The No-Christmas Christmas

Have a real holiday. Go away.

My sister turned red with itchy hives. The oven broke. The woman across the street went into a diabetic coma. Good family friends decided to split up. And the cat ran away. After she knocked the tree over.

All in all, Christmas 1986 was pretty awful. My mother was so busy making everything perfect no one could sit down for fear of deflating a correctly fluffed pillow. My younger sisters were so blinded by teen marketing fervor they spent all their spare moments working on elaborate gift lists complete with sizes, styles, 800 numbers, and store directions. And I was 17 and home from college, which about says it all.

After cleaning up the cat-caused debris, addressing the breakup of their friends’ 20-year marriage, hauling the 70-year-old neighbor lady’s naked body out of the bathtub, and making a meal of artichoke dip, my dad announced that we wouldn’t do it again. No Christmas.

No lights? No stockings? No tree? No presents?!

Yup, that was the deal. We’d skip the home-for-the-holidays thing and take a vacation. It sounds like something out of a terrible Chevy Chase movie. The kind with the series-of-misadventures plot: the car breaks down; the family misses the plane; the hotel burns down; the government collapses; and then the family realizes they actually miss their house with its 40,000 lights blinking in time to “Frosty the Snowman,” and they dash home only to short-out their neighborhood’s electricity on Christmas morning.

But considering the chaos of that year (I forgot to mention it was the drippiest, coldest, windiest Northwest day ever), Dad’s plan made perfect sense. We were having a miserable time anyway; might as well have it in nice weather. We would skip the presents, the decorations, and the parties, and hit the beach. I guess we all thought it was kind of a joke at the time. Can your parents really cancel Christmas? But a few weeks later, my dad brought home brochures for a Hawaiian condo, arranged the frequent flyer tickets, and the rest was a coconut-scented breeze.

And every year but two since, the family, in various combinations of participants (sometimes boyfriends and husbands tag along), flies somewhere warm and sunny for a week or so over the holiday. In the Caribbean, Hawaii, and one year in South Africa, Christmas has been just another day on the beach with an extra whisky sour, margarita, or pi�olada to celebrate.

Sounds crazy? Disrespectful? Unpatriotic? Scroogelike? It’s none of these. In fact, I’m so accustomed to the idea of going away that the idea of Christmas at home seems bizarre. I like looking at the trees and the lights and the mistletoe-but do it myself? I’ll take our un-Christmas anytime. Sure, we miss out on a few cups of eggnog and quickly forget the words to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, but we avoid a lot of other things, too. There’s no pressure to buy perfect gifts (for relatives at least), no need to sit through another giant group meal, no demands to get the house decorated just so, to have the best party, to instill the right amount of togetherness, to juggle familial obligations with visits from old friends.

And here’s the surprising revelation: I’d put my family’s Christmases up against anyone else’s. Sure, Martha Stewart would be appalled (no crafts! no cookies! no fruitcake!), but we get more than our fill of bonding and fun. I’d even argue that we feel plenty of Christmas spirit, too: the caring and giving kind, not the sort that involves purchases at the mall. Even if you do believe literally in the whole frankincense and myrrh thing, do you honestly think it’s somehow religious to make sure your kid has the latest, greatest Harry Potter thingamajig?

The truth is, not having Christmas in the Hallmark sense of the word couldn’t be easier. And my family doesn’t skip the whole thing entirely. Most of us generally send out some sort of card, because we like to, not out of obligation. We usually give each other a small present, like a book for the beach or a scuba lesson, but there’s no pressure to do so. If we can’t find something for Mom in advance, making an extra special dinner is fine, too. She buys us all matching pajamas because she always has, but if one year she forgot, it wouldn’t matter.

Most years, like this one, we rent a house on a beach. We get up late, swim, make coffee, read, play games, eat, gather the energy to take some sort of excursion. Or not.

And we return from the trip relaxed and rested, entirely unstressed by maxed-out credit cards and not at all fattened up by gorging at holiday parties. So call me Ebenezer if you must, but I won’t change my style. For me, Christmas will always be white. Sand, that is.