’s fun.
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Sometime in the mid-1990s a Jewish friend and I invented a ritual of our own: Christmas Eve Ladies Luncheon. It started out with five Jews having a bawdy, boozy lunch someplace fancy, trendy or just plain fun. (Once we saw Richard Gere, woo-hoo.) Over the years the venue and guest list have changed, but it has always been an anchor in our December.
When the party would break up, even after I was divorced, I’d get together with my once-nuclear family for Christmas Eve dinner. Until my ex got a serious new partner, he’d sleep over on the sofa bed so he and our son would be together on Christmas morning, for presents and pierogis.
There was one aberrational year — when a friend and I were in Oaxaca, Mexico, for the holiday. That deeply Catholic city rolls up the sidewalks on Christmas, so on a lark we packed overnight bags, headed to the airport and asked for tickets to the closest beach town. We wound up in Puerto Escondido, and Dec. 25, 1995, was a special white Christmas: I made my maiden voyage on a boogie board in 12-foot whitecap waves.
And Then Everything Changed
Move a few pawns, a bishop here, a rook there, and suddenly you’ve got an entirely different chessboard. While I still spent Christmas with my son and ex, I got into a serious relationship, and that spawned a fresh set of traditions: New Year’s Eve dinner at an early-19th-century inn with a CIA-trained chef and an overnight in a charming bed and breakfast down the road whose main building dates from 1776.
We’d stay in the cottage out back, build a roaring fire, drink vintage Champagne, then head over for our three-hour, seven-course dinner, come back and ring in the new year. Then a day or so later, we’d fly down to his timeshare in the Caribbean and let the stresses of the previous year wash into the turquoise sea.
Life was predictably, comfortingly good. And then it all changed.
After college, my son went to South America. My ex fell in love with someone else and spent Christmas with her. After a decade of Caribbean New Years, my partner and I split up. My son came home but then moved to Korea. So last December, for the first time in 33 years, I was alone for the holidays. I recall having our Ladies Luncheon, and after three and a half decades of “will they or won’t they?” two college friends got married on New Year’s Day. But the rest is a blur — worse, there’s nothing memorable to remember.
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Reinvention as an Art Form
Last year, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Recalling the thrill of my Mexican Christmas, I thought about all the places in the world that might be fun to have a family-free holiday. I mentally spanned the planet to pick a location that would combine everything my body and spirit were craving: warm weather yet a chill vibe, accessible water and preferably world-class scuba diving, fun activities yet nothing so compelling that a day in the hammock would induce code-red guilt, and a friend, so I wouldn’t have to drop a small fortune on accommodations (or be alone).
As the mental finger did laps around the globe, it dawned on me. One of my favorite people lives in one of my favorite places in the world, the Big Island of Hawaii, and she just happens to work in a school and have much of December off. Rapid-succession calls to her, the airlines, my cat-sitter (and my boss) indicated that the planets were indeed lining up.
I’ve paid my family dues. I’ve been a dutiful daughter, wife, mother, friend, girlfriend, employee and chauffeur long enough. Over the years, I’ve probably spent the GDP of Senegal on presents. I’ve suffered with people in places not of my choosing. Finally, I feel entitled to just say no to obligation and yes to the purely volitional.
Sunshine, volcano parks, hiking, lava flows, swimming, sailing, snorkeling, hula performances, slack-key guitar and Jawaiian music concerts, Kona beer and pupu platters, mac-nut and vanilla plantations, killer sunsets on black-sand beaches …
Oh, and definitely sleeping in, lounging in PJs and catching up with Kim over bottomless cups of Kona coffee; going where the wind blows, not answering to anyone, with no presents to wrap and unwrap, no parties, no pantyhose, no forced holiday cheeriness. …
I think this is the beginning of a beautiful new holiday tradition.