the hitchhiker’s guide to the holidays

I come from a long line of nomads. My mother’s mother raised her family in Washington State, far from the Minnesota farmlands where she grew up and where their Finnish mafia of a family still lives. My father was raised a military brat, the son of a Coast Guard captain, and my own parents decamped from where their families settled in Washington to new opportunities in the Southwestern desert. (It was like Manifest Destiny. With showgirls. And air conditioning.)

For the past several years, since seventeen-year-old me made the grand decision to go to college 2,500 miles away from home, I’ve spent much of the holiday season being personally victimized by the airline industry. (Ever been snowed in overnight in the bag claim of the Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, New York with only your backpack for a pillow and Skittles for a meal? I have. It was a low point in my contentious relationship with winter travel.)

Not to mention that the dregs of humanity come out to fly when the holidays roll around. By “the dregs of humanity,” of course, I mean people who wait until they’re at the front of the security line to take off their sixteen bracelets and empty their pockets of what must be a piggy bank’s worth of change and then have the audacity to request a pat-down rather than an X-ray when it’s clear that the radiation would probably do them some good. Also, babies. In the context of an airplane, babies qualify as the dregs of humanity.

I understand now why my parents never took us to visit Grandma for Thanksgiving or Christmas. I also understand that other families undertake these epic journeys every year as a matter of tradition, but the Cass family doesn’t do well with crowds. In fact, while this is probably truer of me than of the rest of our family, we don’t actually do that well with people other than ourselves. And so holidays for us have always been a rather sedate and insular affair: no genetically modified turkey large enough to feed thirty, no drunk relatives making inappropriate passes at the nephews’ girlfriends, no neighbors showing up empty-handed and eating all the cheesecake.

What is glaringly absent from our family celebrations, other than a bunch of interlopers trying to get in on whatever Epicurious dessert experiment I’ve embarked on this year, is just that: tradition. Or at least the slavish devotion to tradition present in pop culture and other people’s families. There is no ceremonial green bean casserole dressed in French’s French Fried Onions, nor do we sit around the table and share what we’re most thankful for before we dislodge our jaws in preparation for the feast.

Frankly, when it comes to Thanksgiving, we’ve pretty much given up. My sister and her husband spend the holiday with her in-laws (a fair trade-off, considering that the shiksa gets to bring her husband home for Christmas every year) and I alight wherever it makes sense to go that year: occasionally my parents’ house, sometimes I glom on to a friend’s family celebration. Last year, it was my then-boyfriend’s childhood home; this year, I’ll spend a motley “Friendsgiving” with a single girlfriend, a married couple, the husband’s mother, and an aging poodle.

Does this sound lonely to you? Au contraire, mon frere. Perhaps it’s my pathological addiction to change, but I feel like I get to play cultural anthropologist every Thanksgiving. Like Dian Fossey in the jungles of Africa among the gorillas—except, you know, in the dining rooms of New York and New Mexico among the upper middle class—I have eaten fried ravioli and fried cactus. I’ve played Trivial Pursuit and sung Bob Dylan songs at the piano. I’ve marathoned “Say Yes to the Dress” with my best friend and her dad and I’ve played Boggle with my sister’s in-laws.

It’s different every year, and every year brings a new story to tell. I find it refreshing, because I feel about traditions how I feel about holidays like New Year’s Eve and Halloween. I like to dress like a slutty disco ball as much as the next girl (oh, and I love Halloween, too!), but I cower in the face of the expectation to Have a Fun and Crazy Night. The winter holidays take on a similar level of pressure: you must have fun and be thankful for your family and get in a fight with your crazy aunt and eat your sister’s weird mashed potato/Jello casserole and God forbid if one of those things doesn’t happen because if it doesn’t, you might as well just CANCEL DECEMBER.

When you uproot yourself, you give up a few things, and tradition is often one of them. So much can go wrong when getting home is a matter of planes, trains, and automobiles, especially during the time of year when you might as well end up snowed into the baggage claim at the smallest airport in the Hudson Valley as make it home unscathed. Hanging your happiness on the prospect of a holiday proceeding as it has every year prior is asking for disappointment.

To eschew tradition is not to reject the holiday season altogether. My family’s version of tradition is a collection of odd little rituals that don’t count so much as tradition as familial idiosyncrasies. I think it’s because we recognize that putting all your eggs in the tradition basket is a dangerous prospect. You never know when your father is going to up and detach his retina and find himself bedridden for two weeks just when you’re all supposed to be hopping on planes to come home for Christmas. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re a nomad. You have to roll with the punches, so to speak. Roll with the retinal detachments. Roll with the flight delays.

We adapt. My sister married a Jewish man whose family hosts a grand Thanksgiving; we lost Thanksgiving and gained latkes on Christmas Eve. (Fair trade, if you ask me. Give me greasy fried potatoes over dry turkey any day of the week.) I spent a few minutes considering whether or not to cry the year my father’s eyeball ruined Christmas. Instead, I bought a six-inch light-up Christmas tree that doubled as a USB port and made a reservation for three at our favorite Thai restaurant near the crack dens in central Las Vegas.

Barring ophthalmological disasters, there are a few constants in our holiday celebrations. A giant slab of red meat is the centerpiece of our table. Someone drops the phrase “meat sweats” (common side effect of having a giant slab of red meat as the centerpiece of your table. Sorry, Michael Pollan). We play several vicious games of Scrabble and we curse my sister’s aggressive tactics. My dad tries to get away with playing the Led Zeppelin live album with the 20-minute “Moby Dick” drum solo and two minutes in, my mother starts making faces. We take walks for the express purpose of making judgmental comments about the neighbors’ gaudy holiday lights.

But none of this is sacred (except the meat). I think it’s what motivates us that is sacred: our shared love of food and word games, how my father and I know that 20-minute Led Zeppelin solos are our thing and nobody else’s. Playing Scrabble every year because my grandmother, gone ten years now this October, was the grand dame of Scrabble and on the off-chance that there is a heaven, she is absolutely cheering on my sister’s asshole Scrabble strategy from the great smoking lounge in the sky. The fact that colored Christmas lights are really ugly and anyone who hangs them should be judged by a family who measures our Christmas by the severity of our meat sweats. It’s, y’know, togetherness. Unity. Umoja (okay, I learned that from “The Baby-Sitters’ Club”).

In my role as a holiday anthropologist, I get to explore and participate in the traditions that hold my friends’ families together. It’s bittersweet, because I’m always just passing through, but it aligns with how I view tradition: as a concept that tries to deny the transient and fleeting nature of happiness and comfort. I have never felt more strongly about this than I do this year, a year after I spent my first Thanksgiving with a significant other’s family (and we all know how well THAT one turned out, am I right?!), when I am questioning why I even have to celebrate the damn holiday just because everyone else does.

Happiness and comfort may indeed be transient and fleeting, but they exist, so I seek them out. They are unreliable sensations, but I expect to find them tomorrow at the kitchen table with my girlfriends and C_______’s husband and mother-in-law and aging poodle. And I’ll find them again in a month with my family together again for another Christmas of meat sweats and Scrabble rage. And in the days in between, I will find them at raucous parties and on quiet evenings and wherever I can dig them up. Wherever, that is, that nobody has dared to hang colored Christmas lights.

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