My Wife and I Always Spend the Holidays Apart (And We Like It That Way)

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Last Christmas Eve, my wife Kim and I performed our annual holiday ritual.

No stockings were hung, no champagne was toasted, no duet of “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays was sung,” no gifts were exchanged. Just a couple of simple ‘I love yous” before drifting off to sleep.

270 miles apart.

For ten years running, we’ve spent the holidays apart. And it’s not just Christmas. We usually go our separate ways for Thanksgiving, too.

Kim heads north to join her family in suburban Boston; I go south to sit on my Mom’s couch in her urban Philadelphia neighborhood.

Why, you ask?

Isn’t it obvious?

We adhere to a foolproof system for reducing the holiday-related torture known as in-laws.

No, not really. Yes, that’s the standing laughline we use when people look at us like we’ve just told them that we’re swingers with a: “Hey, what’re you doing this weekend?” look, but chronic familial avoidance was actually never a major factor for us.

It seemed logical, reasonable, and economical in 1999, so we did it. And kept on doing it year after year. At this point, the reason we split up on the two biggest holidays of the year is that it’s become a tradition.

Some people have their big dinner Christmas Eve, others on Christmas Day. And some people’s time-honored Christmas ritual includes holding hands in the cold on 8th Avenue in Manhattan before tearily boarding Boltbuses headed in opposite directions on I-95.

That’s a slight exaggeration. Kim gets up much much earlier than I do, so our parting is usually a kiss-on-the-slumbering-cheek and an unrequited “Tell your Mom I said ‘Merry Christmas’.”

To us, it seems like no big deal, but last year when I started a new job, some of the women in my office found this whole thing truly remarkable. One thought it a perfect synthesis of modern marriage; another an interesting precedent to look into; another couldn’t believe either mother-in-law would allow it; while a fourth simply looked at me with sad eyes and said in a muted tone, as if our puppy had just perished,  “Wow…that’s too bad.”

The thing is, though, it’s not. From our perspective, the idea of the importance of holidays trumps the actual events of the day itself.

We don’t have any kids (yet), so it’s not like we’re missing out on the joys of watching our footie-pajama-clad-brood roll around in shiny wrapping paper. And we have spent a few Thanksgivings together at home in New York City, but only when there were special extenuating circumstances like west coast visitors or being tasked to march with Barney in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

As for Christmas, well, it works out for the best. Kim’s family celebrates traditionally with a big tree, a big meal, and a big discussion on how early they should get up to work out on December 26.

Mom and I, we spend a lot of time on her couch. She lives alone in a ramshackle rowhouse in a decaying neighborhood, so decorating isn’t all that high on her holiday priority list. We watch TV; we talk about the old days; we call my brothers; and then I get drunk with my cousins. This isn’t to say that we don’t have a fine time together — it just lacks 95% of the typical holiday hullabaloo.

Quick! Outside of some major food catastrophe or bizarre visitor, try to remember a specific Thanksgiving dinner. Pleasant? Absolutely. Memorable? Meh.

Except for the year my Dad made cold pumpkin soup. (Three decades later, I still shudder.)

My Uncle John always cooks up a nice prime rib on Christmas Day, and the night before, Mom and I go out to eat. One year, the only place we could find open was a Shula’s Steakhouse. Their menu comes on a football, an actual leather football. God bless us, everyone!

Kim’s experience is a little more Bedford Falls to my Pottersville, which suits us both just fine. Her upside is the Christmas-y feel of hot cocoa in her pajamas; mine is that Mom no longer has the desire to attend Christmas mass.

The most important part is that it works for Kim and me. If there was ever any in-law badgering about the standing arrangement, it went by the wayside as soon as a lack of grandchildren rendered us more or less irrelevant.

At the dawn of a new decade, however, our perfect holiday system may have run its course. When we met back up at home, Kim announced that she didn’t want to split up for both Thanksgiving and Christmas anymore. And as much as I enjoyed the Thanksgiving meal and forgotten family trivia served up at the Palm in Philly (FYI: It’s housed in the same building as my Mom’s high school prom), it may be time for Kim and I to start our own damn traditions.

Or not.

Nothing wrong with celebrating the second Monday in November, or the holy day of December 28.

After all, it’s not the calendar, it’s the company.

Patrick Sauer is a writer who lives in New York City. Read more of his work at www.patrickjsauer.com.

