Finding More Happiness in the Holidays

life/my story

There’s comfort in doing the same things year after year. But when they don’t bring you joy, you have to invent your own traditions, says Veronica Chambers. She did just that—and found a whole new warmth in Christmas.


By Veronica Chambers
Above Image | Getty Images

Hi, my name is Veronica and I’m a pleaser. Or, I should say, a pleaser in recovery. In my past, I understood intellectually that “No” is a full sentence and that it was ridiculous to take on a to-do list longer than the U.S. Constitution. But that didn’t stop me from trying, especially around the holidays. I didn’t have a lot of traditions growing up; I lived in fractured households with not a lot of money. (My mom likes to say we used to dine on “air pudding and nothing pie”—an exaggeration, but not by very much.) So when my husband’s family turned out to be warm and welcoming, I threw myself into their celebrations.

For 10 years, we made the two-hour drive down to my in-laws’, and every year there was just so much to do: presents to wrap and pack, potluck dishes to be prepared, wine to be bought, holiday cookies to be picked up at the grocery store since I can’t bake to save my life (though of course I would try, which would add another level of anxiety to the proceedings). We would leave late, because that’s what happens when you have a little kid and a husband who’s glued to his computer doing “just one more thing.” And then there would be the texts from my in-laws, “What’s your ETA? What’s your ETA?” They asked because they were trying to time dinner, but I always wanted to text back, “Our ETA is late. Horribly late.” I was a stress ball before I even walked in the front door. But these were our traditions, so I had to stick to them. Right?

It wasn’t long after I turned 40 that I admitted—to myself, anyway—that the big celebration brought me not just ready-made family traditions but strain and exhaustion. I wondered: Is there another way to celebrate, a way that acknowledges the peace and comfort I’ve always craved? So it began, innocently enough, as one Christmas away. I’d heard about this beautiful old boutique hotel that had recently been renovated, and at Christmas, I noticed, the prices plummeted. I started envisioning my husband, 5-year-old daughter, and me looking out at the ocean from a cozy room, with other people to cook and take care of all those holiday details. I longed to put my little family there. And then I realized: If I don’t make this happen, who will?

That year, we downplayed the departure from tradition with my husband’s family. We promised we’d be back in a week and would celebrate again with them, and nobody protested. After all, it was going to be just this once.

From the moment we woke up on December 23, I was more relaxed than I’d been in ages. There was no food to prepare. We were going to a hotel! I packed our swimsuits for the pool and felt like a rich lady, jet-setting off for Christmas. I packed my daughter’s presents. Then I was done. We left late for the hotel, because of kid-watching-TV and husband-on-computer syndrome, but there were no texts asking for our ETA. When it turned out we wouldn’t make it until dinner although the plan was to arrive for lunch, I actually called the hotel and they said, “That will be fine, Mrs. Chambers. Your room will be ready.”

On Christmas Eve, we slept in and walked on the beach. In the afternoon, we read by the fireplace, then went for a long swim in the indoor pool. I spent a heavenly 20 minutes in the eucalyptus-scented steam room. On Christmas morning, we cracked the window. Looking out at the ocean and hearing it felt like a gift before the presents were even opened. After lunch, we walked out to a 19th-century lighthouse. It was so peaceful. I felt so connected to both my husband and my daughter. I asked my husband, “Do you think we can do this again?” He looked at me incredulously. “Of course we’ll do this again,” he said. “It’s perfect.” So we did. It’s been four years of Christmas on the chilly, beautiful beach that’s so blessedly empty it feels like our beach.

It helped that there were no family feuds, no agita or angst driving our decision. My husband was the one who told his family months in advance that we’d be back at the hotel the next Christmas, because we had a sense it would take some time to get used to. But it was me they emailed and called (again and again and again) to ask why. My husband can see three missed calls from his mother and think, I’ll call her this weekend. Me, I get back to you within the hour. I’m the pleaser, remember? I want to make everyone happy. But that turned out to help. I think it became clear that we weren’t saying, “Holidays with you are a pain in the butt.” We were saying, “We love you, but we want to do it a different way,” and they knew it was true. The calls and emails slowed. Doing our own thing was accepted into the family fold, like anyone’s quirks or opinions.

We always go see family later in the week, if not the very next day. (Sometimes we see my family, too, though we usually visit them other times of the year, since Christmas isn’t as deep-down crucial for them.) It’s a thrill for my daughter, to have her two Christmases, and energizing for the adults to meet after the shine of the big day starts to fade. I know my plan doesn’t sound like heaven to everyone; to those who revel in your family holiday, I am delighted for you. But every year I read so many Facebook messages from miserable grown-up women. One said she was 56 years old and had just spent another terrible Christmas with the sister who cuts her down and the adult nephew who questions why she never had children when everyone knows she had multiple miscarriages. “I cried all the way home,” she wrote, and her husband was so angry he nearly punched somebody.

I wanted to say, “Don’t go. Stop going. You are a grown woman and you get to make choices.” Yet I know it’s not that easy. Our parents are in good health and, knock wood, we have many years left to enjoy their company. There are no complicated financial or emotional land mines to navigate. If my husband weren’t on board, it would be tougher—probably impossible—to do this. Our big family tribes are important; I believe this. But seeking independence for our smaller family has given us a stronger identity, and my daughter has seen firsthand how to create something special out of a single idea.

And yes, it’s for me—just me—too. It gives me the feeling that I’ve done what they always say to do in those airplane safety videos: I’ve applied my own oxygen mask first. I get three days to recover from a hectic season. Time slows down. I exercise, go swimming, read a book. I’m calmer, more patient. I go into the big gathering with the kind of peace I’ve always longed for the holidays to have. Things that used to bother me just… don’t. I’ve already given myself and my family Christmas; then, we widen the circle and come together with others to share the love.

Our holiday tradition is, ultimately, about balancing the way I give to myself with the way I give to others. No matter where you find joy on the big day, do something for yourself, too, something that makes you feel good for days afterward, not moments. Is it taking one of those wine and painting classes with a friend you never see, or getting your makeup done at a store counter before your office Christmas party? For me, the minute that hotel-room door opens, my brain clicks off. I stop cataloging chores and calls to return, menus and to-do lists. I get away from my old habits and inclinations. I catch glimpses of myself—swimming in a pool on Christmas Eve, dressing up for high tea with my daughter, running down the hill toward the lighthouse on Christmas Day with my family—and I feel like the woman I want to be. That’s my gift to myself, and it’s the one every woman deserves.