I spent my third Christmas Eve alone at a fancy hotel bar in Paris. It wasn’t at the bar at the hotel where I was staying, but I figured I deserved a cocktail and some ambiance. I wasn’t technically on my own, either: Two lovely friends were sitting and sipping with me. The whole point of the 10-day trip to France and Spain, at least for me, was to escape—a shot of emotional novocaine to help me forget a soul-draining existential truth. In spite of great friends and extended family, I was capital-a Alone: no partner or kids, no siblings, and now, no parents.
My mother had died two years earlier, on November 22. When it happened, she was out buying twinkle lights—well, more twinkle lights. Despite my Clark Griswold jokes, she was never satisfied that her front porch had quite enough bling. “I don’t feel well,” she told the nearest store clerk, a box of lights in her hand. Within an hour, she was gone—the victim of a burst aortic aneurysm. Through my fog of grief and shock, it wasn’t lost on me that the circumstances of her death were poetic; she died doing what she loved.
My mom was never happier than during the Christmas season, which, as far as she was concerned, started the day after Halloween. A self-appointed Mrs. Claus, she delighted in decking not just the halls, but the walls, mantels, bookshelves and bathroom vanities with Santa figurines, miniature nativity scenes from around the world, crafty wreaths with cats painted on them… I called it her “Christmas clutter.” And though I rolled my eyes, I secretly loved every trinket and tchotchke.
“Don’t give me a hard time!” she’d say, undaunted, while hanging the felt stockings she’d made for me, herself and my dad, who passed away when I was 24.
We had spent every holiday on our own, together, for the previous 16 years, baking, wrapping and re-watching favourite movies. She was my reason for the season; without her, I didn’t know how I’d survive it.
That first year, I spent a lot of time in bed, leaving only on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day for dutiful social appearances to prove I was okay, like everyone so desperately wanted me to be. I even decorated a little bit, figuring I couldn’t be the sad spinster-orphan with no Christmas decorations, could I? Mom wouldn’t like that. So I put a boxwood wreath on the door and some ornaments in a bowl. The truth was, I felt like a used Advent calendar: cheery on the outside, empty on the inside. At our extended family gathering on Boxing Day, an unexpected rage flared up when I met a cousin’s new girlfriend. Why are you here when my mom isn’t? Everything seemed wrong, a hideous and personal affront. When I got home, I cried into my mother’s pink velour housecoat and prayed for January’s fresh start.
Year 2, I overcorrected by going full-on festive. Surely offering to host my uncle, aunts and cousins would blur the sharp edges of my grief and loneliness. I put up a tree! Hung four wreaths with ribbons! Baked a spiral-cut bourbon-glazed ham! And then, on the day itself, a blizzard made driving impossible. Only four out of 14 family members made it. I ate a lot of ham in the weeks that followed while trying to swallow the feeling that I’d somehow failed Mom.
Though grief was a continual hum in my ear all year long, I could hush it. Push it down. As the anniversary of her death approached, it started screaming and wouldn’t shut up until January 1. You’re alone. You’ll always be alone. She’s gone. No one loves you! Christmas, for me, has always been about coziness, warmth and time together—and I was lucky to have that for as long as I did. But I couldn’t get to grateful. Not when I had that soundtrack in my head, not when White Christmas, our favourite movie, seemed to be on every time I turned on the TV.
By year 3, I needed a new plan. I couldn’t cancel the holiday altogether, nor could I recreate my mother’s magic. So I went rogue, breaking tradition and booking a plane ticket. Running away was a revelation. It was as though grief didn’t have a passport and had to stay home. Strolling the streets of Paris on the days leading up to Christmas, I felt lighter and more optimistic. I didn’t dwell on the past but stayed present, fuelled by fresh croissants and coffee in the Luxembourg Gardens as a grey, woolly sky hung overhead. When a holiday memory rose to the surface, I could let it linger without feeling my chest clench.
By the time Christmas Eve arrived, I felt that old familiar flicker of excitement. It didn’t hurt that the hotel bar was cozy and candlelit, or that the handsome bartender—a bit of a Right Bank Romeo—offered us unlimited bar snacks and sneaky top-ups on our drinks. My friends and I got tipsy and laughed right through to one minute after midnight on the 25th, greeting it with a toast.
In that moment, I understood something powerful: Grief never lifts completely, but it does peel up at the corners and allow you to crawl out from under its weight every now and again. If I could figure out how to make my own traditions, this whole holiday thing might not be so bad. Here’s what got me through.
Play Santa for yourself
Stockings were always my favourite part of the holidays; without Mom to fill mine, I started doing it myself. The trick is to buy through the year and wrap immediately—yes, you have to wrap everything so you have time to forget. When you finally open the gifts, you’re legitimately surprised by the box of colourful pencils with uplifting sayings on them. Not everything has to fit into a physical stocking, either. Some of my favourite self-Santa gifts have been a mini food processor, a winter coat and The Most of Nora Ephron. Don’t overthink. If you like it, it’s for the stocking. A friend who’s also alone comes over for dinner and we open them together. I love seeing what she bought and vice versa. There’s no need to return yet another garlic peeler or box of scented soaps—we adore everything “Santa” gave us.
Have people over
For most of us of a certain age, friends are family—a family we’re always happy to see, anyway. So light the candles, turn up the music and have a pot of something bubbling on the stove. Keep it simple—you don’t need the extra stress of trying to be Julia Child. Chili and garlic bread work perfectly. Ask others to bring the appetizer and dessert.
Plan a viewing binge
What I learned after year 1 is that I didn’t have to accept every invitation from every well-meaning friend and family member. It turns out I like playing hermit. Find a binge-worthy show, top your coffee table with snacks and get to it. In year 2, I watched a season’s worth of Downton Abbey. The scuffling of boots going up the stairs, the swishing of taffeta skirts and Mrs. Patmore’s clanging copper pots made for a soothing, ASMR-like experience. Plus, there’s something luxurious and holiday-like about melting into a really good story, especially when it’s someone else’s. And if something in an episode makes you cry, so be it. Christmas catharsis is bound to happen at some point—embrace the release.
Put a new twist on old memories
Rather than trying to relive the Christmas of my childhood, I’m better served by putting my own spin on nostalgia. I’ve kept all of Mom’s decorations but most stay in storage. Last year, I put out one of her Christmas caroller figurines and incorporated it into a vignette of other pieces I’ve picked up over the years. It’s just a whisper of the past to make me smile.
Get outta town
Though travel prices tend to soar higher than Santa’s sleigh, the escape is worth every penny. Being in another place keeps you from wallowing in your own memories. Skip your usual routine and revel in the pleasure—and liberation—of opting out of the holiday grind. When friends complain about in-laws’ visits and the bank account–crushing debt of gifts for all, I nod and commiserate, trying to hide my secret smile as I dream of quiet cafés and beach loungers.
This is my eighth Christmas without my mom. Though my new traditions have helped, I may break one of them and stay home this year. It’s about time I twisted some twinkle lights around my front porch—lots of them. I think we’d both like that.