The scene is Christmas 2013. There are 13 adults seated around a too-small table in a too-loud striving Italian restaurant in Georgetown. One couple is divorced. Two siblings don’t speak directly to each other, just through the semi-newcomer who unwittingly sat between them. The grandparents are beloved, but their political views are not – and they keep sharing them. Plus, it’s past their bedtime, and running beneath their exhaustion seems to be a low-grade anxiety about who’s going to pick up the bill.
Dessert is served. Everyone remarks on how good the tiramisu is despite there being too much espresso trying to cover up too dry of lady fingers. Someone orders a cappuccino, and someone else groans, because, come on, that’s one more thing! Someone gets in a last jibe about the female minister at church who likes Hillary Clinton too much – nudge nudge – if you know what he means!
Finally, the bill arrives, and it’s handled mysteriously. Then everyone sprints through the bitter cold and wind to their respective rideshare cars or taxis to go home to their corners. One Uber home is jovial, with the six immediate family members who do get along sharing an over-sized SUV. Jokes about who said what, who didn’t say what, and could you believe either?
When the happiest family gets home, they pile inside and share a few more drinks around the outdoor fireplace, because they just want to keep spending time together – just them, six adults who generally enjoy each other’s company despite occasional outbursts of sibling annoyance. That’s when an idea hits: What if they just go away for Christmas, the six of them, and spend unadulterated time together for the holiday. What if that is the gift? A no-pressure, no-present, no-arguments holiday?
And so an idea was born. The next morning my father-in-law and I again spun this idea around a bit, questioning if it could work. Why couldn’t it? Everyone was an adult. No children needed to wake up at home for Santa. Everyone that wouldn’t be invited had their own families to spend time with, if they could get it together. Was it really our job to make their holidays easier? What about our holiday enjoyment? Couldn’t a bunch of adults do Christmas anywhere on the globe they wanted?
And so a trip was planned. Someone knew someone whose family had recently raved about a trip to Costa Rica. Nobody in our family had been before. The matriarch strongly preferred warmth. I strongly prefer warm locales because other people’s lack of planning gives me anxiety, and it’s easier to wing it somewhere warm than somewhere cold. The dad and one son hate airports and lines, so no more than one stop was allowed. The other son and the daughter would be coming from New York and Chicago, they, too, needed a non-stop or one-stop flight. San Juan, Costa Rica checked all those boxes.
And so a tradition was born. Costa Rica, Belize, Palm Beach (admittedly a cop-out, but fitting into the “no new friends / our family only” category), and Turks and Caicos. The agreement initially was that we’d keep this up until there was a baby in the family, then we’d re-evaluate being away from home for the holidays. This family will welcome its first baby to the family in April, so we’ll see what Christmas looks like after that. But it’s been a really, really fun adventure – a bunch of them – in the meantime.
We haven’t given gifts since that ill-fated Christmas of 2013. Instead we’ve used our gifts and shared them with each other to plan the best trips and have the best time.
I’m the researcher and planner. I give that to the family. My sister-in-law is the peacemaker and the one who finds joy nearly always – all family vacations need those two gifts to succeed. My brother-in-law is the physical, try-anything-once guy. He has pushed us to try more things and be braver and stay out for that last drink. He’s also got a gift for winging it and finding things at the last minute. Unplanned deep-sea fishing adventure? Will will find a boat, if you can find the cash. My husband shares his knack for finding the best of everything, then acquiring it. My mother-in-law gives us what we want, even if it’s way beyond her comfort zone. A zip-line through the rain forest? She’ll try it, if we really want her to. Hiking two miles with an inner tube to raft through a cave system? She might need some help with the tube, but count her in. I’ve seen her uncomfortable, but I’ve never seen her unhappy when she’s with her three kids – and seeing that is both a privilege and a gift. My father-in-law gives us his contentment. He has no pretenses and his only strong preference on vacation is for wide, sandy beaches. But he’ll take any beach, so long as his family’s there. Bad waves? He’ll play Frisbee. Bad food? He’ll eat it. Give him his family and he’ll even wait in line, for a bit – just don’t push it. He gives us the feeling that whatever we’re doing, however we’re doing it, it’s exactly right.
This year welcomed two new adults to the island Christmas life. They brought their gifts. My sister-in-law’s boyfriend saved the day with his quiet, steady competence. While the original men bickered about who left the car lights on and how in the world would we get a jump on Christmas Eve, he got the car started. A few days later when his bike chain kept breaking, he didn’t complain, he barely even commented. He just kept fixing the chain and getting back on the bike. My new sister-in-law, in addition to carrying the gift of the newest member of the tribe, shared her humor. Seven hours on a slightly smelly boat at five months pregnant? She laughed about it, and her discomfort, and had the perfect quip about the first mate to make us all laugh.
Next year will look different. We’ll have a little human joining the adults, and we likely won’t be on a beach. I hope we keep the tradition of giving of ourselves, though. I might not buy as nice as purses as my mother-in-law does, but I can buy my own purse. I can’t buy the memory of her swinging on a hammock with a stranger on a sunset cruise drinking a pineapple panty dropper. I certainly don’t have as good as taste in cool/comfy clothing as my sister-in-law, but I’d prefer a lifetime of Christmases without Rag and Bone t-shirts in favor of a giggly debate over constellations and the meaning of stars.
Recovering journalist who discovered a life outside of news leaves you time for things like getting angry, cooking and traveling. Plus, hopefully, writing. I’m a wife, dog mom and Washingtonian.