MY FRIEND JENNY and I were talking. She didn’t want to go home to New York for Christmas this year; she was thinking she’d just stay in Tucson, where we both lived, stumbling through our first semester of graduate school. Her parents were going through a divorce, and the idea of confronting celebrations in different homes was exhausting to her. “Christmas just isn’t convenient for me this year,” she said.
I agreed. Christmas with divorcing parents is like Valentine’s Day after a breakup—why not just ignore it? “Then skip it. Go home in, like, January. A less emotional time,” I said. “Hang out here and get some stuff done. I almost wish I could do that.” I was stressed with school, and broke. I wanted to just continue my quiet work, my cheap existence of a steady day-to-day studying in sweat pants. I could do without the holiday parties, without the gifts to give and be gotten.
When I was a kid and I used to ask my dad what he wanted for Christmas, he would sigh one of his great fatherly sighs that seemed to come with its own time stamp—one that considers, in a single exhale, the problems of his world.
“Health,” he’d say. “The health of my family.”
I rolled my eyes and agreed. Yeah, yeah, health and happiness, but what do you really want? Like… what can I get you?
The week before Thanksgiving—the week before I turned 25, as my birthday and Turkey-day coincided after seven years off—one of my best friend’s mom died. She died suddenly, of a heart attack. I found out in a middle-of-the-day email, and I was far away. Too far to get in my car and give Rachel a hug, to bolt over to the house where we had spent, it seemed, half of high school. The memorial service would be the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. I was already going home for Thanksgiving; I would change my ticket to stay longer, and I would wait until my classes ended and I could go home.
Suddenly, my double holiday didn’t seem convenient. Celebrating with the friends I had celebrated with every year for more than a dozen years seemed ridiculous—self-indulgent, superfluous. We would just go over to Rachel’s house and we would do what she needed done. We would clean, make food, take the dog for a walk. We would sit and hold hands in the house Rachel grew up in; the house where we took pictures before senior prom (where, when my date had forgotten to bring me a corsage, Rachel’s mom had fashioned a bouquet for my wrist from her rose garden); the house where Rachel and I spent hours baking and drinking wine and watching movies when we both ended up living at home after college; where Rachel’s mom had helped me pick out a dress for my first big date with my first adult boyfriend.
By the time I arrived back in Los Angeles, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Rachel had buried her mom.
The day after Thanksgiving, after my 25th, Rachel called me and said we were all going out to dinner.
“No no, that’s silly. I had a nice Turkey-de-birthday with my parents yesterday.”
The plan had been made, the reservation booked. “It’s a new restaurant,” she said. “Supposed to be good. It looks very chic.”
So, in spite of everything—or because of everything—we went. Before I left, after I got dressed in the room I grew up in, I went and told my own mother where I was headed.
“I feel bad. We don’t need to do this,” I said.
“But you do,” Mom said.
So we went. We ordered three bottles of wine and Rachel was fine. She wasn’t fine, of course, but she was Rachel and our friendship hadn’t changed. She was sarcastic and she laughed and we talked about vegetarianism.
We didn’t seem like adults, like we had hit the age where this could maybe be expected to happen, this kind of catastrophe. Adults, sure: This happened to adults all the time. My mom’s father had died a few summers before, but he was 89. Weren’t we still barely teenagers? But as my own mom had said, sometimes you can’t be in pain. Sometimes you have to get dressed and go be normal.
Jenny picked me up from the airport when I got back to Tucson. She had decided to skip Christmas but to go home for New Years and the first week in January.
I told her about my birthday dinner and she told me she had changed her mind. “Isn’t that the point of a holiday? That they aren’t convenient? That even though they are annoying and we are busy and tired and have better things to be doing… that they make us stop what were doing and fricken’ sit down together?”
Holidays aren’t convenient. Christmas is commercialized, Valentine’s Day is sappy and New Year’s Eve is overrated.
But they exist, and they are meaningful because we can’t control when they do exist. “If I’m single on V-day, I make it a point to give love and chocolate to my girl friends,” Jenny said. “Or, you know, whiskey. But still, it brings us together.”
I hate New Year’s Eve, with its overblown expectations and expensive cocktails. But still, every year, I can’t help it: on December 31—that final tick on a year’s tocking—I pause and I reflect on a year past and a year to come.
The holidays are here, like it or not, and though they are inconvenient in the most heart-wrenching of ways, they are also what forces us together, a reason to sit down and drink to our health and happiness—and to holidays passed. There’s something comforting about the holidays being the same every year—the same songs, the same decorations and food—even if it is occasionally grating. The holidays are the same, so as we perform our holiday rituals, we remember the rituals of years before. We will drink wine and talk about Rachel’s mom’s amazing almond-vanilla holiday cookies.