When You Can’t Go Home for the Holidays

A family holds tight to tradition in the face of the hardest year.

By Anna Lee Beyer

In my family, going home for Christmas means driving from Texas to Alabama with my husband and two young daughters.

Staying home for Christmas, which we have never done, would mean catastrophic events have made that drive impossible.

This year, we are staying home. We will spend December 25 in San Antonio. This entire holiday season is a proxy for 2020, the weirdest and hardest year of our lives — a dirge of losses and longings that we did our best to brighten up with a little glitter and fresh loaves of bread.

Just as summer ended, a deep ache crept into my diaphragm any time I thought about plans for the rest of the year. In a normal year we would have spent half of December in Southern Alabama with my parents and my brother’s family. My 4-year-old started talking about “Christmas at Gran and Pawpaw’s house” in October.

Stomach pain is a legitimate physical symptom of grief, and mine grew worse every time I heard a mention of Christmas, anticipating the hard conversations, the admissions that this year would be different. I had to figure out how to create Christmas in a house that had sat dark and dormant in Decembers past.

My children have never experienced Christmas morning anywhere other than their grandparents’ house. That’s where Santa finds them, and that’s where their stockings hang.

In this displaced holiday season, how would we carry out traditions? I’d never whole-heartedly decorated our house.

Overcompensating, my husband and I didn’t just put up a tree, we put up two. I soothed my ache with a rose gold tree that casts its pink glow in the dark house when I collapse to watch TV every night. The second tree is an exuberant patchwork of homemade and kitschy ornaments in the kids’ playroom.

I felt sentimental as we unpacked boxes of Disney-themed ornaments my mother-in-law collected decades before we even gave her grandchildren — tiny plush characters from “The Little Mermaid,” “Cinderella” and “The Rescuers,” from Happy Meals some 30 years ago. After my husband and I married in 2004, she gave them to us in anticipation of a future kid-centric holiday season in our household. Her gifts time-traveled to tickle my little girls in this lonely month, a reminder of the grandmother they haven’t seen since January. My husband and I shared a teary look, smiling at how her generosity had breached space and time.

If this were any other year, his folks, Grammy and Grampy, would have driven down from Connecticut to visit in early December. This year we will do our best to share our holiday enthusiasm through FaceTime.

I have newfound admiration for the matriarchs and patriarchs who host holiday gatherings every year. Launching a winning Christmas campaign full of good cheer and memories, all without the key ingredients of important people and places, takes careful planning. An excerpt from my checklist:

Start planning menus weeks in advance.

Order all the feast ingredients early enough that they’re not sold out but not so early that my fridge can’t handle it.

Make the seafood gumbo on Christmas Eve.

Don’t forget the cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer.

Plan to Zoom with cousins since we won’t spend afternoons drinking coffee and eating cheese balls at my mom’s dining room table while our kids do noisy things outside.

Spending holidays apart from family wasn’t born with coronavirus. It has happened throughout our personal histories for both traumatic and mundane reasons: depressions, recessions, petty rifts, World Wars.

During World War II, my grandfather was a prisoner of war for 364 days. That Christmas in 1944, my grandmother was home in Alabama with a 3-month-old while her husband was being held captive on the other side of the world. I imagine what it was like for her to be overwhelmed by her own circumstances and so uncertain about the future. Like we have been all year.

My grandmother always had a way of identifying my heartbreak and reminding me of what she had survived as proof that we are stronger than we think.


I avoided the inevitable conversations about holiday plans until Thanksgiving, when my mom asked, “What are y’all going to do about Christmas?”

“I think you know the answer to that,” was all I could say.

When we talked later, both of my parents said that they would give anything to be with us, but they wouldn’t put us at risk. We were on the same page.

“We have to stay the course,” my dad said. My fear and guilt melted. They agreed we made the right choice to stay safe and endure this disappointment.

For the kids, I have applied liberal spoonfuls of sugar to the medicine that is pandemic Christmas. Order all the candy canes! Everyone gets an advent calendar! Play all the video games! Build all the dream houses out of blocks and blankets!

I am throwing my energy into homemade Christmas cards and wrapping gifts with shiny paper and velvet ribbons, to compensate for not delivering packages in person.

My mom won’t rush to light the decorations as we pull into the driveway, and my dad won’t meet us with the traditional Southern “Christmas Gift” greeting as we unload from our long drive. We won’t sit on the floor of my parents’ living room surrounded by family, giving each other gifts and being each others’ gifts. But, next year we will. After our quiet Christmas 2020 party for four, I’ll do what I do at the end of every season: start planning for the next.

Anna Lee Beyer is a writer living in San Antonio, Texas.

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