Several years ago a work colleague I admired for her effortless cool (think Zoe Kravitz), announced she was spending the holiday season in Paris. That made perfect sense to me. I immediately pictured her enjoying fabulous holiday parties, filled with equally fabulous people. Except she later explained that she was heading to Paris by herself. She would be spending Christmas and New Year’s alone but wanted to go to Paris that year and simply decided to do it. At the time I was shocked. With COVID wreaking havoc on our lives, I now look back on that colleague as a pioneer and wonder if 2020 will inspire more women to define holidays on their own terms.
There has been endless discussion of how frustrated people are that COVID is limiting their ability to spend holidays with family—but that may also come as a relief for some. I laughed out loud when my mother recently said, “I bet this year plenty of people are thrilled to have an excuse not to see their mother in laws.” Jokes aside, as a society we rarely acknowledge the pressure women in particular, face to keep smiling during holidays. Whether you’re expected to cook for tons of people, travel miles, or spend an exorbitant amount, the idea that holidays are relaxing is a myth for many.
For this reason, some people have begun quietly celebrating holidays on their own terms. In addition to my cool, Paris-bound colleague, I had a guy friend confide that his preferred way to spend Christmas Day is at his favorite Chinese restaurant—by himself. He has plenty of loved ones, but said he finds this tradition stress-free—no bumper-to-bumper holiday traffic or long airport lines. But he certainly doesn’t broadcast this. Because we have all been conditioned that you are not supposed to admit that you enjoy spending a holiday in any way that deviates from a Christmas movie cliché.
Not too long ago, I joined the Celebrating-holidays-on-your-own-terms-can-be-pretty-terrific Club. It all started with a trip to South Africa with my then-boyfriend in the lead up to Christmas. The plan was that after spending Christmas Eve together we would part ways and spend the rest of the holidays with our extended families.
Only as our extraordinary trip came to a close, and Christmas Eve approached, I realized I simply couldn’t do it. I could not set foot in another airport. I wanted to go home to my small New York apartment and sleep in my own bed.
So I called my mom and said what you are never supposed to say: I want to spend Christmas alone. My mom (kindness incarnate) told me to rest and said my family would be waiting for me when I was ready. After spending much of Christmas morning and afternoon sleeping, I made my way to a local transitional housing facility and helped serve Christmas dinner. Then went back home and took the world’s longest bubble bath and wondered why every Christmas couldn’t feel equally rewarding and relaxing.
I realize in a year when so many have experienced real hardship, a story about someone choosing not to travel one Christmas is a story told from a place of privilege. However, part of what makes that Christmas memory so special for me is that it reminded me what matters most: faith, family, service, self-care, and reflection. My only hope is that this holiday season we can pause and learn to carry these sorts of small joys forward.
Keli Goff was nominated for two Emmy Awards for her work on the Netflix documentary Reversing Roe.