What I Learned the Year We (Nearly) Skipped Christmas

UPDATED: February 1, 2024
PUBLISHED: December 16, 2022
family skipping christmas by traveling

It was cold that morning. By then we’d lived in Texas for three years, long enough to know that it doesn’t often get that cold. Not even in late December, two days before Christmas. When my dad went out to get the paper, he nearly slipped on the icy sidewalk.

My mom shook me awake in the dark. Despite the chill, I was out of bed in seconds, excited about the day ahead. My suitcase was packed, my traveling clothes all laid out. Today we flew back to Florida. Back to the beach. Back to warm weather.

The day before, my mom had been giddy at the prospect. Now she was nervous, on-edge, rushed. We had to get going, she explained. It was going to take a long time to get to the airport.

From the shared room down the hall, my youngest brother looked out at the white streets and shouted: “Snow!” My brothers had spent most of their young lives in South Florida, where everything shuts down any time temperatures dip below 60 degrees. They’d seen snow only once or twice, so they didn’t understand that this wasn’t snow. It was ice. A lot of it.

“It’ll take forever to get to the airport,” my dad said. “All the flights will probably be canceled.”

“If a plane is going to Florida today,” my mom said, “we are going to be on it.”

On Our Way to Skip Christmas

My dad isn’t the most sentimental sort, but for him, a good Christmas is any one where his family isn’t disappointed. So in the early morning of Dec. 23, 1998, my parents bundled us in our winter coats and buckled us into the minivan. Then they packed in the luggage, building Tetris-like walls of bags filled with beach toys and swimsuits and sunscreen.

The plan was to fly to Miami, rent a car, and drive to Key West. There, we’d spend the holidays together, as a family, without the overgifting and overdecorating and overeating of a typical Christmas. We wouldn’t be home, so Santa Claus wouldn’t know where to find us, my mom had explained to my little brothers. When they looked at me for confirmation, I just shrugged.

The drive to the airport usually takes about 40 minutes. For two hours we crawled along the icy highways. When we finally arrived, we found the terminals packed with long lines of stranded passengers and display boards full of canceled and delayed flights. My brothers and I settled in seats near a huge, glittering Christmas tree adorned with plate-sized peppermints. Meanwhile, my parents joined the frazzled masses at the ticket counter.

An hour later, they returned to inform us that our flight was delayed. But that was fine, my mom insisted. Once the sun came out, the ice would thaw, and we’d be on our way. This is Texas, after all. Ice and snow don’t last long here.

A Disappointing Christmas Memory: Part 1

My mom had turned 40 a few weeks earlier. This trip was part birthday gift, part Christmas escape, part Florida homecoming. She refused to indulge negativity. Already she could hear the ocean breeze rustling through palm trees. Let’s get some snacks, she said. We’ll be on the plane before we know it. My dad, on the other hand, was less optimistic.

Of course we were all looking forward to this vacation. My 10-year-old brother loved hotels, and nothing made him as happy as relaxing on a big comfy bed and cranking up the TV. My dad has always enjoyed days spent swimming in the ocean, followed by hearty dinners at nice restaurants. And my youngest brother was only 6 at the time, and was mostly content hamming it up for photos (and actually, that hasn’t changed much).

I was 14 and just glad to be getting out of town. I was what you’d call a late bloomer—the kid in school whom puberty seemed to forget. (By the time I started needing deodorant, I could legally drive.) It might sound sort of pathetic now, but at the time it felt like an extended childhood, a prolonged phase of magic and innocence that other kids didn’t get.

This also meant that I had trouble relating to my peers—to put it mildly. My mom tried to help by encouraging me to like stuff that other girls my age liked: clothes, boy bands, teen magazines. It didn’t do much good. The only way I wanted to wear my hair was in a low-slung ponytail, just like I always had. I bucked her attempts to put me in stylish clothes and instead opted for baggy T-shirts.

Looking back, I resisted growing up at nearly every turn. Sometimes it felt like a conscious battle against the intrusions of early adulthood. I stopped believing in Santa only after my mom told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was too old to still believe. I remember feeling pretty annoyed. And just a little bit skeptical.

