They say there’s “no place like home for the holidays,” but I beg to differ—I haven’t gone home for Christmas in 30 years, and you don’t have to, either.
The first time I stayed away from the family home in Northern England, it was because I was in graduate school in America and I couldn’t afford the plane ticket home. The next year, I had a chance to spend the season with my American girlfriend’s relatives in Germany, and it was too exciting an opportunity to pass up. Explaining those first absences to my parents made for tough and emotional conversations, but I’m glad we did it. Families seldom have explicit discussions about when it’s time to end family traditions, but those talks provided useful clarity. I was also lucky that several family members had emigrated and it was understood that moving to another country released people from holiday routines. Eventually, it became clear that the United States would become my permanent home, but even when I was established enough that I could afford to fly back to England, my parents had gotten used to celebrating the holidays without me—and just as important, I’d gotten used to doing my own thing.
I understand that many—perhaps even most—people enjoy spending time with their birth families. Of course, for some, the holidays can be spoiled by a lack of familial acceptance, but even if everyone gets along, Christmas, Hanukkah, or whatever your clan celebrates isn’t necessarily the best time for familial bonding: Plane, train, and bus tickets are at their most expensive; in our hemisphere at least, the weather is unpredictable and frequently sabotages travel plans; and depending where your family lives, you might find yourself with nothing to do but hang out together. When I was growing up, British stores, cinemas, and public transportation systems all closed down for long stretches of the “Christmas holidays.” The national shutdown isn’t quite so complete these days, I hear, but wherever your family lives, you’re far less likely to be able to visit the shops, museum exhibits, or plays that you could take in at any other time of the year. A spring or fall vacation will almost certainly be more fun for everyone concerned—and your journey will be cheaper and less interruption-prone.
There’s also the matter of nostalgia, which gives the holidays half of their sparkle anyway. The earlier you stop going home just because you feel obliged to, the more magical your family’s traditions will seem in retrospect. My holiday memories—the Christmas Eve insomnia that delayed Father Christmas’ arrival; the careful timetabling that allowed each side of the family to host at least one celebratory gathering; watching the special Christmas episodes of all my favorite TV shows—are still heartwarmingly pleasant, because they haven’t been ruined by years of resentful repetition.
Spending the holidays away from your family doesn’t mean ignoring your folks, and it isn’t an excuse to be inconsiderate. If you exchange gifts, select them with the same attention you would if you were going to be present at the unwrapping, mail them to arrive in time for the holidays, and be sure to call home to wish everyone a Merry Christmas—at a designated time if you want to speak with as many family members as possible.
If you have loved ones who live alone and you begin to feel guilty about leaving them that way, remember that holidays are potentially the least lonely times of year. Friends and neighbors are more likely to invite them over, pay a visit, or generally go out of their way to offer companionship. Your visit will be even more appreciated in the months when the calendar is less crowded. And if your relatives are able to travel, invite them to your place—you might even start a new tradition.
If doing your own thing makes you feel selfish, that’s OK—there are worse sins. At certain points in the life cycle—when children are young, when loved ones are ailing, when you’re facing special challenges—you’ll want to celebrate the season with your family. Knowing that those years will come, take advantage of the carefree periods of your life to travel, spend time with your chosen family, or do nothing at all. I can’t wait to spend a couple of long weekends watching television, going to the movies, and reading books. I’ll go see my mom in the spring.