After almost six years, a wedding, and a house, there aren’t a whole lot of “firsts” left for my husband and me. In a few weeks, we’re adopting our first pet. When we have some spare money, I hope someday we can take our first trip to Europe. Maybe one day we’ll have our first child. But in the meantime, one of those rare “firsts” is coming up, and it’s our first Christmas as a married couple. It also happens to be the first Christmas I’ll spend away from home. Christmas has always struck me as the most romantic of holidays, what with the cozying up from the cold weather, wine, music, twinkling lights, general goodwill, and chance to express your love and thoughtfulness towards your significant other. Remember that scene in “A Christmas Story” when Ralphie’s parents relax together on the couch in the living room with all the lights off except for the Christmas tree? That’s what I always thought Christmas with a husband would mean.
Of course, that’s what it would mean if nobody in the world had in-laws. After some informal polling, I learned nobody has a quiet Christmas at home with their honey — everyone has to go somewhere. Since Steve has spent the last five Thanksgivings with my family, it’s my turn. I’m leaving sweet home Chicago to enjoy Yuletide time with my husband and his parents on Catalina Island, where they rent a condo for the holidays.
My friends ask: “How you doing?” It’s my first Christmas away from the Zulkey clan. It’s understandable — if you have a deeply ingrained family tradition like we do, the first holiday spent elsewhere can prove jarring. I’ve heard awful stories about holidays with in-laws: mothers-in-law giving new daughters plus-sized clothing when that’s not even near the right size, parents laying guilt trips on their daughters for going somewhere else for the holidays, the tears, the arguments between spouses, the aborted trips, the bad will towards all and to all a s***** night.
I don’t anticipate any of this will be an issue. Before we married, my parents said they’d be disappointed if we didn’t make a point to share holiday time with both sets of parents. And I get along fine with my in-laws. I don’t totally understand why they have four cats apiece, but they probably don’t understand why I make their son eat quinoa and live in a climate where it’s below freezing a third of the year.
I’m just bracing for a different kind of Christmas. Steve’s parents do a laid-back holiday, often going out to a restaurant for Christmas dinner. They pared back the fanfare as Steve got older and moved away from home. Meanwhile, I’ve been spoiled rotten for Christmas my entire life. Beginning with Christmas Eve morning each year and concluding the evening of the 25th, the Zulkey holiday is packed with wacky traditions, inside jokes, and gifts ranging from the paper crowns we get in our poppers to golf clubs and Marc Jacobs handbags.
I can’t say I’m dying to leave all that behind me. I’ll be bummed to miss my Dad’s polish-sausage and scrambled eggs on Christmas morning, watching the dog choke on the wrapping paper, devouring my aunt’s awesome pierogis, and seeing my mom giving my dad his annual wrapped bottle of Nyquil. And of course I’ll miss presents from, um, Santa.
But I’m glad to have twice the family now, happy to be able to have Christmas, period. It’s a more somber holiday this year, isn’t it? Every other news item, it seems, is about stores closing, skyrocketing unemployment, holiday parties canceled. Am I really going to complain about not having my annual over-the-top Christmas? It’s not really the right time to whine.
So when my friends do ask me how I’m doing, I tell them I’m fine. I’m going on vacation for Christmas. I’ll read and stay away from the computer and go on hikes and play some golf and watch movies and maybe, just maybe, sing a little karaoke. It’ll be the four of us, with no extended family member names to memorize, no babies to entertain, and no Chicago wind chill. It’s not about where we’ll be. It’s about Christmas, together.