I won’t be home for Christmas

I avoided telling my mom directly that I wouldn’t be home on Christmas.

Like most moms, she’s sensitive to things like that. So I casually mentioned it to my dad and my sister, and I knew the message would make its way to her. Sometimes, she’s a little dramatic, and I knew she’d lay the guilt on thick.

Two years ago, on New Year’s Eve, I met my boyfriend, Dan. His immediate family lives in Michigan and his extended family in Welland, Ontario. My massive family lives in Scranton, two and a half hours away.

Dan is my first serious adult relationship, so I never had to split holidays between my family and my significant other’s.

Last year, we originally talked about celebrating our first Christmas apart. His parents and siblings always travel to Canada. He planned to meet them there. Although we see my family more because they’re closer, I couldn’t forgo seeing them on Christmas. But Dan and I wanted to be together, too.

So we drove seven hours to Canada on Christmas Eve morning and made our first stop at his grandmother’s house for dinner. Then we went to his Uncle Peter’s for drinks and to a hotel overlooking Niagara Falls. On Christmas morning, we went to his Aunt Lisa’s for brunch before driving five hours to Scranton to have dinner with my family.

We got to see everyone, but we spent much of the holiday in a car. It felt like we didn’t have enough time in either place.

Wanting to see family is a good problem to have. We both love our families and each other’s, and it’d be nice if we didn’t have to choose. But it’s something many couples have to do.

This year, we won’t be at my parents’ dinner table on Christmas Eve or Christmas. Tomorrow, we head to Canada, but we’ll first stop in Williamsport to watch my brother Jamie play hockey. We’ll have Christmas with Dan’s family because we went to Scranton for Easter and Thanksgiving. We both have the week off, so we’ll make it to NEPA a day late and hang out with my family the rest of the week.

It won’t be the same. It’s just something new.

My mom called me last week to tell me my dad had an infected epiglottis — the flap of cartilage in the mouth that prevents food from going down one’s trachea — and that his throat could’ve swelled shut if he didn’t go to the hospital.

After she assured me he was OK, our conversation transitioned to Christmas.

“I heard you’re not coming home,” she said.

“We’ll be there Wednesday,” I said. “It’s only a day later.”

I explained that we don’t get to see Dan’s family as often and that it was too much driving last year.

“I don’t think I’m going to put a tree up this year,” she said.

“You have to,” I said.

The thought of no Christmas tree at home was worse than the year she switched from real to artificial and sprayed aerosol pine scent on the branches.

“Maybe,” she said.

I told her that we’ll alternate holidays in the future and that next year, we’ll be in Scranton. That wasn’t enough.

“Maybe we’ll be in Canada,” she said.

Even though I’m 27 years old, I feel nostalgic that I can’t experience all of my childhood traditions.

My mom makes fish and pierogies every Christmas Eve. The night still feels magical and exciting. My parents always arrange our gifts in individual piles in front of the tree. Mine are always in the same place.

For years, I haven’t really cared about what the gifts were. I care more about what they represent — love and family, a yearlong theme that exists every day, but one that’s ever present on Christmas.

One day, I’d like to have kids. If Dan keeps me around, we’ll likely piece together parts of our families’ holiday traditions to create our own. We’re sort of doing that now, as it makes sense in this phase of life, and it’s wonderful.

I wonder if my mom feels like her Christmas is getting smaller, as if each time something changes, she loses something she loves. It’s actually the opposite.

True traditions don’t fade — they grow — so a small part has to change. But the heart of it stays the same.

Merry Christmas, Mom! Love you and see you soon.

Leigh Zaleski is a features reporter at the York Daily Record/Sunday News. Email her at lzaleski@ydr.com.

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