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.
Or at least that's what I used to think every October, when it was time to book the flights on those bouncy small planes.
Two years ago, I opted out and flew to New York for a stripped-down Christmas with my boyfriend's family. His mother, brother, and sister usually go upstate with friends, but that year they were having dinner at home in the city. The trip had some of the appeal of my fantasy—no small planes, no presents, no parceling out time equally between my parents. And it would be glamorous Manhattan: people bustling around in boots and coats, under the holiday lights. There was always Rockefeller Plaza if I needed a skating fix.
Things started off well. We went to a cocktail party with writers and architects and an Irish poet I'd read in college. The hostess was English, and handed out sheet music for English carols no one knew; sight-reading around the piano, we all sang gamely anyway. We had drinks at my agent's apartment, and I was interviewed for a magazine story about my new novel. If I had been told, when I was 22 and wanting to be a writer, that I might someday have such a Christmas, I wouldn't have believed it.
My boyfriend had learned to knit in order to make his mother a scarf, but he'd run out of wool on the plane, midway through the last-minute matching hat. So we spent an afternoon wandering the city, looking for a matching skein. A woman in a shop gave us a tip on a knitting store a few blocks away. They couldn't match the yarn, but sent us to another narrow building, with a small room full of knitting supplies on an upper floor. Someone there suggested a third shop. It was like trying to buy drugs, except drugs must be easier to find. We never did track down the yarn, but it was lovely to walk around in the pale winter light without anywhere we had to be.
Christmas Eve, we went to Rockefeller Plaza but couldn't even see the ice; people were packed against the rail 20 deep. So many men were dressed as Santa Claus, it looked like he had hired decoys for protection. We searched for a carol service and failed; the midtown churches weren't going to waste their bumper crowds on kiddie songs. Still, there was snow in the air and the lights were pretty, and a million jolly people walked the streets.
Christmas Day, I went for a run in Central Park, where people wandered, walking off meals. Opening presents took no time: I got two books. The homemade scarf was a big hit, even without the hat.
It was everything I had wanted in a holiday, but I wanted everything else. When I called home to Montana, everyone was together, all my uncles and aunts and cousins. My brother was home, his first baby about to be born. They passed around the phone, and I could hear someone pounding noisily on the piano, and my sister singing. (She's my half sister, my father and stepmother's daughter, so her stocking gets to stay in one place.) I don't know what song it was—it seemed like multiple songs—but it was the death knell of my L.A. fantasy. It wasn't just that I missed my family. I missed all the attendant madness. My brother, who is two years younger, said, "I wish you'd been here to decide when to move from Mom's house to Dad's house. When you're not here, I don't know when to go."
Last year there was no hesitation about going to Montana. My boyfriend—he's now my husband—loves it there too. It was an off year for Oregon, which made things simpler. We even skipped the stockings, out of pure weariness of presents. My father, who keeps a secret stash of embarrassing artifacts from our childhood, gave me an autobiographical poster I'd made in school at 7 or 8, a self-portrait with ketchup-colored hair framed by spiraling text: Something special about me is I am helpful. I feel nervous when I have something that I think will be hard. My mother made tourtières. My sister had a new boyfriend everyone loved. My brother wasn't home, but we crowded around the computer to watch a video of his baby playing with a giant plush monkey.
At the big lake outside town, the ice had expanded in thick sheets up onto the beach, jutting at an angle into the air, so we had to clamber over and slide down the other side before putting on our skates. Someone sailed an iceboat by at 50 miles an hour. We played hockey with no lines, racing after loose pucks, my uncle guarding the makeshift goal in his snow boots. The mountains turned pink on the other side of the lake as the sun started to go down; the ice was black underfoot with fine white cracks, and silvery blue in the distance.
This will be our first married Christmas, and we're going to horrify some people by spending it apart. For my grandparents, the essential thing about Christmas is midnight Mass, and the birth of a child who shall be called Prince of Peace. For my mother, I think it's the solstice and the fact that the days will get longer, the light will return. For my father it's Santa Claus, the spirit of abundance and generosity. But for me, it seems to be something at once simpler and more complicated than all these things. So my husband will go to New York while I'm in Montana, and then together we'll brave the little flights to Oregon. I'm slow, but I learn. Someone else can have the empty freeways and the waves; I'm going home.
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