Share This Post:
    • Micah

      I like this! I’ve been worried about this lately and this seems to be a solution, at least until there are kids in the picture.

    • http://Www.sharmilachauhan.wordpress.com Sharmila

      A thoroughly modern and perhaps most loving solution. Breathing space in intimacy is very special.

    • Carole

      Good for you. I like people who do what works and feels right for them. You’ll make new traditions as you spend the holidays alone together or with either or both of your families. And you’ll find that as the old folks die, you will even make more traditions. Our cousins dinners went away when my cousins quit coming to Pittsburgh for Christmas when my Aunt died, but we now happily stay home or visit other relatives on a rotating basis.

    • Cyra

      To each his own I guess. I prefer spending it building memories with each of our families. We’re both big family people so we’d feel like we’d be missing out on building memories together if we do things separate. We spend enough time throughout the year doing things separate from each other to miss some of the most important days of the year spending them apart. No thanks!

      • daniela

        I agree. Whatever floats their boat. But I want to be with my husband during those times – it’s about family and building memories together. Doing it this way would make me extremely sad.

    • Daisy

      Hi, I really want to thank you for writing this post. You said brilliantly what I am struggling a bit with right now. I am part of a young married couple living in Brooklyn with no children (but two cats)! The holidays were always a big to-do in my family (mostly with decorating, visiting, drinking, and eating). My husband’s family is a little bit more “whatever” about them. We are a pretty unconventional couple and do what works for us, while still being understanding of others. We tend to shift each year, one year holidays with just the two of us in the city, one year with friends, one year with my family, one year with his, etc.. However, we are considering spending Christmas apart with one’s own family of origin this year. There seems to be a lot of opinions and judgments about this from others. But, I think (as does he) it is perfect. This article was so helpful in realizing that other couples do the same.

      He and are struggling financially right now (both in graduate school) and we both miss our families. Time and money have kept us apart from them recently. So, we will go our separate paths this year. The holidays should be a time of peace and this decision helps to create peace. Also, I am ultimately more concerned about the little ones in both our families enjoying some gifts from “Santa” and giving to those in need (like through toys-for-tots).

      Thanks again, you really helped more than you realize. Happy holidays to you and yours.

      • Patrick Sauer

        Daisy,

        Glad I could be of help to a fellow Brooklynite.

        Give it a shot apart. If it doesn’t take, it’s only one holiday. I think you might find it to be a pleasant solution for all involved. Plus, it always made getting back together on 12/27 or whatever it’s own special sort of thing. Who doesn’t love a bonus holiday? Scrooges. That’s who.

        Best,
        Patrick Sauer
        http://www.patrickjsauer.com
        @pjsauer

    • Dave

      I’m going through this struggle with my girlfriend right now and I think this might be the right solution for us, but I needed a little nudge to tell me it’s a normal thing to do. What’s normal anyways?

      • Anna

        I think it’s a normal thing to do, particularly if you’re childless and not married. I’m a newlywed with an 8 year old from a previous marriage and I’m pretty sure my darling husband and I will be spending christmas apart but Thanksgiving together. We just moved from upstate New York to San Diego this summer. His mother lives in southern california, and his brother lives in northern california. My whole family is back in upstate New York, and we’re all very close. They helped me raise my boy when my ex took off, and I can’t imagine keeping my son from them on Christmas. If I could afford to fly the three of us home for Thanksgiving and Christmas I would, but its very expensive to fly then. Thanksgiving we will spend in California together, and Christmas might be me and my son with our big loud, involved family, and my husband with his mother and/or brother. Our reasons are purely financial, but we get to spend every single day together and are both fine with not being together for the holidays and celebrating together as our little family after the new year.

    • frankiek

      My husband and I just got married a few weeks ago but plan on spending Thanksgiving apart. We have spent thanksgiving apart for probably the last 5 years, because I go to Florida to see my family. I have the day after Thanksgiving off and a flexible schedule and he has to work that Friday and sometimes the weekend also. We started our own tradition a few years ago, I cook a whole Thanksgiving meal for just the two of us, yes it’s way too much food for us but it’s something we love to do. It gives us time to spend together without all the craziness of all of the extended families and going house to house. We do not have kids yet and I am sure that will change when we do but maybe not, there may be some years when I take our children to Florida to spend the holidays with their only cousins. I think it’s what each person makes of it, just because you are not together on the actual day does not mean something is wrong with your relationship or something is lacking.