For a few years after I moved to Los Angeles from Montana, my mother gave me tree ornaments when I went home for Christmas—delicate glass icicles and handmade silver stars. She wasn't trying to encourage me to spend the holidays somewhere else; she was just acknowledging that I was now an adult. Baffled, I hung the ornaments right back on her tree. What else would I do with them? Christmas paraphernalia lived in my parents' attics, because Christmas happened at home.
Gradually, though, I started to develop a fantasy about staying in L.A. The weather is tauntingly spectacular in the last week of December, the skies clear and blue from winter winds. After a few parties, everything shuts down and the freeways empty. I could swim in an outdoor pool with all the lanes free, and surf without stealing anyone's wave. I could go to brunch, see a movie, open no presents, cook nothing.
What I was avoiding, in my fantasy, was crowding onto an overloaded plane, then changing to a tiny second plane in Salt Lake City to arrive in Montana late at night. I was avoiding the cold I always catch, and the tension about exactly how much time to spend at my father's house, my mother's house, my stepmother's house (long story), and my grandparents' house with my uncles and aunts and cousins. I was avoiding the marathon of presents, each more difficult to pack.
I was also avoiding the schlepping of Christmas stockings from one house to the other, which my brother and I still do in our 30s because my mother's face crumples when we occasionally forget, and because my father spends all year collecting small stocking-friendly gifts. You'd think we could own two sets, but my mother knitted the stockings when we were babies, with our names and birth dates and Santa's face with a fuzzy angora beard, so we tote them back and forth like Halloween loot bags. Refills on stockings once seemed like an accidental bonus of divorce, but how many knick-knacks and oranges does one person need?
If I stayed in L.A., I wouldn't see my old friends, but I also wouldn't end up racing from one party to another on slippery streets. I wouldn't have to make, at my mother's house, the peanut brittle my father still loves—a strange ritual that annoys my stepmother, who doesn't like having first-marriage confections around. I need my mother's help to make it because I never know when to take the pot off the stove (too soon and the brittle will stick to your teeth, too late and the nuts will burn). My mother does it by smell, rushing in with the pot holders while I'm still dropping test globs of candy in ice water.
Just to complicate the algorithm by which holiday time is apportioned, my mother's family also gathers in Oregon every other year. My mother (like my father) has three brothers and a sister, and they all have children, and now their children have children. The flights to Oregon from Montana—two or three, through Salt Lake or Seattle or Portland—are cramped and turbulent, and they're often delayed or canceled. My grandmother becomes a nervous Border collie with an incomplete flock until that brief, happy moment when everyone has arrived—at which point she starts worrying about departures.
We go to midnight mass in Oregon, and on Christmas Day we eat tourtières for breakfast, as my grandparents did when they were children. The recipe is a relic of medieval French cooking, a flaky piecrust filled with ground pork, spiced with cinnamon and cloves, served (this part isn't medieval) with Del Monte dill pickles. The pickles are not negotiable; they've been Del Monte as long as anyone can remember, presumably because they were cheap, and now the flavor combination is seared into everyone's brain. To refuse a piece of tourtières is to be suspected of an eating disorder. But I'll risk saying in print that I could survive without them.