After a few more hours in the airport, our flight was canceled—along with the rest of the flights on the board. The airline put us up in a hotel near the airport and promised to get us on our way to Miami first thing the next morning. That night we went to the indoor pool, ate an early dinner at the lobby restaurant and piled into the big hotel beds to watch TV.

At least my 10-year-old brother was happy.

Why We Planned on Skipping Christmas

My family’s Christmas traditions were fairly concrete by then. The rituals started Dec. 1, when my mom pulled boxes of decor from the attic and dispersed their contents over every surface of the house. Nutcrackers, Santa figurines, bushels and bushels of ribbon-adorned garland. Twinkling lights were untangled and set along flowerbeds and windows. Festive cookie tins were filled with endless batches of homemade pecan tarts, coconut thumbprint cookies and fudge.

As December progressed, we’d drive around and look at light displays. We’d watch Christmas movies and wrap presents. My mom would plan a multi-course Christmas Day dinner. On Christmas Eve, she’d cook pigs in a blanket and we’d head over to the neighborhood holiday party. The adults would drink and socialize; the kids would eat and play. We seldom had relatives around for Christmas, but after a few years in Texas, our neighbors—many of them fellow transplants—were starting to feel like an extended family of sorts.

That year, Christmas 1998, we decorated a tree, but we skipped the garland-wrapped banister, the nutcracker display on the mantel and the light-strewn yard full of wire-framed decorative reindeer. My mom had the idea for skipping Christmas three years before the John Grisham novel came out (and six years before it was adapted into the terrible movie Christmas with the Kranks). She thought that doing something different, something lighter on gifts and heavier on togetherness, would be good for us. And she knew she’d never have as much say-so as she did the year of her 40th birthday. Today, my mom can’t remember what she did on her actual birthday. It passed with little fanfare. At the time, it didn’t really matter. She had this trip to look forward to.

You should know this about my mother: She is one of the toughest people I’ve ever met. She gave birth three times without painkillers, lugged a herd of small children around Europe in the years we lived overseas and worked long hours while my dad was in college. She loathes whining in all of its forms, always emphasizing the value of dealing and doing. Growing up, my brothers and I heard every euphemism for grit you can imagine. (Her favorite was, and still is: “Put on your big-girl pants.”)

We’d lived in Florida for six years before we left for Texas—six years of weekends and summers spent at white-sand beaches, of vacations passed at seaside condos. When we landed in Dallas for the first time, my mom looked out at the brown, flat plains and wanted to cry. But she made the best of things. Jimmy Buffett’s island-inspired tunes became a staple in our house as she yearned for palm trees and warm sand. She was forever dreaming of ways to get back to the beach.

I was dreaming, too. For me, the beach was a place where I could still do all of the things I’d done since I was a little kid. A place where I could pick up seashells, build sandcastles, swim in the waves. Where I wouldn’t have to worry about wearing flattering clothes or reading teen magazines.

A Disappointing Christmas Memory: Part 2

The next day, my family got up in the cold darkness of Christmas Eve morning. Again we put on our coats, piled into the van and headed to the airport.

If the ice had melted at all the day before, it had refrozen even thicker and slicker than before. The airport was a familiar sight of snaking lines—except now it was Christmas Eve, and the place was packed with panicked crowds frantic to get home for the holidays. Things weren’t looking good. My parents went to the end of the mile-long line in front of the ticket counter. My brothers and I found seats near the same Christmas display we’d seen the day before. Somehow it looked less festive.

This time, there was no lingering hope. There were no promises of an early flight out tomorrow. The ticket agent told my parents that our flight was canceled—again—and that this time, it was for good. “Go home,” she told them. My mom didn’t argue. We rolled our suitcases out of the airport. It was a long, quiet drive back to the suburbs. The silence was interrupted only by my mom’s occasional sniffling.

When we got home, my mom didn’t even bother to unpack. It was as if the weight of her recent milestone birthday finally fell over her. She’d lost her trip and come back to a home barely prepared for Christmas—which was the very next day. What she did next shocked us at the time.

