Is it still a holiday if the kids have moved on?

It’s beginning to look less and less like Christmas, and not just because of climate change. The oldest and her new husband recently announced they were spending the holiday with his family in England. Then the middle child reported she’d be hunkering down at college to work on her thesis. Then the youngest said she was spending her part-time job money on a ticket to visit our summer exchange student—in Spain.

We reacted with a level of grace befitting the season:

“Wait, what?! You’re leaving us home alone?”

Denial gave way to whining. (“But who’ll play the piano for our Christmas Eve sing-along of Beatles music?”) Then bargaining. (“Let’s all go! Work from Europe! What’s halfway between London and Madrid? How about the Bay of Biscay?”) Then naked self-pity. (“Fine. So it’ll be just us, then. And the pets, who don’t even know the words to ‘Hey Jude.’ ”) 

OK, so holidays are a bit off anyway here at the ocean. Santa runs around in a convertible, the local Chabad erects surfboard menorahs on the beach. Second homes that were vacant all year suddenly come alive outside with lights and wreaths, and inside with trophy wives showing the caterer where to put the turkey with the gluten-free stuffing. Still, some years are more unconventional than others. This Christmas, for instance, we officially become one of those “their-children-are-grown-now” families. 

It was bound to happen. Kids are supposed to grow up and away. One year you can’t get them out of your bed long enough to sneak out and fill their Christmas stockings, and the next they won’t join you in the most basic after-dinner belching contest. All they want to do is tell you how much better things would be if you would just go raw or stop dressing like that or invest in a microbrewery or listen to some music that’s not from the ’60s.

And what can you do except adapt as your role shifts from adored minor deity to something like overpaid consultant? Eventually, you wake up on Christmas morning and you’re  some dear old thing in the corner that’s just the teeniest bit disgusting, like a gassy golden retriever or what’s left of their blankie. Then the world turns and life calls down yet another round of transitions, and it’s time for another phase.

Still, it’s an adjustment. You unpack the holiday decorations, and here’s that little clay ornament one of them made you in second grade. And the stuffed velvet elf they used to write little notes to. And that raggedy silk bird their first cat tried to eat. 

And deeper down are the relics of your own life before children—those artisan candle holders from your first apartment, the Venetian glass balls you splurged on the year you backpacked in Italy. The tree-topper star you inherited from your parents, who felt like such bit players in your own adult transition that you can’t even remember their reaction when you first bailed on one of their holidays. 

All you know is that it happened, and they coped, no matter how far the change flung you as the planet spun out in its elliptical orbit and then, in a Christmas miracle, turned toward home again. Let it be, as they say in that beloved ’60s Christmas Eve carol. None of us are fixed points. We’ll be down by the water, which connects all shores, from the melting north pole, to Europe, to California. The Yuletide goes out, the Yuletide comes in. 

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue.

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