Consider this: I might not want to be around your family’s holiday stress or drama. Or deal with buying presents or receiving ones I probably will neither like nor need.
I happen to have my own holiday tradition, or anti-tradition. I’ve set up a holiday-free zone (HFZ) for myself and my friends of all denominations and relationship statuses.
Since I left a Manhattan publishing job and moved to Tucson more than two decades ago, I’ve largely avoided traditional holiday gatherings. As a freelancer without family in town or obligations to attend work parties, it’s been easy to say, a la Bartleby, “I prefer not to” when invitations are proffered. At some point, I became a go-to person for those seeking to avoid family strife and painful seasonal associations.
I grew up without big holiday celebrations. The Holocaust robbed both my mother and father of their families in Vienna, and they formed no close friendships in Brooklyn, where they met in English-language school as refugees. As a result — and probably because our family of four shared a cramped one-bedroom apartment — we never hosted any holiday dinners, nor were we invited to any.
Aside from Thanksgiving and Passover, we rarely ate together as a family. Both my parents worked — my mother as a seamstress, my father as a self-employed dental technician. He often came home later than a tired mother was willing to wait to feed two hungry kids. Most evenings, I ate alone at the kitchen table, my head in a book. My mother didn’t object. It was not until much later that I learned this practice is generally frowned upon.
Religion has never been much of a presence in my life, either. I don’t recall us ever going to temple together as a family. For Hanukkah, we would light candles and our parents would dispense chocolate coins, but that was about it. Because of my low-key upbringing, I feel little nostalgia or urge to celebrate during the holiday season.
I think my first guest in the HFZ was Sue, a Protestant-raised friend in Tucson. Her mother had died a few months earlier, and she asked if I would spend Christmas with her. Her boyfriend was deployed in Germany. She had been invited to the home of relatives in another state but wanted neither the travel expense nor the painful experience of talking about her departed parent. At the same time, she didn’t want to be alone. I said I would be glad to have lunch and take a long walk with her. I had no other plans.
A year or so later, it was the opposite case with Deb, a lapsed Catholic pal in California, whose family drove her crazy; her brother was ultra-critical, her sister condescending. It was worth the plane fare for her to escape to Tucson. She was a regular for a while, and I was happy to be used as an excuse. “Poor Edie,” Deb would say. “She is all alone for the holidays. She needs me to be with her.” It is antithetical to the spirit of Christmas to deny such charity visits — or so Deb would guilt her family into agreeing.
Some years, no one takes advantage of my HFZ, which is fine with me. I usually just treat it as another work day, one blissfully free of interruptions from the outside world. It has no structure and no rituals, so when friends participate, it is adjusted to their personalities and tastes. Indian food tends to be involved; a terrific Punjabi restaurant near me is open on Christmas Day. A trip to the movies used to be a regular activity. But now that we have Netflix, there’s no need to change out of sweat pants and leave the house. I draw the line at agreeing to watch holiday movies that friends have sworn are “universal.” “Miracle on 34th Street?” Pure schmaltz. And don’t even get me started on how disturbing I find “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
I don’t mind a little traditional cheer in my HFZ. One friend, a self-described Christian, often can’t afford to travel to see her family. We’ve come to exchange small gifts, many of them revolving around our dogs. I may be a grinch, but that’s no reason to deprive Madeleine of the treats she believes are her due. Every single day of the year.