She went to bed and pulled the covers over her head. It was baffling to see our never-wallow mom in such a caricature-like state of surrender. The rest of us stood around the bed and looked at each other. Nobody knew what to do.

The Upside of Not Skipping Christmas

After a few minutes, my younger brother lit up with the realization that Santa would, in fact, be visiting after all.

My mom’s muffled voice snapped out from under a pile of blankets: “What?!”

Since we were now at home, and not in Key West, Florida, my 10-year-old brother stepped in to explain, Santa would know where to find us. My brothers were feeling better about our botched vacation already.

Next they realized that we wouldn’t have to skip the Christmas Eve party, a gathering that’s become so central to our holidays that we still attend it as adults. Then the boys put on their coats and went outside to inspect the ice. It had destroyed our vacation prospects, but actual winter weather in Texas is a spectacle to behold.

Once her sons were gone, my mom slowly peered out from under the blankets.

“Someone is going to have to be Santa,” she said.

My dad nodded slowly. He enjoys the frenetic rush of Christmas Eve shopping, but this wasn’t just fighting crowds to pick up one last-minute thing. I remember the strange feeling I got seeing the raw mechanics of Santa magic laid bare. It was adulthood creeping in. Not only was I disabused of any lingering doubt over the origins of those incredible stacks of colorful toys in my memories, but now I felt some worry that my younger brothers might be forced into this terrible realization, too.

My dad asked me if I’d help him, and, to sweeten the deal, he offered to let me pick my own presents. Now we had an afternoon to do the thoughtful gift-selecting that my mom normally takes months to do. We knew that this would be the smallest Christmas yet, with the biggest gift—our trip—never unwrapped.

But still, Santa had to come.

Saving Christmas with My Dad

My dad and I navigated the icy streets again and made our way to the mall, which, despite the inclement weather, was in a full-throttle state of Christmas Eve hysteria. My dad, riding the last-minute shopping adrenaline high, practically ran from store to store. I tailed him, less enthusiastic. I hate crowds. But I was, for maybe the first time in my life, focused on our mission instead of on complaining. My dad decided we would fill a stocking for my mom, too, in the hopes that it would brighten her mood. We grabbed a few scented lotions from Bath & Body Works, some chocolate truffles from the Godiva store, then ran through J.C. Penney. In the ladies’ department, I picked a pair of festive Christmas socks I thought she might like. My dad, who’s not always the most creative gift-giver, held up a pair of underwear.

“Do you think these are her size?”

“Dad!” Mortified, I tried to hide behind a clothing rack.

Next we headed to the toy store, where we loaded up on Lego and Matchbox cars for the boys. At one point, getting to choose everyone’s gifts made me a little drunk with power, and I briefly considered torturing my younger siblings by picking out things I knew they wouldn’t like. But as quickly as it came, that admittedly not very mature notion disappeared, and I got serious again.

I knew my mom had been eager for me to grow up, to embrace responsibility. As the oldest sibling. As someone who was now a teenager. She realized my childhood was ending before I was ready to accept it, so she tried to ease her highly sensitive daughter into understanding. The times in life that I’d been most mature were when my parents trusted me to do something important, like take care of my brothers when my mom was in college classes and my dad was out of town. And when my mom told me that Santa wasn’t real, I thought she was trying to take something away from me. Only later, amid a life of adult responsibilities, did I realize that she was preparing me for a moment like this.

My dad, who even now has more energy than I do, continued to speed us through that mall in one of the most efficient shopping trips of my life. Next we hurried to the electronics store, where we picked up a Game Boy game for each of my brothers. For myself, I chose a computer game that would consume many future hours of my life. The last stop was the grocery store, where my dad sent me to select candy and fruit to fill out the stockings. Then we tackled my mom’s Christmas dinner shopping list. And just before we checked out, we grabbed the ingredients required to make pigs in a blanket for the neighborhood party.

