"What are you doing for Christmas?" It’s the question that, once a year, replaces "How was your weekend/what you up to this weekend?" in small talk. Come December and you can hear it in the office kitchen, on public transport and as friends depart each other at the pub. And while people don’t generally care what your answer is (no one is that interested, sorry – they’re just filling an awkward silence), I always get a few funny looks when I say that no, for the 11th year in a row, my S.O. and I will not be spending Christmas together.
Spending Christmas "together" is one of those relationship milestones that everyone seems desperately keen to conquer in their early 20s, along with things like going on holiday together and, eventually, moving in together. "Seb’s actually invited me to spend Christmas with his family this year," I remember friends saying coyly, as though they’d pulled off the coup of the century rather than an invitation to make awkward small talk with the members of Seb's extended family for three days. And so I'd nod and smile and think gratefully of my upcoming Christmas break where I would know exactly what was on the cards, where I wouldn't have to strategically plan my bathroom trips around Seb's nan and where I could stay in my pyjamas all day sans judgement.
Every family has its own Christmas traditions and people take them very seriously indeed. There’s a reason why brothers in their 30s complain about not having a stocking anymore, there’s an extra layer to the fight over how the sprouts are done (over-boiled or roasted?). And Grandad isn’t really livid about having to watch Frozen instead of the Queen's Speech. Anything that people consider a break in how Christmas is "done" in their eyes is perceived as a threat. People are fiercely protective of their annual traditions – no matter how small – and I think I know why.
It's because the older we get, the more out-of-control things feel. Reading the papers can feel like the opening pages of an apocalyptic novel; digital connectivity means your stressful job no longer ends at 5pm and instead seeps into your evening via emails and Slack messages. Think pieces on what you "should" have achieved by certain ages batter you from every side (buy a house before you’re 30? Lol). Everything – money, families, relationships, ageing – gets hard the more you grow up, and feeling in control of that stuff? Even harder. And so to have one, tradition-filled day as an annual constant is a welcome blessing for many.
And yeah, I’m not too proud to admit that I’m one of these people. Sure, I may be knocking on the door of 30 and sure, I may not have lived at my parents' house in 14 years but my god, come 21st December, I am getting on that train at Euston station and heading out of London in the direction of what I still want Christmas to be. My S.O, should he be remotely fazed by us not spending Christmas together (he’s not), will have to pry my Christmas traditions out of my cold dead hands.
On top of my wildly immature refusal to accept change, there’s also another reason my S.O. and I don’t spend Christmas together. My parents and his mum are far too nice to say anything if we did choose to spend Christmas with each other instead of with them. But I know that this would impact on their Christmas traditions and it would make this time of year – which they spent 18 years making so special for us – a little bit less special for them.
I realise I am beyond lucky to have parents who I want to go back and visit during the holidays. So many people have nowhere to call home at this family-obsessed time of the year and I'm lucky enough to have two: the one I built in London with my S.O, and one at my parents' house – it may not be my physical childhood home, but as is so often said, it's people that make the home.
I think things will have to change when we have kids. I'm sure my S.O's mum will be more than a little miffed if I try and smuggle her grandchildren off to play Cranium with just my family. But until the kids appear, I'm resolutely and stubbornly holding on to the one day of the year where nothing ever changes.