When the holiday started feeling more like a duty than a delight, Katie Arnold-Ratliff and her husband decided to celebrate solo.
For five years, I experienced Christmas through my windshield. I awoke at 8 a.m., dragged my then-boyfriend, Adam, out of bed, and merged us onto the 20-mile stretch of clogged interstate that would deliver us in succession to my dad's, Adam's parents', Adam's aunt's, and Adam's brother's; and finally, to my mom's for dinner. Fifteen hours later, we'd come home too cranky to do much more than collapse in front of Scrooged.
But our marriage, in 2005, emboldened us. We were a family now, and as much as we loved our relatives, we'd be damned if we'd spend one more holiday celebrating with everyone but each other. We decided to compromise: We'd make the rounds on Christmas morning but have dinner at home. Alone. When I broke this to my mom after Thanksgiving, there was a pained silence. but come December 25, Adam and I stayed strong, heading home before dark to roast a duck and make bûche du Noël. The shift was small but significant: Christmas no longer felt like a series of obligations into which our celebration could only be penciled in. It started to feel like it could belong to us.
The next year, we moved from California to New York. Too poor for cross-country plane tickets, we made our own holiday: dollar-store decorations, a few presents. We sent our parents photos of our tiny tree and snowy fire escape, and they told us they were glad we had each other to share Christmas with in the big city. We were glad, too. Our private holiday was a revelation. We sipped Champagne before noon. We dorked out on British comedy (Blackadder's Christmas Carol; The Office Christmas specials) and watched Home Alone (the irony!). We didn't go near our car—hell, we didn't go outside. Through the window we heard people piling their kids and gifts into taxis as we settled in for a long winter's nap. It was indeed the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
It still is. Through our finances have improved, we still stay put in December. Our families don't ask about our plans anymore, but if they ever do, we'll tell them we can't wait to see them on Boxing Day, or New Year's, or in February, when New York is least tolerable. We'll tell them, too, that we're convinced everyone ought to have the right to design his or her own holiday. Neither of us can imagine trading our traditions—touring the Botanical Garden, visiting Arthur Avenue to hear Sinatra play from loudspeakers on the streetlights, making beef Bourguignonne on Christmas Eve—for crushing gridlock and gatherings at which our only contact would be an occasional wave across a crowded room. This time of year is about celebrating what matters to you most. For us, that's each other.