Driving back home with our car loaded full of goodies and groceries, I had a different feeling, like I had been in on something important. I felt like we’d accomplished something, facing our problem head-on like I’d always seen my mom do. It was the first time that I thought: Maybe adulthood won’t be so bad. (This was before I had to pay bills or taxes.)

Christmas Traditions: Complete

By the time we got home, my mom had roused herself from bed. Soon she put on her Christmas charm bracelet and whipped up a tray full of pigs in a blanket, which had already become an expected staple at the neighborhood potluck. The whole family bundled up, and together we walked the two blocks to the host’s home. Their Christmas lights shone brightly through the cold night, and I felt a sense of familiarity wash over me. As nice as the beach sounded, the thought of skipping this Christmas party had always seemed sad, especially now that we were almost there.

No one was expecting us. Mrs. Farmer, who today has hosted this party for more than two decades, opened the door and goggled at us, confused: “What are you doing here?”

We bustled inside and our neighbors rallied around for the story. Someone got my mom a drink. Her pigs in a blanket went on the buffet table alongside Mrs. Farmer’s Texas chili and Christmas cookies of every kind. My brothers disappeared down the hall to find the other kids.

As my parents circulated, retelling the tale of our botched trip, it started to seem a little funny. Soon my mom was smiling. Every so often I’d see her gesture over at me, and I knew she was telling her friends about how grown-up I’d been.

When she wasn’t looking, I ate several iced Christmas cookies. Then I ran off to play with the kids.

After the party, we came home and put a few Chips Ahoy! cookies on a plate for Santa (and a carrot, for the reindeer). My 6-year-old brother was worried Santa might get confused and miss us anyway. My mom gave me a small smile and told my brother that he’d have to wait and see. Then she read The Night Before Christmas from a worn old hardcover, like she always did, and sent us off to bed.

All fears evaporated early the next morning, when through the cold, clear light of dawn my brothers peeked over the banister and saw their stockings down in the living room below, lumpy with gifts. There weren’t as many presents as a normal Christmas, but they didn’t notice. Santa had visited us, despite our travel woes, and they were elated.

Lessons from (Nearly) Skipping Christmas

I learned a lot that Christmas, including that even the toughest, coolest moms feel overwhelmed sometimes. I learned that even the smallest, latest developers grow up eventually. And this lesson has become an axiom of life for me: A lot of times, less really is more. My mom has always taught us that any challenge is just a chance to come together and cope.

Not long ago I asked my brothers (who both figured out the whole Santa-isn’t-real thing much younger than I did) if they remembered the Christmas we tried to skip. The one who was 6 at the time didn’t; he couldn’t remember any disappointing Christmases. The one who was 10 remembered not getting to go to Florida.

“But Christmas was perfect anyway,” he told me, shrugging.

For all of the work and chaos that I remember, to them it went as smoothly as ever. Which, I guess, is what so much adult responsibility is really about: keeping life running smoothly for the ones you love.

We’d met up with our neighbors, a big jumbled family of people who still get together on Christmas Eve. There are pictures of us eating our Christmas dinner on a poinsettia-patterned tablecloth—together, happy. I liked playing Santa so much that I still stuff a stocking for my mom and bring it to her on Christmas morning.

When I tease my mom about hiding under the covers on that long-ago Christmas Eve, she declares defensively: “It was my 40th birthday present!”

She thinks I don’t understand, but I do. Growing up was a glacially slow process for me. Sometimes it feels like I’m still growing up. I definitely still eat too many cookies on Christmas when I think my mom’s not looking. But I’m also not so far from my own 40th birthday. Maybe I’ll plan a trip for that, too. If it falls through, I hope I’ll be as mature as my mom was. She still got out of bed, put on a brave face, and cooked a potluck dish, after all.

On that cold, icy day back in 1998, while my dad and I were out saving Christmas, my mom had managed to make some calls. She recouped most of the money from her missed vacation (I told you, she doesn’t accept defeat). By Christmas morning, she’d already picked a tentative do-over date for the trip—in May, when school was out and there’d be no chance of an ice storm

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

Tara Nieuwesteeg

Tara Nieuwesteeg is a Dallas-based freelance writer.