It’s August, But It’s Not Too Soon to Wonder — Can Christmas Be Christmas Without the Kids?

a southwest airline plane on a rainy tarmack. Photo by BF Newhall

It’s 1600 miles as the crow flies from Minneapolis to the Bay Area. And 400 miles by car from Los Angeles. Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Christmas has gotten to be a scheduling nightmare. Peter lives in Minnesota. Christina lives in Southern California. Jon and I live in Northern California.

That puts 400 miles between us and our daughter and 1600 miles between us and our son. Not exactly over the river and through the woods.

And when I say my son lives in Minnesota and my daughter lives in SoCal, I mean it. They live there.

Peter’s got a job, a townhouse and a gym membership – in Minnesota. He’s found a community basketball league to play in. He owns a car with four-wheel drive, the better to navigate the Minnesota winters. He has a brand-new wife and a passel of extremely nice, Midwestern-style in-laws.

Christina. Same thing. She’s got her sights on a career in the entertainment industry. She has a gym membership, and some cool SoCal writer friends. By the end of this month, she’ll be moving

A man wraps his Christmas gifts in a living room cluttered ith decorations and gifts. Photo by BF Newhall

Peter found a quiet moment to wrap his gifts the last time he was home for Christmas. Photo by BF Newhall

into a new apartment with a boyfriend she’s crazy about, who happens to have an extended family that also goes on forever – in Southern California. That and a 7-year-old son he sees every other weekend.

How in the world are we Newhalls supposed to do the holidays together anymore? When geography isn’t getting in the way, labyrinthine family commitments are.

And so, the other day, midsummer though it was, I decided to stake my claim to a little holiday time with my kids – preferably both of them. Joined maybe hopefully by both of their SOs with possibly a 7-year-old thrown in to make things really Christmasy.

I sent out emails.

No, Peter and Emily couldn’t make it out west for Christmas, but, yes, they could be here for Thanksgiving.

And, yes, Christina could also be here for the turkey. As for Christmas, we’d have to figure that out later. “But I’m not going to leave you and Dad alone for Christmas,” Christina reassured me. “Don’t worry.”

Alone for Christmas? Just the two of us?

What would that be like?

I thought about it. And the more I thought about it, the more OK it felt.

Because maybe it’s time to rethink Christmas.

After all, how is Peter to be in two places at once at Christmas – here and in Minnesota with his wife and her family?

How is Christina supposed to be here for Christmas and yet be in SoCal with the guy she loves on the little piece of Christmas – Christmas Eve this year – that is his allotted time with his son?

When I poll my friends, family and the sweaty ladies in my Zumba class I find out that I’m not the only one with far-flung grown-up kids who may or may not be home for Christmas. Or Passover. Or Eid. Or Diwali.

There’s the daughter who lives and works in Paris. The niece who’s studying in Thailand. The son who’s taken off for Columbia. The daughter who’s decamped to Albania with her Albanian husband and their little kids. And the daughter who didn’t stop at taking up residence in London, but went on to get a British passport.

What are the chances of getting any of those children and grandchildren to come by for the roast Christmas goose?

About the same as my grandmother’s chances of getting my parents to make the 240-mile, seven-hour drive on icy two lane country roads from Detroit to Scottville, Michigan, back in 1952.

Maybe the salient question isn’t, can Christmas be Christmas without family?

Maybe it’s, can a family be a family without Christmas?

I think it can.

As long as we manage a few days together at Disneyland from time to time. Or a week or so on a beach somewhere. Or a family trip to Yosemite. Or a Thanksgiving dinner at our house once in a while, with all the trimmings.

More family stories at “I’m the Mother of the Groom — Now What?”  and  “A Mom, a Dad and an 8-Year-Old With a Bashed Lip.”

a family of four poses for a christmas photo in front of the tree. Photo by BF Newhall

A Christmas when there were only four of us with schedules and commitments to work around. Photo by BF Newhall



  1. I’m 30, unmarried and with no children, and I haven’t been home for Christmas in I think it’s like 4 years now, mostly for work commitments, or just because I’m so far away geographically. I like the part you wrote about how everyone’s kids are so far-flung around the world. My parents (mostly my dad) keep asking me to move closer. My dad, who lives in Los Angeles, sometimes says to me, “I used to think you were far away when you were going to college in Santa Cruz. But now you’re all the way in Asia, so now I understand what ‘far away’ really means!” Hey, at least we have skype!

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Skype is great. It really does feel like it puts you in the same room . . . When I was in college a junior year abroad was considered pretty daring. But now I see many young people actually taking jobs and starting lives, not just on the other side of the US, but on other continents. I’m not sure that Asia is all that much farther away from LA for your father than Scottville, Michigan, was from Detroit (where my dad, her son lived) for my grandmother. Still, I think the lucky ones are the families that can have casual — low pressure — get-togethers with kids who live nearby.

  2. Barbara Saunders says:

    Several years ago, a woman in a writing class I took wrote a piece about her first “grown-up” Christmas; she and her husband specifically un-invited her parents and in-laws. I was a bit horrified! My childhood Christmases with my parents always included my grandparents and my unmarried aunt. I can’t imagine having excluded them.

    I was the first to leave, and to miss holidays. My last grandmother to die celebrated her last Christmas will all of her descendants. I don’t make it back to the East Coast for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. However I was able to make one of the two for each of the past two years — a reunion with all of us who are still alive. This is possible, though, because there are no marriages and only one child in my generation; my mother is an only child, so no cousins there; and my father’s only sister never married or had children.

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Barbara, I’m horrified along with you! Your Christmas or Thanksgiving solution works.

      When our kids were little we spent Christmas with one side of the family, and Thanksgiving with the other. Then switched it up the following year. This was possible probably because Jon and I each had parents who were still married to each other — and our siblings lived fairly close by. But some families are so complicated! I’m wondering if there isn’t an alternate tradition that we could install. I actually like Thanksgiving because all you have to do, really, is cook a turkey. You don’t have to buy presents, wrap them, worry that people will be disappointed or that you’ve spent more money on one person than another. Etc. Etc.

  3. Oh yes, this is an issue for us as well. With seven kids and a daughter-in-law it is getting harder every year to bring us all together. We did manage it this year for the 4th of July, however! And a as much as I love having everyone home for the holidays, I think it will be nice someday to be home for Christmas just with Tom. Hasn’t been that way for nearly 30 years! Thank you for your thoughtful post.

  4. Barbara, you brought me to tears with this post. It took me several years to adjust to the “grown-up” holidays after the kids grew up. My sister and I still long for the Christmases of the 70s and 80s when we called the shots. Since my husband passed away, it’s even more weird. Things change and we evolve with the changes. I hope you get that Thanksgiving with all the trimmings!

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Thanks, Marilyn. You bring up something I noticed when my children were young — the mothers (and fathers) of young children have a lot of clout in the larger family. In our culture, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends all respect the mother’s decisions about parenting style, schools, food, schedules, etc. This authority goes away when our kids start making their own decisions.

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